Wisdom and Personal Authenticity


  Wisdom and Personal Authenticity

Do you ever feel like you are a phony, and people can tell the difference? When people tell you one thing and your actions seem to say another? This blog post is all about what personal authenticity actually implies. We will cover why it’s important, how it can be accomplished, and how to keep yourself from slipping into a bad habit of counterfeit behavior. There is also an exercise that we provide that works to reconnect with those who support us in order to elicit authenticity from all of our lives. My experience is that this practice strongly benefits all of us, and the effects on our relationships are profound.

I have been thinking a lot lately about authenticity in terms of personal and business relationships. I want to share some thoughts on this topic because there is more to personal authenticity than just being yourself. It's actually about being your authentic self in ways that are valuable to others. Authenticity is also more than just being true to yourself; it's also about things like how we treat those who can benefit from our authentic selves as well as the ways we interact with people we don't know (or don't care for).

Here are three key ideas that I'm making up for this post:

1. Being authentic is about being your true self to those people who can benefit from it.

2. Authentic behavior is action that actually supports your personal value system and/or relationship with yourself, not behavior that undermines your value system or relationship with yourself.

3. Authenticity is something you can keep from slipping into bad habits of counterfeit behavior because there is a specific procedure you can use to reconnect with those who support you in order to elicit authenticity from all relationships and behaviors in your life.

Let's look at these ideas one by one.

Being authentic is about being your true self to those people who can benefit from it. I just said this, but I want to make sure you get it. It's not about making yourself vulnerable to everyone because that would be very scary for most of us. Your true self can include your authentic values, interests, talents, and so on as well as more mundane stuff like what you choose to wear and what you choose not to eat. What makes this tricky is that the world has a habit of telling us who we are supposed to be, and we have a tendency of going along with it. This is actually a very old idea; in fact, the concept of persona was first introduced by Plato.

Plato described different kinds of knowledge, and talked about them in terms of different kinds of people. You can probably see how ideas from his philosophical community are still with us today. In Plato's terms, the expert (i.e., the real expert) has one kind of knowledge while the layman has another kind (i.e., counterfeit expertise). The expert knows more than the layman does; but there's an even bigger difference between them: only the real expert knows that he doesn't really know anything himself! Only he is aware that what he knows amounts to mere opinion or speculation, not real knowledge and wisdom. The expert also knows that he can teach others nothing in the area of knowledge, not even things he takes to be his own real (not counterfeit) knowledge.

The experts knew this was true long before Plato and his peers wrote about it, but they realized that some of their peers would go along with the lie that people could become experts on anything by studying hard enough and practicing self-discipline. So they created a whole class of counterfeit experts to share their expertise with "the unwashed masses" (i.e., everyone else except for the real experts). These experts taught people how to behave in order to appear like they had expertise. They taught people how to dress and what to eat, what time of day to go out, what music to listen to, how many times a week for a class of yoga or Tai Chi was good for one's health, and so on.

Plato had a problem with this. He wanted everyone in the world to be able to access knowledge from the experts who could help them deal with reality as it really is, not as they wish it was. One way of doing that would be for everyone in the world to know that there is a real difference between true knowledge and mere opinion or speculation based on ignorance (i.e., not knowing). I'll let you think about what that means for a minute.

In terms of personal authenticity, then, we are all experts and everyone else is the layman. It's up to us to define who the real experts are and make it plain for all laymen that they are talking to counterfeit experts when they interact with them. The counterfeit expert helps the layman to feel comfortable by confirming his or her beliefs about who they are supposed to be; in exchange for this, their expertise on what is valued outside their community can be sold to those who don't really know any better.

This is the basis of counterfeit expertise, and personal authenticity is the opposite. Personal authenticity is about being your true self to those people who can benefit from it. I like how author Marianne Williamson expressed this: "The most important thing we can do if we wish to be spiritually fulfilled is to express our own gifts fully." This isn't about being yourself for yourself alone; it's about being your true self for others with the intention of helping them find their true selves.

Authentic behavior is action that actually supports your personal value system and/or relationship with yourself, not behavior that undermines your value system or relationship with yourself. Clearly, those are a few big words and lots of ideas there. But it's not difficult to see how this can help us understand what it means to be authentic.

If you think of yourself as a careful person who is quick to take justifiable offense, then an authentic behavior might be to honestly describe your feelings about something even though it's going to make some people uncomfortable. If you are dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the work that you do, then being authentic might mean doing the best work that you know how without letting anyone's opinions sway you from doing what is right for your customers or your employer. If your self-awareness reveals that you're a bit of a perfectionist, being authentic means not trying too hard and going over the top when someone asks for your opinion on something.

If you behave in any way that undermines your own value system or your relationship with yourself, then it's not authentic. If you act in a way that devalues your being or feeling uncomfortable, it's not authentic because by doing so you are behaving as a counterfeit expert. If you do some work that isn't quite up to the standards of excellence for the job (or your judgment of how good it should be), this is not authentic behavior because you had a specific goal in mind and didn't reach it. When someone asks you for your opinion and instead of giving them the balanced answer they want, you're automatic answer is "Of course I love it!" this isn't authentic behavior either.


Authenticity is not the same as being happy. Hanging out with a bunch of happy people may make you feel better about life if you are feeling down. Authenticity makes you more useful to yourself and your community, and ultimately, more useful to everyone else. It's not as obvious as that last sentence, but it's true nonetheless.

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