Recently, Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times that “for most people, ‘be yourself’ is actually terrible advice.” I’m surprised that Grant, author of the bestsellers Give and Take and Originals and professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, didn’t treat this topic with his usual well-thought-out insights.
Where do I think Grant goes wrong? What results “be yourself” produces depends entirely on how you define “be yourself.” What is your true self? Does being authentic entail revealing one’s stream of thoughts and feelings to the world? I don’t think so.
As an example of being oneself, Grant tells how A. J. Jacobs “spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic.” Jacobs’s efforts entailed telling people various disrespectful and undignified thoughts that arose in his mind. It isn’t authentic to tell your editor that you’d like to sleep with her if you were single. It’s inappropriate, disrespectful, and rude. Both that revelation and telling his nanny that he would date her if he were divorced cut too close to sexual harassment for comfort. And it isn’t authentic to tell a young child that a bug in their hand is dead, not sleeping. It is unkind.
These aren’t the tell-tale signs of authenticity. These are the thoughts that the brain thinks all on its own when we’re not mindful. Some of this brain chatter is directed at others, some at ourselves. I think one of the technical terms for this chatter is “monkey mind.”
I don’t know why the majority of the brain’s stream of thought is negative , but it is for most (all?) people, even Oprah. We all think thoughts that are distressing and that nobody else wants to hear. You probably don’t want to hear the thoughts your brain thinks on its own either.
My reading of Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart inspires me to think that many of us spend a good deal of time inventing and pursuing ways to avoid these thoughts. Or we bludgeon ourselves with them. Or we are using these thoughts to mask the truly frightening fact that we don’t and can’t know what is going to happen next.
The heart of Grant’s article is about self-monitoring — gender differences, the effects in your personal life compared to the effects on success in the work world, and so on. One thing that stood out for me is the connection that Grant reported between high use of self-monitoring and being perceived as a chameleon, phony, or fraud. Grant reports on a broad array of research results, and I wonder whether all of the researchers are defining and measuring self-monitoring in the same way. Psychcentral’s Encyclopedia of Psychology defines self-monitoring as “the act of observing and regulating one’s own behavior in a social context.”
I find it difficult to understand how high self-monitoring could lead to faster advancement and higher status at work while low self-monitoring could lead to a happier marriage. Grant says that “high self-monitors spend more time finding out what others need and helping them.” I think that behavior would form the basis for a wonderful life with someone else, whether at work or in a marriage. It reminds me of how The Arbinger Institute in Leadership and Self-Deception distinguishes between being “inside the box” or “outside the box” with regards to another person. When you’re “outside the box,” you recognize what another person needs and help them get it, rather than ignore what you know and make up a story about them to justify yourself.
In the end, Grant says that we should focus more on sincerity and less on authenticity.
So what is sincerity? It is bringing your behavior into alignment with who you say you are. If I say I value trustworthiness, for example, to be sincere I must act in trustworthy ways. If I say I value kindness, then I must act kindly toward myself and others. To achieve this alignment between what I say and what I do, I’m going to have to pay attention to what I am saying and doing. How can I pay attention to what I do and say if I do not self-monitor? (Well, I might be mindful, but that’s another story.) What is acting in ways that are consistent with the values you hold if it is not authenticity?
So are we faced with a paradox or was the argument a straw man? I think there is no paradox. Some people practice mindfulness or they self-monitor to keep their behavior aligned with their values. If those values are consistent with ways of being that promote their own and others’ welfare — values like respect, responsibility, compassion, persistence, and self-control — then those people are likely to have meaningful relationships and achieve success (however they define it) in work and life.
I like to think about authenticity and genuineness as ways of interacting with yourself and others that acknowledge and honors our shared humanity. We are all born the same way. There is no exit from life other than death, and we all experience that. In between, as Pema Chödrön points out, is pain and suffering, joy and sorrow, love, and the capacity to experience the sacredness of the moment just as it is, for all of us.
Adam Grant, I may disagree with you, and I thank you for being my muse for the past few days.
 I think the brain thinks the way the respiratory system breathes. In some ways, part of the brain’s function is to be a thinking machine. When we are not directing that function, it carries on automatically. Similarly, the breath is automatic, and sometimes we direct it to be faster, slower, deeper, shallower, and so on.
 Pema Chödrön, When Things Falls Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1997).