Maybe I shouldn’t have raised the subject –but how do you respond to someone who says he just wants to be ‘the real me’. What does that mean – what is the real me? Does he mean –“ I want to be the self who is a big shot lawyer or the one who is a softie father or even the closet Kurt Cobain?”
The simple response might be, which self do you want to present today sir? When you work in a Firm that asks you to be sharp, combative (albeit in a principled way) and conform to a style of uniform dress – unleashing your inner Kurt or your dewy -eyed daddy at the wrong time in the wrong place is something we instinctively know to be non-career enhancing.
But this started me thinking – what does he really want? The whole concept of ‘real me’ or authenticity isn’t straightforward and the way we describe it today is actually quite different to how it used to be interpreted. Herder, in the 18 century might have started all this self –angst by suggesting that each person has an original way of being human – ‘in articulating my originality I am defining myself – I can endanger this ideal by conforming to external demands.’
This is all very well, but is this just an excuse for narcissism? The legacy is evident all round us “I need to be true to myself” people state as they stamp all over other’s feelings or overload them with uncomfortable and unpalatable truths in an orgy of breast-beating revelation. My 21st century ‘right’ to be a self -fulfilled individual and ‘worth it’ combined with a ‘we only have one life’ imperative, demands that others see me and pay attention to me however I want to present myself – now!
In contrast, up until the 18th Century, it was clear that the concept of being authentic meant having an external outcome for your introspection. In short, it meant thinking about your ‘proper’ place in the world and then having a duty to live up to it the best way you could. Which, if you think about it, was a very good way of keeping people in their place in the cosmic order of things – happy serfdom is a highly convenient philosophy if you are one of the ruling elite.
But, maybe it is time for bit of re-balancing of how we view these two extremes of authenticity so as to make authenticity a meaningful construct that relates not just to our own needs but also our wider roles in society. I’m all with Herder in that by articulating my originality (if I can) I’m defining myself, but surely it’s how we then weigh up, consider and then act out this originality in the roles we take on that makes us authentic or inauthentic.
Still with me? ….. going back to my frustrated Lawyer,
So how does our lawyer express the aspects of himself as a father or indeed as a rebel rock star with those he holds as a lawyer? Perhaps then it depends on the context and the relationship he has with others? Ideally, his multi-faceted self can sparkle from any angle depending on whom he is with, where and why. My Lawyer is clever, knowledgeable, funny, irreverent and challenging but also deeply caring and principled – he just had to learn how, where and with whom to let the different parts of himself show if he wanted to be part of that Firm. Gifted with a strong sense of the ridiculous – his anarchic side would sometimes emerge inappropriately with a more staid member of the Establishment and create credibility issues. But once he had won professional respect and recognition for his serious attention to detail and technical expertise, he was able to let more of the rock star and softie dad be seen in order to connect powerfully with similarly disposed clients and colleagues.
This ‘wholeness’ generated a blast of fresh air for his Firm and its clients. However, if the environment in which he worked had not allowed space for all his different aspects to play out then it’s not hard to imagine how his frustration and disengagement would grow.(And I happen to know that there are many, many, closet Kurts and softie dads lurking out there.)
This got me wondering, how many aspects of yourself are you able to display at work? Do you think this matters to you or to your organisation?