12 Jul The Authenticity Trap (ROLF DOBELLI)
Do you like authentic people? Of course you do. With authentic people you always know where you stand. You know what they think and feel, what they’re doing and what they’ve got in mind. Such guileless individuals make no secret of what’s below the surface, which is why personal interaction with them is so intimate, so pleasant and efficient.
But how authentic are we talking? Let’s run a thought experiment. Say you’re meeting your über-authentic friend Lisa for lunch. She turns up twenty minutes late, hair looking like a cat’s been scrabbling around in it. She mutters an apology then announces loudly enough for the whole restaurant to hear that she’s “not really in the mood” for lunch today, and “definitely not in some restaurant that used to be cool.” The diners at the next table lower their forks. After a moment of silence, Lisa starts complimenting your outfit, although she points out that your watch “doesn’t really go with it,” at least not the way you’ve put everything together. She leans across the table mid-flow, grabs the glass of wine you’ve just ordered, and downs it in a single gulp: “Sorry, I was soooo thirsty!” Having finished her starter, she then plonks her head down onto the table and goes to sleep—leaving you caught in the crossfire of strangers’ glances. Five minutes later, when the spaghetti is served, she wakes up and stretches with an animal yawn, laughing: “I’m just not myself without my power nap, you know?” Picking up one strand of spaghetti after the next, she dunks them into the sauce with her fingers then lets them fall into her mouth, declaring that it’s “so much more fun that way.” Then, because she’s “simply got to get it off her chest,” she tells you everything she dreamt last night, all of which is total nonsense—but you’ve already asked for the bill. And that, dearest reader, is a rough distillation of authenticity in its purest form.
My recommendation? Don’t buy into the authenticity hype. For several reasons. One: there’s the simple fact that we don’t really know who we are. As we saw in the previous chapter, our inner voice is anything but a reliable compass. It’s more like a hodgepodge of conflicting impulses. We don’t understand ourselves, so what exactly is “authentic” behavior supposed to be revealing? Authenticity has a role to play in a romantic relationship or a very close friendship, but it’s out of place in a casual acquaintanceship, and certainly in public.
Two: you’re making yourself look ridiculous. Name one famous figure you truly respect—a statesman, a general, a philosopher, a captain of industry, a scientist—who regularly blurts out their innermost feelings. You won’t find one. People are respected because they deliver on their promises, not because they let us eavesdrop on their inner monologs.
Three: cells are the building blocks of life. Every cell is enclosed by a membrane, the purpose of which is to repel hostile intruders and precisely regulate which molecules are allowed to pass through. We see the same dynamic play out with the organism as a whole—and for the same reasons. Animals have skin, trees bark. An organism with no outer layer would die immediately. On a psychological level, authenticity just means you’ve given up on this barrier. You’re practically inviting people to exploit you. You’re making yourself not just silly but vulnerable.
The Art of the Good Life