IT was going to be the biggest presentation of my life — my first appearance on the TED Conference main stage — and I had already thrown out seven drafts. Searching for a new direction, I asked colleagues and friends for suggestions. “The most important thing,” the first one said, “is to be yourself.” The next six people I asked gave me the same tip.
We are in the Age of Authenticity, where “be yourself” is the defining advice in life, love and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world. As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”
We want to live authentic lives, marry authentic partners, work for an authentic boss, vote for an authentic president. In university commencement speeches, “Be true to yourself” is one of the most common themes (behind “Expand your horizons,” and just ahead of “Never give up”).
“I certainly had no idea that being your authentic self could get you as rich as I have become,” Oprah Winfrey said jokingly a few years ago. ”If I’d known that, I’d have tried it a lot earlier.”
But for most people, “be yourself” is actually terrible advice.
If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.
A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.
“Deceit makes our world go round,” he concluded. “Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”
How much you aim for authenticity depends on a personality trait called self-monitoring. If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly. You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone.
But if you’re a low self-monitor, you’re guided more by your inner states, regardless of your circumstances. In one fascinating study, when a steak landed on their plates, high self-monitors tasted it before pouring salt, whereas low self-monitors salted it first. As the psychologist Brian Little explains, “It is as though low self-monitors know their salt personalities very well.”
Low self-monitors criticize high self-monitors as chameleons and phonies. They’re right that there’s a time and place for authenticity. Some preliminary research suggests that low self-monitors tend to have happier marriages and lower odds of divorce. With your romantic partner, being authentic might lead to a more genuine connection (unless your name is A. J. Jacobs).
But in the rest of our lives, we pay a price for being too authentic. High self-monitors advance faster and earn higher status, in part because they’re more concerned about their reputations. And while that would seem to reward self-promoting frauds, these high self-monitors spend more time finding out what others need and helping them. In a comprehensive analysis of 136 studies of more than 23,000 employees, high self-monitors received significantly higher evaluations and were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions.
Interestingly, women are more likely to be low self-monitors than men, perhaps because women face stronger cultural pressures to express their feelings. Sadly, that puts them at risk for being judged weak or unprofessional. When Cynthia Danaher was promoted to general manager of a group at Hewlett-Packard, she announced to her 5,300 employees that the job was “scary” and that “I need your help.” She was authentic, and her team lost confidence in her initially. Some researchers even suggest that low self-monitoring may have harmful effects on women’s progress.
But even high self-monitors can suffer from the belief in authenticity because it presupposes that there is a true self, a bedrock to our personalities that’s a combination of our convictions and abilities. As the psychologist Carol Dweck has long shown, merely believing that there’s a fixed self can interfere with growth.
Children who see abilities as fixed give up after failure; managers who believe talent is fixed fail to coach their employees. “As we strive to improve our game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass that helps us navigate choices and progress toward our goals,” Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at the business school Insead, notes. “When we’re looking to change our game, a too rigid self-concept becomes an anchor that keeps us from sailing forth.”
If not our authentic selves, what should we be striving to reach? Decades ago, the literary critic Lionel Trilling gave us an answer that sounds very old-fashioned to our authentic ears: sincerity. Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them, Trilling urged us to start with our outer selves. Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.
Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in.
When Dr. Ibarra studied consultants and investment bankers, she found that high self-monitors were more likely than their authentic peers to experiment with different leadership styles. They watched senior leaders in the organization, borrowed their language and action, and practiced them until these became second nature. They were not authentic, but they were sincere. It made them more effective.
The shift from authenticity to sincerity might be especially important for millennials. Most generational differences are vastly exaggerated — they’re driven primarily by age and maturity, not birth cohort. But one robust finding is that younger generations tend to be less concerned about social approval. Authentic self-expression works beautifully, until employers start to look at social media profiles.
As an introvert, I started my career terrified of public speaking so my authentic self wouldn’t have been giving a TED talk in the first place. But being passionate about sharing knowledge, I spent the next decade learning to do what Dr. Little, the psychologist, calls acting out of character. I decided to be the person I claimed to be, one who is comfortable in the spotlight.
It worked. Next time people say, “just be yourself,” stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.
Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.
這將是我人生裡最大的一場表演 —— 第一次在 TED 會議的主舞台上亮相 —— 我已經扔掉了七個版本的草稿。為了尋找一個新的方向，我向同事和朋友徵詢了意見。「最重要的事，」我問到的第一個人說，「是做你自己。」接下來六個人也給出了同樣的建議。
我們處在一個講求真實的年代，「做自己」是我們在生活、愛情和職業中收到的最典型的建議。真實意味着消除你內心堅信的東西和你向外界展露的東西之間的差距。就像休斯頓大學研究教授布勒內·布朗 (Brené Brown) 定義的，真實是「暴露真我這樣一種選擇」。
「我當然不知道做真實的自己或許可以讓一個人像我一樣變得這麼富有，」幾年前奧普拉·溫弗瑞 (Oprah Winfrey) 曾這樣開玩笑地講道。「如果我知道的話，在更早以前我就試着去做了。」
十年前，作家 A·J·雅各布 (A. J. Jacobs) 花了幾周時間試着保持完全的真實。他對一位編輯說，如果他是單身，就會設法和她上床。他告訴自己的保姆，如果妻子與自己分手，他會很樂意和她約會。他告知一個朋友 5 歲的女兒，她手裡的甲殼蟲不是睡著了，而是死了。他告訴他的岳父岳母，他們的談話頗為乏味。你可以想像他的實驗結果如何。
但如果你是一個自我監察度比較低的人，你會更多地會聽從內心的指引，而不管周邊的環境。一項引人入勝的研究顯示，當一盤牛排擺在眼前時，擁有高自我監察度的人會先品嘗一下，然後決定是否再撒鹽，而自我監察度低的人則會直接先撒鹽。如同心理學家布萊恩·利特爾 (Brian Little) 所解釋的，「就好像自我監察度低的人十分清楚自己的鹹淡口味。」
但在我們生活的其他方面，太真實往往會令你付出代價。自我監察度高的人升遷更快，可以獲得更高的地位，部分原因在於他們更關心自己的聲譽。儘管這似乎獎勵了自我鼓吹的欺詐者，但這些高自我監察人群的確花了更多時間弄清楚他人的需求，並去幫助他們。就 2.3 萬多名員工的 136 種研究進行的一項綜合分析顯示，高度自我監察的人收穫的評價要高出許多，也更有可能被晉陞至領導崗位。
有趣的是，女性的自我監察度常常低於男性。這或許是因為她們面對着更多的文化壓力去表達自身的感受。不幸的是，這可能會讓她們面臨被看成性格脆弱或行事不專業的風險。當辛西婭·達納赫 (Cynthia Danaher) 被提拔為惠普 (Hewlett-Packard) 旗下某公司總經理的時候，她向手下的 5300 名員工宣布，這是一項「可怕的」工作，「我需要你們的幫助」。她很真實，於是她的團隊從一開始就對她失去了信心。一些研究者甚至表示，低自我監察度可能會對女性發展造成有害影響。
不過，就連自我監察度高的人，也有可能因為信奉真實而吃苦頭。因為其前提是：存在一個真實的自我，一塊構建個性的基石，它是我們的信念和能力的結合體。正如心理學者卡羅爾·徳韋克 (Carol Dweck) 長期以來證明的那樣，全然相信存在一個固定的自我，會對成長構成干擾。
如果孩子認為能力是固定的，那他們遇到失敗就會放棄；如果經理人認為才幹是固定的，那他們就無法好好培訓員工。「當我們想要改進為人處事的方式時，一種清晰而又堅定的自我感相當於指南針，可以幫助我們做出選擇，朝着既定的目標前進，」歐洲工商管理學院 (Insead) 組織行為學教授埃米尼亞·伊巴拉 (Herminia Ibarra) 指出。「當我們想要改變為人處事的方式時，過於死板的自我概念又會成為妨礙我們前行的牽絆。」
如果說我們竭力抵達的目標並不是真實的自我，那麼又該是什麼呢？文學批評家昂內爾·特裡林 (Lionel Trilling) 數十年前給出的答案是誠懇。在我們真實的耳朵聽來，這個答案非常老派。特裡林建議我們先去關注外在的自我，而非去探尋內在的自我，然後竭力將其表達出來。要留意我們向他人展現自己的方式，然後盡量成為我們自己宣稱的樣子。
從真實到誠懇的轉變對千禧一代而言可能尤為重要。大多數代際差異被嚴重誇大了 —— 它們主要取決於年齡和成熟程度，而非出生在哪個年代。但一項頗為可靠的研究結果顯示，年輕一代可能不那麼在意社會的認同。真實的自我表達顯得十分美好，直到僱主們開始查看社交媒體上的個人簡介。
作為一個內向的人，我初入職場時非常害怕公開發言，因此我當初的真實自我是不會願意發表 TED 演講的。但我對分享知識充滿熱情，因此在隨後十年裡，我學着像利特爾博士說的那樣，做與性格不相符的事情。我決定成為自己宣稱的那種人，一個能在聚光燈下揮灑自如的人。