Authentic or Not? It’s a Bad Question





Should I be authentic at work or not? Should I bring my “whole self” or not?

I recently read an article that was challenging the advice to be yourself at work. The author was making a full-throated defense of playing a role at work to get ahead. I don’t think the world needs more fear and pretense at work. I also don’t think people should show up to the office naked, screaming at the people they don’t like. 

The world of work has changed. It wasn’t that long ago that a man (always a man) would show up in the exact same clothes, wearing one of two tie options, smoking the same cigarette, and pursuing a predetermined, life-long career path. Those days are behind us forever. Much as we may pine away for a simpler time, the world of work has changed forever. This first really hit me when a recruiter at a Silicon Valley company I was working for showed up one morning in shorts, sandals and…. Nothing more. He was a very good recruiter.

But just because there is a lot more freedom at work doesn’t mean all behaviors are appropriate. We still have to work with each productively. How do you think through those boundaries?

Rather than asking, “Should I be authentic or not?” let’s ask a different question:

What works?

As in, “What is the best way to get what I want today, and tomorrow?” That can be a surprisingly hard question to answer. It’s hard because you don’t really always know what you want today, and it is impossible to reliably predict tomorrow.

You may think that you have sudden, unexpected outbursts. Or spontaneous creativity. But in reality, everything connects to your goals. Your unconscious mind is always in goal-seeking mode. All behavior accomplishes a goal. The question is whether you know the goal or not, not whether there is one.

Your mind is a beautiful system that sets goals and then fakes reality to increase the probability of achieving those goals. If you really reflect, you will end up surprised by the goals your mind chooses, the ways your brain fakes reality, and the choices it makes to accomplish those goals. That’s why it is important to spend time every day learning about yourself. Building self-awareness and self-skepticism. It isn’t self-indulgent. It is creating the operator’s manual for the most important pieces of equipment you have ever had to learn to operate: you.

As you learn more about you, you will find that you, like all other humans, are really bad at long-term thinking. Really bad. Like nuclear Armageddon, climate crisis, plastic in our bodies bad. That means that every choice you make today about being authentic at work has long-term term consequences, some of which you can’t predict.

I started using the “three yous” framework with my clients to help them understand the problems and impacts of decisions today that will have lifelong consequences.

There are three yous: yesterday you, today you, and tomorrow you. Today you will become yesterday’s you. Tomorrow’s you will become yesterday’s you. Time marches on.

Since there are many more yesterday and tomorrow yous than there are today yous, you need to understand all the power that today’s you has. Today you creates all the yesterday and tomorrow yous. So I like to think that my today you works for my tomorrow you, so I have a lot better yesterday yous behind me. Today’s you works for tomorrow’s you because tomorrow’s you pays all your bills. Eat a piece of cake, and today you has a delicious treat. Tomorrow you gets diabetes. And yesterday you regrets all the bad decisions today you makes.

There are a lot of yesterday yous and hopefully a lot of tomorrow yous. All out of sight, out of mind. But today’s you is either making their life easier or harder. Either help tomorrow’s you live a better life or a worse one. When tomorrow’s you become yesterday’s you, will you be filled with gratitude or regret? Will you be lost and confused or clear and excited? 

Should I be authentic at work? It depends. What works? What is the opportunity or debt that your behavior will create for tomorrow you?

When you walk, write, or Zoom into the office today, are you going to write checks your tomorrow you can’t cash? Are you going to hide and hope tomorrow’s you doesn’t figure out you wasted today? Are you going to pile up another yesterday that would have, should have, could have?

What works?

When looked at through this lens, we get some interesting answers. Kissing the boss’s ass works for today’s you, but likely limits the opportunities of tomorrow’s you. Screaming at your employees will likely haunt all of your yesterday yous. Your behavior has consequences, but so does your fear. 

You are a work in progress. You don’t really know who you are; you don’t really know your potential. If you want to produce great results for your tomorrow yous, find a place to work that helps you be the best version of yourself. Only you can determine who that tomorrow you is. Because the best version of yourself is based on your goals, your potential, and is always, always, a problem for your tomorrow you. 

Be authentic when it accomplishes your aspirations, and when you won’t regret the consequences. Play the game when you don’t know what tomorrow’s you will have to deal with. And find a place that helps you learn yourself every day so you know the goals that your today you is trying to achieve so that your tomorrow you is even better than today. Your yesterday yous will thank you.

-Jeff Hunter, Founder & CEO of Talentism


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