Authenticity is one of those terms that haunt creative circles. You hear about how you need to be more authentic, or find your authentic voice, or how so-and-so is so authentic. I think that authenticity is an overblown notion. After all, at our most authentic, human beings are actually pretty miserable, unbearable creatures.
Think about it, authenticity is when you strip away all of the pretense and reveal the unvarnished person. That describes people during the first 5-45 minutes they are awake. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m no bundle of kittens during my first hour of consciousness. I know this. I actively avoid engaging with other human beings during that hour because of it.
When you strip away all of the pretense, you discover the not-so-secret truth that people are flawed. They have short tempers or biases that make you uncomfortable. You discover that they’re a lot less charming in private. Authenticity is simply the revelation of things that good manners and social mores are designed to smooth over.
My hypothesis is that people don’t actually want authenticity. What they want is something that feels genuine and is consistent. Take Tom Hanks, for example. By all accounts and evidence, he is a grounded, decent human being. Those facets of his personality come through in interviews and people’s reports of private interactions with him. He feels genuine and he does so consistently.
That doesn’t mean that he isn’t cranky before that first cup of coffee. That doesn’t mean he lacks personality flaws. The exposure of those things would be authenticity. He wouldn’t benefit from that and, frankly, neither would anyone else.
Tom Cruise, by contrast, doesn’t come off as genuine. He feels authentic. The couch-jumping, Scientology, Brooke Shields and…and…and…all of it reads like someone who chooses not to hold back the things most of us do. He wears his flaws right out there on his sleeve and has been soundly punished for it in terms of public perception. The irony is that, when Cruise isn’t being authentic, he’s reportedly a nice person.
I’ll grant you, most of us don’t live under the kind of scrutiny that Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise face on a daily basis. Most of us wouldn’t ever want to live that way. The lesson, however, holds true. I may have very strong feelings about political issues and expressing them would be a blow for authenticity, but it doesn’t serve my readers to expound on my political leanings.
Holding back inflammatory or obnoxious thoughts and impulses may be inauthentic, but it isn’t a failure to be genuine. It’s an acknowledgement that some ideas are inherently divisive and have no place in a professional forum. It’s recognizing that we refrain from some behaviors for the very good reason that it’s polite to do so. Holding back those things doesn’t alter my basic personality. If I’m a curmudgeon, that will come through. If I’m essentially kind, that will come through. That is genuine and that is something to which readers can connect.
I think that maybe it’s time for us to worry less about being authentic and spent more time working to be genuine. I suspect that you’ll connect better with your audience and connect with the right audience for what you have to say.