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.
But for most people, “be yourself” is actually terrible advice.
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.
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 Littleexplains, “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.
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.
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.