Just be yourself!

Just be yourself and you’ll be fine!

What do you make of these platitudes in the workplace?

It gets confusing when we start to conflate being with doing. They are different things, but each informs the other.

“Nobody wants to see your true self,” Adam Grant writes in the New York Times. “We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.” He concludes that people want you to be sincere, not necessarily, yourself.

Authenticity and vulnerability guru Brené Brown counters, via LinkedIn, “We are sick of the hustle and the bullshit and the fakery. We are tired of trying to live up to impossible ideals, and we’re no longer willing to orphan important parts of ourselves to achieve success. Most of us will take messy and real over pretending and people-pleasing every time.”

Here’s what I think: They’re both right.

“Be yourself” is flawed because it is advice — and all advice is flawed. (Remember that the next time your mother-in-law gives you some and just smile.)

We are splitting hairs on syntax. The definitions of sincere and authentic are quite similar — they both mean some form of genuine. We are better off when we are genuine people.

But what’s genuine? What is the self anyway? We each have a multitude of feelings and skills and talents to call upon to serve us in any situation.

This matters because many of us in the modern economy are in the relationship business, in some form or another. I’ve found that the geekiest technology companies have some of the most authentic employees, simply because they know that to live is to explore and discover. Meanwhile, professional services such as law and medicine, people who are supposed to uphold the title of “expert,” have employees who find it harder to be authentic, where relationships seem more scripted and formulaic. No matter where you work, authenticity can constantly be cultivated.

Your self is constantly changing. Think back 10 years on some of the stupid shit you said. You’re different now, right? And thank God for that! You have to know your self to fully be yourself, and knowing is a life long journey of discovery.

To be fully alive as a human is to constantly reinvent, to explore, to act in new ways that challenge us and grow us.

I’ve switched careers a few times now. From studying and working in computer science in college, migrating over to business journalism and reporting for newspapers and wire services, then climbing the learning curve for Wall Street stock analysis, and I’m now an executive and high-performance professional coach.

Each role required a different way of acting, and in some times, a different way of being in the world.

Act your way into a new way of thinking and being,” Herminia Ibarra writes in her book, Working Identity. “You cannot discover yourself by introspection.”

(Emphasis mine.)

You discover yourself by doing. Do first. Then be. Then do authentically.

Wall Street analysts have to market themselves and their research. This means you waltz into a hedge fund office with your laptop with all your spreadsheets, your files, your business cards, your iPad, and sit down in a board room (usually overlooking an amazing view) to meet with fund analysts and managers, talking about your research and answering tough questions.

My work was high quality, but what did it mean to be myself in that environment? The culture was new. Seven years ago, Wall Street was a totally new environment to me. I grew up a working class Jersey girl — was never rich — and was most recently a business reporter making $50,000 a year.

But like anything, you adapt, stay curious, and have fun. I made sure I looked the part: $1,000 designer outfit, nice hosiery, stylish flats, hair pressed and neat. Before flying away for a trip, I’d have to clean the dirt out from under my fingernails from my most recent hike.

Wall Street analysts also have to mingle with industry for research and network with contacts. I attended so many industry conferences — from drones, to electronic warfare, to agricultural equipment, to electric vehicles, to solar power, to geospatial intelligence, to guns. Let’s just say you don’t wear the same outfit when researching the firearms industry as you do when visiting with your hedgie client. You don’t talk about the same topics, unless, of course, they are considering investing in guns.

Same when covering Tesla. I *got* Elon Musk and his crew, like understood them (I felt) in a deeper way when this light bulb went off: “Oh, they’re just like the geeks I studied physics with in college.” When analyzing $TSLA, I called deeply upon my inner geek to understand the company. When analyzing guns and defense, I called upon my inner freedom badass. When meeting with investor clients, I called upon my inner-loving-reporter-researcher-tired-of-being-broke-self. With my child, I am simply, “Mama,” and that is a world unto itself.

We are all many selves.

Ok. So you are reading this blog and you are a multi-talented individual. What does it mean to be yourself? And should you?

Here’s what I learned: We are always discovering ourselves. Reinvention is the name of the game. And we are at our personal best when we can connect successfully with others.

That’s all authenticity really is — it is connecting with people as best as you can in the moment. You get there through cultivating your own sense of curiosity and awareness, about yourself and about other people. Authenticity isn’t about your funky socks, or your annoying habit that you defend by saying, ‘that’s just who I am! snort!’, or the streak of pink you just put in your hair (it’s lovely, by the way, by all means, express your style). Authenticity is other focused.

“Most people associate authenticity with being true to oneself — or “walking the talk.” But there’s a problem with that association; it focuses on how you feel about yourself. Authenticity is actually a relational behavior, not a self-centered one. Meaning that to be truly authentic, you must not only be comfortable with yourself, but must also comfortably connect with others,” says the Harvard Business Review.

On the Street, the more I admitted to my imperfections, the more I courageously said, “I don’t know,” the more I dialed up the level of service and dialed down any last traces of bullshit, the more clients I gained and the more my research revenue grew. I certainly didn’t do this in direct service to myself, because sometimes, it was vulnerable and embarrassing and I had no idea whether I’d lose the client. I did it because it was the best way to serve the client, even if that meant admitting that perhaps I wasn’t the best person to serve the client in that moment.

True story: Once, a hedge fund client in San Francisco called and said, “This stock is down 7%. You said it would go up. Why?”

And I said, “Because Bob, I’m really bad at this job.”

I was joking, but only a little — several of my stock predictions had gone against me in that time period.

Later, one of our stock traders pinged me, “What’d you say to Bob!? He just paid us $5,000 in commissions.” And I messaged back, in amazement, “I just told him that I was really bad at picking stocks.”

Truth and trust are still in short supply in this world. You can exhibit both while still being on a journey of self-discovery and acting different roles.

If you can offer others a healthy dose of humility and vulnerability, then you’ll form deeper connections.

But you can’t use “be yourself” to justify being an asshole. That’s just duh.
(*Name changed)