Authenticity? Gimme a break! (Part One)
‘Most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.’
- Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple
We’re living in the age of authenticity. Everyone’s at it, from Tony Robbins to Psychology Today magazine (7 Qualities of Truly Authentic People) to Saint Steve Jobs (a terrible prick to work for or with - an authentic one, and a prick nonetheless).
And it’s mostly nonsense. Of course, you need to be congruent, in the sense that people experience you as someone who delivers what she promises, that you aren’t so horribly at odds with yourself that you come across as a real phony. That’s such a banal and obvious point that it’s not worth spending much time on. And besides, it’s not what people mean when they talk about the importance of ‘following your heart and intuition’ and ‘Being true to yourself.’ What people mean is that you have an inner wisdom, that your heart and intuition are wiser than you are, and that if you get out of your own way there’s an inner strength and resilience that can achieve almost anything.
Well, allow me to take issue with all that, and say why I think ‘Follow your heart and intuition’ and ‘Be true to yourself’ are just about the worst bits of advice you can give or take. Here’s four reasons why.
First, you don’t have a self. You have multiple selves. You have an inner slob, who loves to sit back and do nothing, take the easy way out and always, always find room for an extra biscuit. You have an inner child, who is easily bullied and is sensitive and takes things literally and imagines it’s always her fault. You have an inner maniac, who could murder someone if he thought he could get away with it, particularly when it’s been a long day and you’re driving and that idiot… - well, you know the rest.
You also have an inner adult, who knows that the extra biscuit isn’t a good idea, that just because someone shouts at you doesn’t make you an idiot, that killing people is wrong. You have an inner wise person, who knows that nothing worthwhile is easy, that saving to get what you want is smarter than buying stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have, that relationships don’t take care of themselves.
So which one is your ‘true inner self’? There ain’t no such thing.
Second, who’s in charge round here? Even if you were stupid enough to let whoever is at home right now take over the steering wheel, do you really think it would go well? Which of your inner selves do you think are in charge of the emotion levers – your inner adult and your inner wise person? Or your inner slob, your inner child, your inner maniac? If you’ve ever seen a tired two year old at the supermarket, you know the answer.
(Actually, maybe Steve Jobs was onto something. His head of design Jonny Ives, who was very close to him, said Jobs had a very childish ability to get really worked up about something… So in that sense, perhaps Jobs was being true to his ‘inner child.’ Prick.)
So why would you let the baby drive the car? You wouldn’t, of course.
Third, if you don’t have different selves, you’re in big trouble. You have a whole range of social selves, and that’s as it should be. I hope you’re different in the pub with friends late on a Friday night than you are when you’re making a big presentation at work. And someone playing a very physical sport such as boxing or rugby will need to be able access an aggressive, relentless, physically brave (even reckless) self – but would do well to know how to put that part away for the rest of the week. (If you’re interested in social selves, try this.)
As the nineteenth century philosopher William James observes, ‘Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their head.’
Now if you’re a boss, which ‘inner self’ do you want your employees bringing to work? Their Friday night pub inner self, or their customer-centric one? Their inner rugby player or their professional, careful, considerate one? Put like this the answer is blindingly obvious.
Fourth and finally, being ‘true to yourself’ and ‘following your intuition’ means shutting off half your brilliant mind. We have been given an exceptional piece of machinery to help us navigate the world, and it would seem pretty silly to loudly ‘Shhh!’ one of its most important parts. In fact, one of the things that the logical, analytical, observer part of our minds is good for is precisely the ability to evaluate, to analyse and to judge. I’m sure you know people who keep on making the same mistakes in their lives, who never seem to notice the pattern and who blame everyone and everything else except their own decisions and actions. The serial entrepreneur who never sees any project through to conclusion; the hopeless romantic who chooses terrible partners and is constantly disappointed; the rude bitch who constantly pushes people away and complains that she is abandoned by all her friends – all these people are repeating the same single mistake over and over. Should they be relying upon their obviously faulty intuition and ‘heart’? It is a terrible idea! Instead, they would do much better to ‘awaken the giant within’ – the giant brain that can think, and be aware of its own thinking, and test the quality of that thinking against cold hard reality, against the world.
So that's why ‘Follow your heart and intuition’ and ‘Be true to yourself’ are truly terrible mottoes to follow. In the second part of this blog, though, I'd like to make a more positive suggestion and say what I think might be a better path to go down...