Talk less, smile more.
—Aaron Burr (allegedly)
You’ve heard it over and over again: “Be yourself.”
But according to this op-ed by Adam Grant for The New York Times, this might not be the best advice in the world. Or rather: not the most specific.
If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.
He goes on to use the example of author A.J. Jacobs, who tried being his “authentic self”—sans filter—as an experiment:
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.
Obviously, Jacobs is an extreme example. But what of Grant’s assertion that our true, authentic selves are just too, well, authentic to share with the entire world?
This seems to not have been such a pressing problem until social media became so much a part of our lives. Once everybody was blogging, Tweeting, and Facebooking, we were often sharing very authentic parts of ourselves to…well, everyone.
And as we learn from movie reviews, etc., you can’t really please everyone.
Furthermore, the problematic thing for me about the advice “be yourself” is not the concept of being authentic, but that “yourself” is not one pat self-contained static “thing.”
“Yourself” is complicated! There are many moving parts to it, all of which are in various states of active expression. To seek to be Yourself at all times—especially to a “general” audience like social media or your workplace—is a tall order.
More likely, there are various parts of yourself that you display at various times and in various situations. Doing so doesn’t necessarily make you a “fake”—as long as those parts of yourself are genuine.
And that is what Grant, referencing literary critic Lionel Trilling, has to offer in place of blanket “authenticity”: 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.
Of course, the flip side to this argument is: “Be Yourself!” It’s the crux of the musical Hamilton, in which the “keeping it real” titular character is played against the “keep it light” philosophy of his friend and rival, Aaron Burr. As Alexandra Petri notes in her article for The Washington Post, “Hamilton and the End of Irony”:
Contrast Hamilton (as the musical frequently asks you to do) to Aaron Burr, the slinking Salieri-Javert who watches Hamilton ascend. Burr is all caution, all maintaining his image. Burr notices how he looks to people. Burr, if he lived today, would curate his Instagram carefully. His watchword is “wait for it.” “Talk less,” he tells Hamilton. “Smile more.”
“Don’t let them know what you’re against and what you’re for.”
Of course, Alexander Hamilton—the statesman without a filter—also says and does a number of impetuous things during the course of the musical that causes political strife, guts the reputation of his family, and eventually ends up getting himself killed. Having seen the production last year, I don’t think Burr is really portrayed as a true villain at all, and both him and Hamiliton have “good” and “bad” qualities. And maybe that’s the point.
The complete spectrum of our true selves may be too vast to accurately display to the larger world—or to our ultimate advantage at any given moment. But we can curate sincere sections of our selves for specific audiences who might grok to them the most.
Hamilton and Burr were/are complicated. As are we all.