University, or Masquerade Ball?

I’m feeling a little philosophic today, so I’ll ask: Just what is authenticity all about?

We’ve been talking about it at work in regards to job interviews, but it’s clear that the construct applies to a lot more than just that.  But it’s a slippery thing to try to define.  When applied to people, the best we can really do is provide a list of near-synonyms: genuine, real, veritable.  None of which are all that helpful.

It’s one of those qualities that tends to be more noticeable by its absence.  We usually know when a person is being inauthentic.  Even if we can’t quite put our fingers on it, we get a sneaking sense that something’s not quite, well… authentic!  Accordingly, the easiest way to define the word is in a negative fashion: “not false or copied.”

We generally make a big deal out of inauthenticity or fakeness.  Just picture the stereotypical, cliquey high school girl exclaiming, “she’s so FAKE” to her confidantes (or the whole internet, whatever).  Or the whole narrative of “finding yourself” and embracing independence that permeates adolescence.  But it goes beyond overused generalizations about high school.  If we get a sense that someone painting an incomplete or ‘false’ picture of themselves, we tend to go back on our heels no matter the circumstance.

Authenticity is important.  As far as your career is concerned, it may be the most important step in determining your direction, as it’s the theoretical companion and result of the self-reflective process that’s required in order to move forward meaningfully.  As such, it starts out as an internal process of being honest with yourself and acknowledging what you’re really all about.

But things get a lot more complicated once you start involving other people and the many life roles that we all play.  The problem with any one-dimensional view of authenticity is that it assumes that we all have some kind of ‘master identity’ – a ‘true self’ that remains constant throughout the many different cultural  arenas of our lives that we navigate on a daily basis.  As such, you would have the same qualities, mannerisms, quirks, personality characteristics, etc. at work as you do at home.  With your family as you do with your friends.  At the mall as you do at school.

Mask statue1
Image via Wikipedia

Of course, that’s not the case.  We have many social roles and we (that is, those of us with ‘normal’ levels of social functioning) can usually adapt, through social learning, so that we can think, act, and feel according to the demands of whatever situation we’re in.  Humans have evolved, both biologically and culturally, to be capable of living and thriving in incredibly complex social systems that require us to be many different versions of ourselves.  Clearly we need a more multi-dimensional view of authenticity that acknowledges these different personas.  But what would we be without the mask?  Without any social cues?  Some people will argue that there is some kind of unifying force of central identity behind it all that represents the authentic you.

At the risk of spending the rest of this post on a poorly argued philosophical stance, I’ll just say that it’s more complicated than that, and that authenticity probably means different things to different people.  My views on the matter are most influenced by the existential school of thought, which places great importance on the matter, and in many cases posits that an inauthentic way of living is the principal cause of psychological difficulty.

But it’s easy to sit back and analyze.  Perhaps the more difficult thing is to actually go out and do.  To be and accept that state of being for what it is.  To realize that existence in and of itself has no meaning that we do not create for ourselves.  Authenticity then becomes more of an end goal that we can never truly reach, though we constantly strive to achieve it – we constantly remove the masks we wear, only to find that new ones have taken their place.

If you ask me, the process of going to university is about this as much as anything else.  It’s one of those balls where everyone is wearing a mask, and you’re left to wonder what’s really underneath.  Hopefully, by the time the next stage of life comes along, you’ve got enough experience putting on and taking off those masks that you can tell by the looks of them which of the new ones will be a better fit.

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.