As I was surveying literature on creativity and divergent thinking a while back, Amazon’s algorithms directed me to a book called Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. It came out last year and has four and a half stars with 332 reviews on Amazon as I write this, and its author, a young professor at the Wharton School of Business named Adam Grant, appears to be some kind of TED rock star.
I checked the book out from the public library only to return it after reading three chapters. I had hoped to find stories about how naturally divergent thinkers found their niches; in that respect, the book is a disappointment. It’s essentially a list of anecdotes to illustrate that successful nonconformists do X and unsuccessful nonconformists do Y, so you should do X. The best thing I can say about it is that Grant does present some examples of people effecting some changes at work. I questioned his interpretations of data, however, after he touched on subjects I knew well enough to know that he left out details that detracted from his thesis.
I also looked up some other things he’d written. That’s how I learned that even as Grant claims to laud nonconformists, he objects to authenticity. In an op-ed last summer in the New York Times entitled, “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice,” he stated, “If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self.”
You know, up to that point I was content to just return his silly book and not pay him a second thought, but the thesis in Grant’s op-ed is poorly argued, culturally corrosive, and a great opportunity to talk about dynamisms in Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD). Sounds like the perfect recipe for a blog post to me!
So, nonconformity and authenticity are not synonyms, but there’s enough overlap between them that I was puzzled to see him speak positively (at least superficially) about people he labels nonconformists (defined by Merriam-Webster as a person who does not conform to a generally accepted pattern of thought or action) while ripping on authenticity (not false or imitation; true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character). By those definitions, a person could, in theory, authentically conform: such a person would presumably have a genuine desire to abide by group norms, while an inauthentic nonconformist would be the kind of person who picks up a book on nonconformity to learn how to do it without being put off by any perceived paradox.
Outside of the theoretical, however, nonconformists tend to be those whose behavior springs from a strong self-concept that gives rise to individually chosen values—in other words, they’re authentic people.
And where does this strong self-concept come from? To answer that, let’s review what in TPD are called factors of development. Dabrowski identified three of them:
- The first factor is your genetic predisposition. It’s what we mean when we talk about a person’s “nature.”
- The second factor is socialization and peer pressure. You know this one as “nurture.”
- The third factor is something Dabrowski added to the list to account for development that transcends nature and nurture, even as it has its roots in them. He defined the third factor as a strong drive toward autonomous growth. It provides space for internal motivation and choice to contribute to a person’s development, and it’s essential to reaching TPD’s higher levels of development.
So those authentic folks who risk going against the social grain are most likely driven by the third factor.
Grant, however, defines “authenticity” as what author A.J. Jacobs was practicing when he decided to tell everyone everything that he was thinking all the time, including socially proscribed gestures like telling his editor that he wanted to sleep with her. This, of course, is not what people generally mean when they say “be yourself,” nor does being authentic require that you eschew social graces. (A. J. Jacobs himself, incidentally, calls his social experiment “radical honesty,” presumably because “authenticity” was not an accurate label.)
I think Grant’s definition is manipulated beyond recognition and note that it leaves out the struggles of people who have always felt they have to hide aspects of themselves—including neutral and even socially admirable aspects—because of strong social pressures to conform. But if we accept Grant’s pseudo-definition for the sake of argument, we can still state that Grant’s basically saying that authenticity means ceasing to let the second factor guide you.
And hey, Dabrowski would agree! And he’d reject my bending-over-backward attempt to imagine an “authentic conformist.” As the editor of positivedisintegration.com notes in the site’s explanation of authenticity:
As would be expected, Dabrowski used a multilevel approach to authenticity. Thus, on a low level, one can be governed by first factor and instincts and be called an authentic but very low-level individual. I think by definition, Dabrowski would say that the individual governed by second factor would not reflect authentic behavior on either low or high levels.
So basically, Dabrowski encourages an individual aspiring to authenticity to swap the second factor for the third, while Grant assumes giving up the second means falling back to the often selfish impulses of the first factor.
And that’s where Grant’s argument breaks down, at least for all the people I’ve ever met who say they value authenticity. These people are seeking a way to live up to their values, not down to them. They aspire to become the people they want to be. That’s why authenticity is a dynamism. Authenticity, most simply, is the expression of one’s personality ideal.
Essentially, Grant seems to believe that everyone in the world is stuck in primary integration. In his world, there’s no such thing as the third factor, so he’s exhorting people to be driven by the second factor rather than the first.
Grant therefore offers the following advice for aspiring young employees, emphasis mine:
[Rather than searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them, we should 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.
There is a kernel of value here: we can all observe people we admire and try to learn from them, consciously choosing some of their traits to build our own personality ideals. But the key is that we choose what we’re imitating. Grant, of course, spends a lot of time around students aspiring to corporate leadership, but there is more to life than work. Moreover, it takes a person guided by a strong internal compass to reject a malign influence, especially a powerful or culturally pervasive one. If everyone followed Grant’s prescription without question, we would abandon all calls to follow our ideals in favor of mimicking the paragons of corporate valor. This would not be merely stultifying: imagine, for instance, the consequences of mimicking the senior leaders at Wells Fargo, who pressured employees to cheat customers.
Grant further argues in his op-ed that holding authenticity as a goal interferes with growth, because it requires us to believe that there is a fixed self. This, of course, neglects the role of the third factor. A person who’s guided by the third factor is necessarily open to growth and change. Achieving one’s authentic personality ideal is no easy task, and certainly can’t be done by someone who thinks they’re a fixed person, unable to grow. Positive disintegration is still disintegration.
And that, essentially, is what Grant seems to want us to avoid. His advice will help you avoid the rough waters, if that’s your goal. Dabrowski’s guidance, on the other hand, is geared toward keeping your boat upright while sailing through the waves.
Grant’s article is worth debunking because so many people are seeking to live with authenticity to overcome pain and fear and live up to their potential as human beings. This is, as Dabrowski would point out, already difficult—even perilous. Let’s not forget that Dabrowski began developing his theory after trying to understand a friend’s suicide. Then there are the multitudes who, while not suicidal, are “merely” struggling under a humdrum existence in which they feel constrained. Paula Prober’s blog post on existential depression in gifted teens, for instance, offers a glimpse of the sort of challenges faced by individuals seeking to live authentically.
Practically speaking, all the people I’d call nonconformists, all those who aspire to authenticity, are people who show glimmers of the third factor. They’re the ones who, in line with the lofty subtitle of Grant’s book, truly have the capacity to change the world—the catalysts who do what they do because they are driven to become their best selves, whatever the cost.
I sure hope they’re not deterred by op-eds and TED talks.
Image credits: Comfreak, tpsdave, and Myriams-fotos at Pixabay, used under a CC0 license.