Reclaiming Authenticity from the MBAs

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

5 thoughts on “Reclaiming Authenticity from the MBAs

  1. You have such a talent for expressing with brilliant clarity the essence of the muddle of ideas I have going round my head! I listened to ‘Originals’ after seeing an interesting infographic about nurturing young originals. The point on the infographic that stood out for me was something like, ‘the fewer rules a family has, the more creative the child.’

    In his chapter on children, Grant references a study which examined the differences between how WWII Holocaust rescuers were parented, in comparison with their peers who stood back and did nothing as the Jews around them were persecuted. A key difference was that the rescuers’ parents gave explanations for family rules, encouraging children to develop their own moral code, whereas the bystanders’ parents enforced discipline and rules without giving reasons or explanations. (So far so good.)

    However, the examples Grant goes on to give from his own parenting experience really jarred with me and put me off the whole book. I’m not totally sure why – I need to do some more thinking – but I suspect it has something to do with what you’ve written about in this post. For instance, he suggests that when we’re trying to get a child to share, we encourage them to empathise with the other child and say: ‘She’s crying because she wants to play with your toys and in this family we always share.’ For some reason I find those last seven words immensely triggering! Perhaps it’s just a values mismatch – I don’t think children should be forced to share, but in any case I don’t think ‘in this family we always …’ counts as an explanation!

    Rant over. 🙂 As with many of your articles, I shall be re-reading this several times.

    Here’s the infographic I mentioned: https://thefissureblog.com/2016/12/05/5-lessons-for-teachers-and-parents-from-adam-grants-originals-infographic/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lucinda, you seem to be coming close to something I noticed with Grant, which is that once he starts interpreting something, he can make a bit of a mess with it. (Or, to be honest, sometimes a huge mess. This post originally came out of a rant in which I said “and this is misleading, and this is misinterpreted, and this part seems to be willfully ignorant just so he can attract attention.” But I’ll avoid ranting on that, unless anyone specifically asks.) One thing he does do well is find good, interesting research — but the way he frames it then kept leaving me shaking my head. The research on the Holocaust is a great example of this. I think that point about rules is my favorite one on the infographic, too. Achievement motivation is also something that I’ve been thinking of ranting about; a book I loved on the subject was Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz.

    (And I said I’d avoid ranting unless someone asked, but here’s one clip I can stick in briefly that kind of follows what I said in the post about the definition of authenticity: Grant in his TED talk said that “originals” don’t have to be first; for instance, Facebook came after Friendster and MySpace, and Facebook is the best, right? So, see, originals don’t have to be first! Or so he said. The reason this annoyed me is that he twists the definition of the word “original,” using it for its cultural valor while divorcing it from what it actually means. What he’s really saying is that in this case, being third — i.e., NOT original — might actually be preferable. Sure, fine, that’s a perfectly legitimate argument. No need to distort the meaning of a word to make it. It’s enough to make me want to buy the guy a dictionary.)

    Anyway, thanks for joining in the conversation — I’m happy to encounter someone else who has read (or listened to) the book and had something to say about it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of the things that has most surprised me during my time in the private sector is how much appearances and presentation matter, and how much effort people put into honing their presentation. Recently, I was part of a group that was working to launch a new software platform for our team, led by one of the top bosses on our team, a manager below him, and then a bunch of associates including me. This top boss has sort of a relaxed way of speaking, and during a conference call regarding the new platform, he said that “a platform like this is table stakes in our industry.” (meaning that such a platform is required for clients to even consider hiring us, because our competitors all have it already) Then, a week or two later, I heard the manager who was below the boss use the same phrase, “table stakes,” to describe the platform, despite it not really fitting his personality or mode of speaking. You can constantly feel people trying out new presentations and modes of speaking to find a style of communication and leadership that works for them.

    The problem with Grant’s thesis is that he envisions this activity as a purely “second factor” exercise. The issue can be summed up by this line from his op-ed:

    “As an introvert, I started my career terrified of public speaking so my authentic self wouldn’t have been giving a TED talk in the first place.”

    Grant envisions an “authentic” self that is essentially static, comprising only our basest impulses and unaltered predispositions. The adjustment of one’s professional presentation is therefore nothing more than a means to escape from these predispositions and put up a socially acceptable veneer. Ironically, Grant actually criticizes the idea of a fixed self in his op-ed, so I don’t know why he assumes one as part of his argument.

    The argument that he should be making is that figuring out how to understand, communicate with, and lead other people in a way that is consistent with one’s values actually represents growth of one’s authentic self, not a departure from it. Since I started my current job, I’ve been so proud of how I have stepped up to lead meetings and communicate with people. Learning those skills is part of my values and aspirations (third factor), so it represents growth, not a veneer. Sure, my presentation at meetings isn’t the same as my behavior when I am chatting with friends over dinner, but it is pretty myopic to say that the authentic self is not multifaceted.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dana, I just realized I never actually replied to this great post. Thanks for adding a perspective from inside the world of private industry. I think you hit the nail on the head, and I’m glad that you found the concept of “second factor” useful in doing it.

      When you say “I don’t know why he assumes…,” you also seem to be following the same path that I follow in digesting Grant’s writings. They seem to use a lot of Jedi mind tricks, to let Grant look like a TED rock star making dramatic points, never mind if they don’t quite follow. But I griped about that in response to Lucinda’s post above. Ah well, at least he gave me something good to talk about.

      Thanks as always for posting! Your comments really add a lot to this blog.

      Like

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