Can you be yourself and still fit in?
From the time we are young, we are encouraged to “be ourselves” yet make sure we fit in with others. Our human DNA encourages us to conform as a survival trait (social conformity). We want friends, want to be liked and need to feel valuable (and valued). Being accepted, groupthink and social pressure can be powerful. As Michael Taft notes, “Our biological wiring for group cohesion is so strong that we will do almost anything to fit in.” Even my parents, European immigrants, were told to assimilate as quickly as possible into American culture to be accepted.
Unfortunately, in our effort to connect with others, we can lose our sense of self. We see this with teenage girls trying to conform to be popular, young adults trying to dress like their magazine idols, spouses wanting to be what the other desires in order to be happy, and employees trying to fit in with a corporate culture that goes against their values.
In a society that seems to reward sameness, we often lose the most valuable part of our personal brand: our authenticity.
As a personal branding specialist, I get to help professionals uncover their passions and values. This work lays the foundation to build marketing and communications strategies and build brand awareness, manage their reputation and create desired positioning based on what makes them unique, not what makes them look, sound and appear to be like everyone else.
I define authenticity as “living the core goals, beliefs and values that guide your emotional, spiritual and intellectual self and that present through behavior.” In other words, when you are your most genuine self, you are being authentic.
When we encounter you, are you being authentic? Are you representing yourself as you or as someone you think we’ll like? Being authentic means that across situations, I will experience you – and your commitment to your values – consistently.
Since a brand is a promise of an experience, an authentic brand is one that has a consistent, dependable experience attached. Each time I experience you, I know I can expect you to be yourself (i.e. qualities such as friendly, honest, collaborative, inquisitive, etc.). I don’t have to worry that you will try to be someone you’re not just to impress me.
A Real Example
Last year I worked with a talented chief executive who had just facilitated the largest acquisition in the communications industry. She had been instrumental in designing, negotiating and directing the transaction and was lauded for her skills in financial design, operational innovation, teamwork, shareholder management and media relations.
When I worked with Susan (not her real name), she was beautifully polished and scripted. She had her key messages ingrained and even knew which was her better side for media photographs. Her presentation skills had been honed and crafted over many years of high-pressure public exposure.
With the acquisition, Susan was leaving her post. This presented a unique time in her life: No longer would her scripts be prepared for her, wardrobe carefully selected according to the audience, and schedule designed by a expert public relations team. She was on her own now.
Susan embraced this opportunity to examine and design her personal brand once and for all. Our work together revealed many “ah ha’s’” as well as confirmed some beliefs: Susan was great at building teams, loved to mentor young women coming up the corporate ladder and empathized with cross-functional teams struggling to build unity. She believed passionately in transparency and honesty and she loved her community. All of these authentic passions, character traits and beliefs gave Susan and I a platform from which to design her personal brand strategy and create the next chapter in her personal and professional life. We designed a reputation management strategy and tactical plan that Susan found easier than expected to implement because it was based on authenticity. For once, Susan could be herself, and that was exciting to her!
Authenticity Isn’t Easy
Being who you genuinely are (verses how you have been scripted to be) is actually easier than living a life of pretending. That said, uncovering what makes you authentic is not easy. Most people who live and work inauthentically find the stress and inconvenience almost unbearable over time.
To uncover your authentic self, here are some helpful tips:
• Reflect on your passions. What do you enjoy doing? What do you love to talk about? What makes your heart race with excitement as you reflect on it?
• When do you feel “inauthentic”? When do you find yourself not acting like yourself, going through the motions, trying to be someone else? Is there a pattern to this behavior?
• Who do you enjoy being with? Adults? Children? Creative types or more analytical people? When do you feel most “like you?”
• What feedback is most positive? When you reflect on feedback you’ve received, what makes you happiest? Is it a comment like, “You’re always on time”? Or, “You have such respect for our company protocol – showing up on time shows us you care about the company”? Look for other examples of times you have shared this same behavior – did you get similarly positive feedback?
• Design your legacy? At the end of your life, when those left behind reflect on your contribution to your community, company, team and society, what do you want them to say was your legacy? What difference did you make? Did you live authentically and let people know what you value and believe?
Personal branding needs authenticity
Authenticity requires great introspection and humility. No one is perfect – we are all flawed. We also cannot turn the clock back and un-do mistakes (or inauthentic behaviors) from the past. In order to build a strong and effective personal brand, authenticity is critical.
We can, however, move forward and make changes RIGHT NOW to live more authentically. Focus on being genuine. Stop listening to the scripts of what you should do/believe/want/love/think, and listen to that quiet voice in your heart that knows what is right for you, above all.