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Field Notes #083: The Cult of Authenticity

Field Notes #083 - The Cult of Authenticity

Before I come off as a cynic advising you to be an inauthentic sociopath, let me give the precautionary caveat. I think authenticity is good. I like authentic people. The opposite, inauthenticity and fakeness, doesn’t feel good. 

Now, I’ll explain why many people are using the word incorrectly, why it has become meaningless and vague, and why sometimes it’s better to exert higher levels of self-monitoring instead of “being your authentic self.” 

What authenticity actually means

The actual definition of “authentic” makes a lot of sense. It boils down to aligning our actions with our values. 

How we use it colloquially, however, seems to be a catchall that means “empathetic,” “helpful,” “vulnerable,” “your true self” (which is a very slippery topic if you’re into Buddhism) or “human” (whatever that means).

Even psychologists can’t agree what it means to be authentic. For example, “Authenticity is acting in accordance with one’s true self.” Okay, what’s your “true self?” Is it the same when you’re with friends drinking cocktails as it is with your parents as it is when you’re skydiving as it is when you’re meditating? 

It’s a classic suitcase word. 

So my first argument is very simple: when a word loses precision, it loses its utility. 

That’s why I don’t like seeing it in content or marketing messaging. 

Jordan Teicher wrote a great piece explaining why they banned the word from The Content Strategist:

‘During my three years at Contently, I’ve noticed more writers and PR contacts relying on the A-word as a crutch in pitches and articles, normally as a way to explain why some campaign was successful. It’s such a vague word that could be replaced by more substantive alternatives like “genuine,” “honest,” or “self-aware.”’

So the first piece of advice I have, the suggestion I’ve given every time I’ve edited a piece of content: be more specific. If you’re thinking about using “authentic” in a marketing tagline, probably use something else. 

Buzzwords, but one layer deeper

The goal of a marketing campaign is to be effective. If writing authentically helps you get there, it’s a good use of authenticity. 

It’s like something I often say about AI in marketing. People ask, “was this created using AI?” Wrong question. The right question is, “is this good?” 

So I’ll warrant that even talking about authenticity in this essay is somewhat of an opportunity cost, because we could be talking about effective ways to build SEO programs, authentic or not. But it’s my newsletter, so I get to choose my weekly hobby horse 🙂 

Jason Cohen, founder and Chief Innovation Officer at WP Engine, wrote a list of phrases and words to avoid in marketing messaging:

“Oh I know 21% of you stopped reading as soon as you saw that “authentic” made the list, and shot over to Twitter to unleash a scathing missive explaining how “authenticity” is the prime mover of modern marketing, honorable salesmanship, and meaningful relationships.

I agree! In fact all these words and phrases should theoretically carry meaning, but theory is for people who don’t need to sell $2,600 more software by next Friday so they can make rent.”

Jordan Teicher talked about this in The Content Strategist article I linked above: 

“To me, the mistake conflates identity with quality. It assumes that a pizzeria’s appeal comes down to some imprecise superiority rather than, say, talented chefs, unique recipes, and fresh ingredients. This kind of thinking obscures the good qualities and differentiators that brands should actually emphasize. The more they push for authenticity, across all industries, the less the word means.”

The point being, let’s stop conflating authenticity with quality, and instead start trying to deconstruct what “quality” means so we can focus on that. 

You probably don’t actually want authenticity most of the time

“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.” – Adam Grant, NY Times 

Let me be honest (authentic?) with you: I dislike using LinkedIn. 

I’ve expressed this to people, and they tell me, “you’re overthinking it! You just have to be authentic, be yourself.” 

But the truth is, if I were truly authentic on LinkedIn, this is what I would write:

“I don’t want to be here. 

It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing about my ideas on experimentation, growth, SEO, or decision theory. I do. You can read them in my newsletter. 

There’s something inarticulable about LinkedIn that I find repulsive. Every time I open the platform to type a post, I have the urge to plug my nose. I don’t want to write in single sentence paragraphs. I don’t want to write a “hook.” This isn’t me. I’m dumbing things down to get attention, and it makes me feel dishonest, but it’s the best way to get results on this platform. 

In fact, as I scroll through my feed, at least 50% of y’all’s posts make me cringe. It’s like we’re at a quiet cocktail party and you, for some reason, decided to bring a microphone and speak through it not only authoritatively but moralistically and far too declaratively. Why are you preaching to me?!

So, I don’t want to be here. I’d rather be rock climbing or writing a good old fashioned blog post. 

But please hire my agency. We exist and we’re awesome. Don’t forget about us. We do organic growth. Hire us.”

My authenticity is probably not going to bring me the business outcomes I actually want, which would be counterproductive to my own values, goals, and happiness. I’m also not helping anyone else with my uninhibited rants.

So now we come to the troubling conclusion of a lot of research: being too authentic can get in the way of your own goals (as well as hurt other people). 

The Atlantic has written endlessly about authenticity, tying its cultural rise to self-centered narcissism, praising its “realness” in television, and meditating on the illusion of authenticity

But my favorite essay was a recent one from Arthur C. Brooks titled “Why a Bit of Restraint Can Do You a Lot of Good.” 

In it, he cites studies showing higher authenticity (and lower self-monitoring) are tied to lower happiness, but also “criminal offending, academic fraud, binge drinking, drunk dialing, public profanity, and (weirdly) public flatulence.” 

Funny enough, Scientific American wrote “research has shown that people feel most authentic when they conform to a particular set of socially approved qualities, such as being extroverted, emotionally stable, conscientious, intellectual and agreeable.”

Adam Grant refenced a rigorous analysis of 136 studies showing “authentic people receive significantly lower performance evaluations and are significantly less likely to get promoted into leadership roles.”

I realize “authenticity” is a murky term and therefore probably difficult to study, but those outcomes look…non-optimal? 

It’s okay to be pragmatic

I respect Erica Schneider’s approach to LinkedIn. She recently wrote a post that explained her success on the platform was not due to any outcome-focused activity, but rather the intrinsic joy and fun she experiences writing on the platform. 

I feel like I’ve already expressed quite fully how I feel about using LinkedIn above. But I liked this comment:

Here’s the thing: I think that’s fine. Honestly, it convinced me to start using LinkedIn again. It took the pressure away. 

This slight reframe made all the difference. Instead of seeking self-expression and joy, I now focus on a) being useful / helpful to readers and b) tying it back to my own business goals. 

Ahhh now we’re getting somewhere!

I don’t think you need to honestly and authentically express your deepest values and emotions through a bottom of the funnel SEO listicle. I think you can just write it because it generates positive business ROI. You don’t have to showcase your superior intelligence or creativity; you can just be useful to the reader. 

Ryan Law told me in a recent Long Game podcast that he uses LinkedIn this way:

“And I realized that I only use social media in a very cynical, performative way. And I think I’m okay with that. It is a marketing tool for me. I don’t tend to share stuff about myself and my personal life. And maybe that slightly ruins the experience. Maybe that I could be getting more out of those platforms if I did. I’m just not interested in that. I keep those two sides of my life very separate and I just, I’m okay using those channels as a marketing thing.”

I like that. That, paradoxically, makes me feel better about using LinkedIn. It’s less pressure if I know I don’t need to feel fulfilled or happy or authentic at all times during the process! 

What to aim for instead of authenticity

I realize that the topic of this essay can bleed into quite existential territory. What does it mean to be truly authentic? What is the “self?” Is there a stable sense of “self?”

As much as I like to talk about those things (and you can email me if you want to geek out on those themes), I’d like to be inauthentic for a second and give you a few actionable takeaways:

  • Be more specific. Words like “authentic,” “human,” “transform” etc. are crutches in copywriting we use when we haven’t drilled down to the essence of what we mean. 
  • Consider the externalities of your authenticity. Expressing your true self may have very real and negative consequences for others. Is that worth it? Studies show people paradoxically feel more “authentic” when they exhibit prosocial behaviors. Maybe that trumps unbridled expression?
  • It’s okay to be pragmatic. If using LinkedIn gets you business, you can use it, and you don’t need to get purpose, fulfillment, or joy from it. Same with an SEO listicle. You can just write a simple headline “The best X software” and move on. 
  • Prioritize a growth mindset. My co-founder Allie took a bunch of improv classes despite being an introvert. Sometimes, authenticity can be a fallback used to justify stasis, when exploring something beyond what you believe about your true self could promote growth. Deep, right?

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Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.