The useful authentic self vs the real life

What is our unique offering? How can we be both ourselves and competitive in the modern environment? The key is authenticity, but a well-orchestrated one. Basically we develop a winning skillset and then own it. That’s a very human quality. More reading  here, here, here, and here.

Why should we be authentic?

Anna often tells me that people envy me because I can simply be myself. I do not really care what other people think and do what I think needs to be done. This is a very free, liberal, joyful and funny way of life. I definitely have a lot of self-humor and most of my friends are naturally amused.

Does authenticity make me competitive? Quite possibly. I do not spend energy on unnecessary show or shyness, and can focus entirely on being creative and productive. And while I am not a marketing genius (It’s not who I am), I know people who diverted their authenticity to very effective marketing.

Was I born this way? Hell no!

Shaping the identity

As knowledge workers we take our time to develop much more than any other creature. By the time I could provide for myself (25), finished  PhD (27) and found my mate (30), a more primitive human being would be a grandparent facing the last years of his life.

During the 30 years we take to form our identity, we change A LOT. As children we acquire the basic skills – not just walking and talking, but also social skills. Then we get our share amount of science. And next we need to choose the thing that identifies us for the rest of our life: our first degree. Do not be fooled. An engineer will stay an engineer for life, no matter what he does for the rest of his life.

Our first job and our second degree determine the trajectory our life will take. Some build expertise, others invest in leadership skills, and yet more invest in hobbies and personal life. In this personal life we find another face of who we are – not a seen by the world but in our intimate privacy.

All teenagers are awkward

To be honest, it is normal to accept yourself only after being accepted and qualified by everybody else: teachers, spouses, friends  and employers. Each give us their evaluation of our identity with scores for our intellect, discipline, behavior, looks, special skills and achievements. Only looking  at the aggregate of these scores some of us can tell: “Oh, that’s me! I do not care about the rest!”.

Models are beautiful, engineers are smart, leaders are socially adapt. A person can have any combination of skills, and feel very ridiculous with his skills. Especially if our skillset does not conform with what the environment expects us to be.

I am not a macho, I love comfort and I do not dress very elegantly. It does not really matter for my existence. But when I was 15 years old, it was a very big issue. My family was poor, and I got scholarship in prestigious schools. I was ridiculed by my peers and constantly ashamed of how I looked and talked. I was basically forced to be an introvert.

Today I am more of an ambivert: I choose my level of introversion. And I try not to go to social events, where I feel maladapted.

Reshaping the identity

Our authentic identity as we perceive it in our 30s does not remain. We change, learn new tricks or forget the old ones, acquire new challenges or successfully conquer past scourges.

What are the most common identity changes I witnessed?

  1. Transition from being an expert to being a leader (or wise-versa).
  2. Finding more meaning in home and family than in work. Not just for mothers, but also for men obsessed with career growth. It eventually looks meaningless.
  3. Developing or losing an overwhelming hobby that defines us more than anything else. It is hard to be athlete above 40 years old, and it is easier to meditate or create arts after 40.
  4. Dealing with ups and downs of how our body is perceived. Geeks invest in sports, models in cooking. Roles may change.

Those things are superficial. But they are accompanied by deep psychological changes. The levels of confidence, openness, and optimism fluctuate. Introverts may learn to perform for a public. Neurotic people acquire rituals that calm them down. Anxious people step out of their comfort zone and enjoy what they find.

Unique identity

People tend to define something that is uniquely their in any age, if ever. Some wonderkids discover their biggest talent before the elementary school. Athletes and leaders start to shine in their teens. Experts outperform in their 20s. Artists and storytellers can start shining in any age, often after retirement from the main job. It is not rare to discover your calling after you stop looking for it.

I used to be a good student when I was young, but I never was exceptionally good. Anna taught me speedreading and memory techniques when I was 35. It took me another 10 years to understand that accelerated learning is my unique skill, the thing I do better than everybody else.

While I tried to find my unique advantage in other areas, somehow it did not hold. I had a feeling of “almost there, but not quite yet”.

Discovery or shaping your uniqueness

There are some pieces of advice that usually hold:

  1. Learn as much as you can, and not just in your area of expertise.
  2. Step out of your comfort zone often enough to experience new things but not sufficiently often to lose grounding.
  3. Be active. Activity has its merits beyond everything it allows to achieve. And yet have sufficient rest and sleep.
  4. Stick with strange and passionate people. They are most likely to bring you some crazy ideas to explore.
  5. Do not fear to make fun of yourself.

Not being ashamed of who you are even when you have every reason to be ashamed is a superskill everyone can acquire. It is about reframing.

Own it and reframe it

When we are teenagers we are awkward about who we are. Why cannot we look like everybody else? I was very good in weightlifting and very very bad in running. My body made not sense to me. Why cannot we talk like others? I have a strange voice pitch and a strong accent in every language, maybe because I am comfortable with multiple languages. Why people make fun of my origins? I was born is a small Ukrainian town, with certain very strong heritage and tradition. When I meet others from my town we have an instant connection, others are often jealous of.

Then I met people who actually loved me for being different. I learn how to leverage what made me special, and appreciate it. I also met people who were better than I was in each specific area, and I learned to appreciate them. Suddenly being different was not something to hide, but something to celebrate.

The people who are very special eventually annoy. I started to see how each advantage can also work against its owner, and annoy everybody else. Something that looked very shiny and lucrative was often reframed as high-maintenance and useless.

So basically every quality can be both good and bad, as defined by the context and as we choose to reframe it…. Than, why not simply be free?

Our most natural behavior is well-rehearsed

Being authentic and free is very good, after we learned how to handle ourselves. Consider horse riding. It takes a couple of years to master the proper way to handle your body and connect with the animal in different gaits. Then the skills are effortless, and we use them freely. Unless we need to acquire a higher level of control in each skill, and then it is learning time.

In the same way we acquire our professional habits and social skills. Initially they are nothing but very deliberate and repeatedly tested. But then we do the right thing without even thinking about it. And we can do whatever we want without really messing up – because we know how to handle all the nuances.

In a way authenticity is a result of long-term learning and very complex practice. Because otherwise, it would fail.

Be useful or be yourself

For most of us, most of our adult life being useful and being ourselves should be pretty much the same. We leverage our experience and reframe the things that make us unique, until we get the utmost return on investment.

When does it stop working?

  1. Immigration. A huge professional and social change, when being yourself is not good enough and you actually need to reinvent yourself.
  2. Professional crisis, Like being overqualified or underqualified for the job you want. Either apply for a different job, or change yourself, or both.
  3. Dramatic personal change. A car accident or a divorce. Suddenly your personal status is different, and you need to redefine your identity.
  4. A shift in the society. Should be pretty big and sudden, like the fall of communism or COVID19. Suddenly everybody in the society needs to redefine the identity.

When being yourself you are not useful, I suggest going for the useful. Then work on your personal skills until your authentic self corresponds to the thing that work.

Be true to yourself

Do not change your identity arbitrarily because your new friends like a certain kind of people. An identity is something that with you all the time. Acquiring a new identity is a big thing and it has effects on all areas of lives. This is not something to fake for a small crowd of connoisseurs. If you appear to be faking, unreasonable and unrealistic, they will turn away despite all of your efforts.

Be true to yourself, and if you decide to change accept the change radically as a permanent new feature. At the same time, try to change gradually. People often take the change too drastically and generate unbalanced persona. At least ensure you have compassion for your past and future self. Otherwise you may lose openness and become spiteful. This is not a useful identity and somehow it is incomplete and not very authentic.

Ethical and esthetical criteria

If you are authentic, some people will love your identity and some people will ridicule it. A useful identity is positive and beautiful in some ways. You should love the person you are, at least at the level of wanting to preserve the identity. When you cannot reframe the situation to love yourself, maybe it is better to change. The change is not that hard: simply look around for a mediocre role model and learn the things that bridge the gap. Do not take a very successful role model, because the gap might be too large.

Learning solves almost every gap if your goals are smart and well-defined.


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