Authenticity > Perfection
“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
I read to my kids every night, and Dr. Seuss always offers some of the best advice. As a parent, I spend a good chunk of time regurgitating the lines “just be yourself!” and “don’t follow the crowd.” They just tumble out, these little nuggets of wisdom. It’s such a simple idea that it can be hard to take seriously; my kids probably think: “Duh. Who else would I be?”
Children can instantly tell when someone is fake. They have an innate sense of who is trustworthy, and their intuition is almost always spot on. Young children haven’t yet learned to pretend to be something other than themselves. It’s hard to fool a child—even if they can’t quite put it into words, they know when a person is a phony.
As we grow up, we learn how to behave in more socially acceptable ways. We can’t throw tantrums in the store, or yell at our parents, or blame our behavior on not having a nap (not without consequences, anyway). We learn accountability—but sometimes we also learn to hide our flaws. You don’t get permission to fall to the floor crying, but maybe it’s time to revisit the time before you learned to mask your imperfections.
Left on their own, young children will naturally pursue what interests them. They draw because they enjoy it. They throw a ball because it’s fun. They eat cookies because they taste good. They don’t do these things because they want their friends to like them, to be accepted by coworkers, for “likes” on social media or to improve society’s opinion of them. They are always authentically themselves—good, bad and ugly.
Maturing into adulthood brings a whole set of challenges and responsibilities. This new chapter often means sacrificing our passions for obligations, molding ourselves into what we think we’re supposed to be. Wrangling your wants and prioritizing your needs isn’t a bad thing, but it can leave you unfulfilled. Giving up your dreams for a steady paycheck might be the responsible move—but is it the right one? This is where authenticity becomes key. Your bank account may be growing, but if it leaves you feeling emotionally wilted, it could be time to take a deeper look.
Authenticity and transparency are two buzzwords in this world of social media and all-things-internet. We banter them about so much we hardly register the actual meaning behind them. We agree they are vital to both companies and individuals,—but what does it even mean to be authentic? It’s more than an influencer posting pictures without makeup. It isn’t just admitting we screwed up. It’s more complicated than dispatching a press release with a lukewarm apology.
In this digital world, it’s become easier than ever to showcase “perfection.” We can manipulate words and images, we can pretend life is always beautiful. But as appealing as it is to the eye, in the end it’s a skewed perception—and dangerous too. We’ve cultivated such high standards online that real life can barely compete. Those carefully chosen images of vacations, families and parties only show a snippet of a bigger event. Chances are it was one instant of perfection surrounded by chaos. The problem isn’t the image, it’s the mindset of creator and consumer. “Authenticity” can be pleasing, but it’s important to remember it’s a curated moment.
You are never going to be your most authentic self on social media. Even if you give it effort, the platform reduces you to a photo, video clip or clever hashtag. It doesn’t replace real life. A post celebrating my new job failed to show the nervousness I felt on my first day. It didn’t speak of the sleepless nights or the stressful mornings. I don’t share the tears I’ve shed when my work was critiqued or when a project I poured over for weeks was scrapped. It’s tough to convey the pressure with a picture of my coffee. One picture may be worth 1,000 words, but those words can be easily misinterpreted.
How do we escape the Instagram feed and cultivate authenticity? To become—and remain—authentic, we have to figure out our values, needs and goals. We have to choose to be authentic every day, even in the face of the pressure to appear perfect. We have to be willing to lay our cards out for everyone to see. We must embrace the flaws that make us human, that make us, well, us. You can grow and change, but you will never be perfect, and those individual quirks are what make you unique.
Authenticity goes deeper than we’re usually comfortable with. It means to understand and accept our flaws, our emotions, our shortcomings, our mistakes—and to be OK with them. It doesn’t mean we can’t work on those things, only that we acknowledge them. We don’t like to make ourselves vulnerable, but we have to risk it to be truly authentic. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always worth it.
I started down one career path because I felt it was safe; it offered stability and a decent wage. I wasn’t excited by the job itself, but if it paid the bills on time, I was in. I suffered through an entire semester of classes unhappy, stressed, exhausted and drained. I felt like a robot, simply going through the motions. I practically burst into tears every morning, filled with dread at the thought of going to class.
I finally realized these feelings weren’t healthy. After serious soul-searching, I figured out I had to quit. At first, I felt ashamed. But, I knew, deep down, the suffering wasn’t worth it. That honesty was necessary and, thankfully, it led me to something I loved. I had to admit that, while passion may not important to everyone in their career, for me, it was vital.
Once I was truthful, my authentic self couldn’t turn back. Tough decisions became easier because I learned to listen to myself. The hardest step was quelling the part of me that had been conditioned over the years. I had ignored the inner voice that told me I would hate that career. Instead of paying attention to my authentic feelings, I rejected them and was miserable because of it. Quitting wasn’t easy, but it was the right choice. I’d rather do what I love, even if it never leads to a big paycheck, than play pretend.
Authenticity may leave us more vulnerable and exposed, but it will also leave us happier. To live your life without the pressure to be perfect, means you can breathe, relax and enjoy it. My real life is not as stylish as my digital one—it’s messier, more complicated and stressful, but it’s infinitely more satisfying. Authenticity taught me it’s OK to admit defeat; to listen to my own wants and needs and to trust in my instincts.
Being transparent about our strengths, and weaknesses, is vital to success. You have to be honest about your flaws in order to improve. Authenticity allows you to embrace both your talents and your faults. There’s no shame in working on ourselves- whether it’s a trait like showing up on time, or being more empathetic, or to stop procrastinating. The issue isn’t in growing as a person, rather it’s in the journey to become that person. Or, more accurately, in hiding that journey. To be authentic, we need to be at peace with our flawed selves, even as we work to improve.
Authenticity requires vulnerability, but not naivety. We can be authentic and honest about ourselves without exploitation. To accept that we aren’t perfect can leave us open to criticism from others—some will be constructive and some will be cruel, but don’t let others use that openness to undermine your goals. Vulnerability can be scary, but you can’t be afraid to show your true self and accept imperfection.
To be really and truly authentic, we must put in effort—not in taking a pretty picture or writing a clever caption, but in refraining from those temptations. It takes effort to be present in your life and not just represent it. You must be willing to put down the phone and pay attention. Authenticity isn’t a filter, it’s a way of thinking. You can’t, and won’t, be completely authentic on social media or online. Authenticity is for your real life. You’re not doing it for the ‘gram.
Heather lives in Jacksonville, FL, where she graduated with a degree in Converged Communication. She currently bartends to pay the bills, while looking for a new career in public relations. An avid sports fan, makeup hoarder, and mom of two, she survives on strong coffee and inappropriate humor. On days off you can find her dragging her kids on an adventure around town, checking out a new bar with friends, or simply wandering the aisles of Target.