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Recently Adam Grant wrote an article “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.” We analyze how Adam Grant and Brené Brown regard authenticity, and the role it plays in our everyday lives.

Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the also the author of two #1 New York Times Bestsellers: “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World” and “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.”

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.  She is also the author of three #1 New York Times Bestsellers: “Rising Strong,” “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead,” and “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.”

Articles referred in this episode:

Adam Grant: “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.

Brené Brown: “My Response to the Adam Grant’s New York Times Op-ed: Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.”

00:00 Welcome to Steal The Show with Michael Port. This is Michael. And I’m gonna try something different today. There was a bit of a dust up online this weekend between two great thinkers and it was all about authenticity. All about authenticity. And in Steal The Show, the book, I wrote a length about authenticity and how it applies to public speaking and certainly all aspects of life. And Adam Grant, who is one of the most likeable people you’ll ever meet, he also blurbed Steal The Show in full disclosure, ok and he’s a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World. An article by him was published in the New York Times on June 4th, 2016 just this past weekend. And the title of the article is, “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.” And since it’s Adam Grant and it was in the New York Times, it got a lot of attention. And he referenced Brene Brown and a quote that she is known for based on the work that she does.

01:28 And Brene Brown, if you’re not familiar with her, is another wonderful, wonderful woman, incredible thinker, significant researcher and a very accomplished author and speaker. She wrote a response to his article and the response was published in LinkedIn, at least that’s where I saw it on June 5th, 2016 and the title of it is “My Response to the Adam Grant’s New York Times Op-ed: Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.” I’ll link to both of these articles in the show notes so you can see them but they’re really interesting. And when I say I’m gonna do something different today, I’m gonna read the articles to you and then we’ll discuss them. Of course unfortunately, only I can discuss them you can’t in this particular context but certainly you can share them around, share the podcast around and offer your thoughts and your opinions as well and if you have any questions or comments you can always e-mail me at or find me on So here we go.

02:47 And just to mention, I’m not gonna read from my book. I’m just gonna discuss what these folks are writing about. If you’re interested in reading Steal The Show, go ahead pick up a copy and you’ll see my analysis of this concept of authenticity but let’s leave it to Adam and Brene for today. So Adam starts off his article as follows: It was going to be the biggest presentation of my life, my first appearance on the TED conference main stage and I had already thrown out seven drafts. Searching for a new direction, I asked colleagues and friends for suggestions. The most important thing the first one said is to be yourself, the next six people I asked gave me the same tip. We are in Age of Authenticity,” and he capitalizes age and authenticity. Where ‘be yourself’ is the defining advice in love, life and career.

03:47 Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world. As Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston defines it, authenticity is, “The choice to let our true selves be seen.” We wanna live authentic lives, marry authentic partners, work for an authentic boss, vote for an authentic president. In the university commencement speeches, ‘be true to yourself’ is one of the most common themes behind ‘expand your horizons’ and just ahead of ‘never give up.’ “I certainly had no idea that being your authentic self could get you as rich as I have become.” Oprah Winfrey said jokingly a few years ago. “If I’ve known that, I’d have tried it a lot earlier.” And those are all in quotes. But for most people, ‘be yourself’ is actually terrible advice. Again, remember this is Adam’s article, this is not me. If I can be authentic for a moment… And this is Adam’s article not me, 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.

04:57 A decade ago the author AJ Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s five-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how he’s experiment worked out. “Deceit make are world go round,” he concluded, “Without lies marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.” How much you aim for authenticity depends on a personality trait called ‘self-monitoring.’ If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly. You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone. But if you’re a low self-monitor, you’re guided more by your inner states regardless of your circumstances. 

06:01 Michael Port: In one fascinating study, then he links to this study, when a steak landed on their plates, high self-monitors tested it before pouring salt, whereas, low self-monitors salted it first. As the psychologist Brian Little explains, “It’s as though low-self monitors know their salt personalities very well.” Low self-monitors criticize high self-monitors as chameleons and phonies. They’re right that there’s a time and place for authenticity. Some preliminary research suggests that low self-monitors tend to have happier marriages and lower odds of divorce. With your romantic partner being authentic it might lead to a more genuine connection unless your name is AJ Jacobs. But in the rest of our lives we pay a price for being too authentic.

06:50 High self-monitors advance faster and earn higher status. In part, because they’re more concerned about their reputations. And while that would seem to reward self-promoting frauds, these high self-monitors spend more time finding out what others need and helping them. In a comprehensive analysis of 136 studies of more than 23,000 employees, high self-monitors received significantly higher evaluations, and were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions. Interestingly, women are more likely to be low self-monitors than men. Perhaps because women face stronger cultural pressures to express their feelings. Sadly, that puts them at risk for being judged weak, or unprofessional.

07:31 When Cynthia Danaher was promoted to general manager of a group at Hewlett Packard, she announced to her 5,300 employees that the job was, “Scary,” and that, “I need your help.” She was authentic and her team lost confidence in her initially. Some researchers even suggest that low self-monitoring may have harmful effects on women’s progress. We’re little more than halfway through the article. But even high self-monitors can suffer from the belief in authenticity because it presupposes that there is a true self, a bedrock to our personalities that’s a combination of our convictions and abilities.

08:13 As the psychologist Carol Dweck has long shown, merely believing that there’s a fixed self can interfere with growth. Children who see abilities as fixed give up after failure. Managers who believe that talent is fixed fail to coach their employees. “As we strive to improve our game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass that helps us navigate choices and progress towards our goals.” Herminia excuse me, Herminia, yes, thank you, Ibarra a professor of organizational behavior at the Business School in INSEAD notes, “When we’re looking to change our game, a too rigid self-concept becomes an anchor that keeps us from sailing forth.”

09:00 And now I’ll just pause here for a second. Interestingly I quoted her in my book those two same quotes. Which is interesting because I think her work is getting more and more attention. And now back to the article.

09:15 If not our authentic selves, what should we be striving for? Decades ago, the literary critic Lionel Trilling gave us an answer that sounds very old fashioned to our authentic ears, sincerity. Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them, Trilling urged us to start with our outer selves. 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.

09:49 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. They were not authentic, but they were sincere. It made them more effective. The shift from authenticity to sincerity might be especially important for millennials. Most generational differences are vastly exaggerated. They’re driven primarily by age and maturity not birth cohort. But one robust finding is that younger generations tend to be less concerned about social approval. Authentic self-expression works beautifully until employers start to look at social media profiles.

10:39 As an extrovert, this again, remember this is still Adam. As an extrovert, I started my career terrified of public speaking so my authentic self wouldn’t have been giving a TED Talk in the first place. But being passionate about sharing knowledge, I spent the next decade learning to do what Dr. Little, the psychologist, calls acting out of character. I decided to be the person I claimed to be, one who is comfortable in the spotlight. It worked. Next time people say, “Just be yourself.” Stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head, they just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth. It’s a very interesting article that touches on a number of different concepts, and studies, and theories in a very short period of time. Sometimes when we are reading these kinds of articles, we thin slice the ideas very quickly based on the little tidbits we get from articles or studies and of course sometimes articles and studies are much more nuanced than that little tidbit gives us, so we wanna be careful in terms of how we analyze the studies that are referenced in short articles in various publications.

12:06 Now with that said, there are some things that are consistent here in Adam’s article with what I wrote in, Steal the Show. I think that we are often playing roles, and we play different roles depending on the situation that we’re in. But hopefully, the roles that we’re playing are sincere roles that we are telling the truth. We are standing in the service of others as we stand in the service of our own destiny that our personalities or character behaviors are not fixed. And that if we are too rigidly constrained by our idea of who we are and how we behave, then we may get stuck in a rut. We may only have one way of being. And as a result, not feel comfortable moving in and out of different groups, and trying things that heretofore seemed outside of our what I would call, “disclosive space,” the space that we see around ourselves as the one in which we’re comfortable.

13:28 And so I think that there’s some real… I think there’s some really significant advice in Adam’s column, or Adam’s article, rather, and in the work that he does for his students, and for us. So I think it’s worth reading, and I think it’s worth considering. And I think that just being yourself is an easy piece of advice to give to somebody when you don’t know what kind of advice to give them to actually help them do the thing that they want to do. And in public speaking, that is very true. So I’m gonna say, “I need some help with public speaking. I’m not sure what to do.” And the advice that they’re giving is, “Well, just be yourself.” I’m taking off my jacket, by the way. It’s getting hot. I’m getting all hot and bothered. And sometimes people don’t know what that means. Like what do I mean by myself? Like if I’m myself, does that mean I just pace around the stage or I just stand at one spot or just say whatever comes to my mind, and when we are presenting in front of people.

14:37 And again, Adam’s article starts with public speaking, and the need that he had to be a public speaker. When we are presenting in front of people, when we’re on stage or in front of a board room or a conference, table filled with colleagues, we are choosing how we wanna be seen, and then we act into that. We behave in the way that we want others to see us. And so hopefully, the choices that we’re making are sincere. But if we’re honest about it, if we’re authentic about it, we might recognize that we amplify the best parts of ourselves when we want to accomplish a goal. And we filter ourselves all day long. Because if we don’t filter ourselves, we rarely will get what we want. And most of us wanna go after what we want. So I think there’s some really interesting things to consider in there.

15:48 Now, Brene took issue with his characterization of her work. And she wanted to make sure that people understood her perspective on this. And she wrote a piece as I mentioned called, My Response To Adam Grant’s New York Times Op-ed. So I’m gonna read this. And this one is really… Actually, it’s not quite as long as the other one, so it will go more quickly. And here it is.

16:21 Let’s start here: I’ve met Adam Grant a couple of times when we were speaking at the same event. We have several mutual friends, he’s invited me to speak at Wharton, and I recently bought 20 copies of his book give and take for my team. I respect his work. I question, however, the reductionist nature of Grant’s conclusions on authenticity and the misrepresentation of my work. No matter how loud the world is getting, and how low the standards for debate and discourse are falling, I still believe that you can make your point, explain your work or beliefs, and even sell your books without misrepresenting, and diminishing other people’s work, manipulating language to fit your agenda, and leveraging stereotypes.

17:01 So you can tell that Brene was not happy with the article because what she’s saying in her opinion is that he’s suggesting that you can’t make your point, explain your work or beliefs or sell your books without misrepresenting and diminishing other people’s work or manipulating language to fit your agenda, and leveraging stereotypes. So she believes that that’s what he’s doing here that he’s leveraging stereotypes, he’s manipulating language to fit his agenda, and diminishing other people’s work. She’s upset, and that’s why this is starting to turn into a desktop online, which it can happen quite quickly in this day and age.

17:50 So the next section is called, “About authenticity.” We love buzz words and catchphrases until the split second that we don’t. Authenticity in italics, which is hers, is the perfect example. The first time I used the term was to describe a collection of behaviors that had emerged as important in my dissertation research, 2001. In the time that I’ve been studying and writing about authenticity, the word has become so overused that it is almost lost its meaning. It’s an eye roller. You can often chart the demise of a good word or phrase to the minute advertisers start using it to sell us everything from underwear to tortilla chips. And just a quick break here, that is so true. Okay, back to the article or her response, rather. Unfortunately, the problem that drove authenticity’s popularity in the culture, has not gone away. We are sick of the hustle and the “BEEP” and the faker. We are tired of trying to live up to impossible ideals and we’re no longer willing to orphan important parts of ourselves to achieve success.

19:00 Most of us will take messy and real over pretending and people-pleasing every time. The definition of authenticity that I use in my work,” again, this is Brene, just to be clear. “The Gift of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, those are two of her books, is long and nuanced. Grant pulled nine words out of context. Why? Because using the central part of my definition of authenticity, would have bankrupted his entire argument, that authenticity is the mindless spewing of whatever you’re thinking, regardless of how your words affect other people. In my research I found, that the core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable and to set boundaries. For all of us who try to put this definition into practice on a daily basis, I would argue that authenticity requires almost constant vigilance and awareness about the connections between our thoughts, emotions and behaviors.”

19:58 I’m gonna read that sentence again because I think it’s quite important for her response. “For all of us who try to put this definition into practice on a daily basis, I would argue that authenticity requires almost constant vigilance and awareness about the connections between our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. It also means staying mindful about our intentions. Real authenticity actually requires major self-monitoring and isn’t, as Grant proposes, the lack of self-monitoring. In fact, setting boundaries is, by definition, self-monitoring. It’s thinking about what you’re sharing, why you’re sharing it and with whom you should be sharing it. Many of the behaviors that Grant associates with authenticity don’t reflect the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable or to set boundaries. They actually reflect crude, negative gender stereotypes. Male authenticity is associated with being hurtful, arrogant, manipulative, overbearing and, in plain speak, an “BEEP”.”

20:58 “I know and work with many courageous, vulnerable and authentic male leaders and I’d use the word inspiring to describe them. Additionally, Grant had sketched out a highly gendered caricature of authentic women with selective links to articles about female leaders crying and not owning their power. I also know and work with many courageous, vulnerable, authentic female leaders and I’d use the same word to describe them, inspiring. What’s interesting is that the biggest shame trigger for men is, ‘Don’t be perceived as weak’. For women, shame is, ‘Do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat.’ Basically Grant is suggesting that rather than creating cultures that invite people to take off these gender straitjackets, we should keep hustling for our worth. No thanks. Hustling gets in the way of good work and we’ve got big problems to solve. We need braver, more authentic leaders. We need cultures that support the idea that vulnerability is courage and also the birthplace of trust, innovation, learning, risk taking and having tough conversations. ‘Don’t be yourself’ is terrible advice. Oh excuse me, ‘Don’t be yourself is terrible advice.'”

22:13 “Trying to weaponize authenticity feels gimmicky and opportunistic. Quoting my definition was a choice so is perverting it. Grant’s question is relevant but his conclusions and a presentation of those ideas lack both, authenticity and sincerity. As a researcher who has spent the past five years working with leaders all over the world, ranging from military leaders and Fortune 500 CEOs to creatives and entrepreneurs, I believe that buried under Grant’s faulty theorizing, is a profoundly important question.” And she puts this in italics. “If we really want more authenticity and vulnerability and we know that it leads to more creativity and innovation, then why do we continue to create organization and family cultures that punish people for showing up as their whole selves? And does a call for less authenticity move us away from our goals while propping up dehumanizing cultures?”

23:08 And her final sentence is, “I’d love to know what you think about these questions. It’s a discussion worth having.” And boy, is it a discussion worth having, it really is. And you can see she really wants to make sure that people understand what she is teaching, when she’s teaching authenticity and vulnerability. And she was disheartened by Adam’s article and some of the points that he made. And what’s wonderful about this is that it gives people an opportunity to question stereotypes, to question ideas that they have about themselves and about other people. And yet of course, at the same time, we don’t want our teachers fighting with each other, and I don’t think this is a fight necessarily but it’s gotten people riled up, which is what I think fighting does. So, from my perspective, I think they’re not actually that far apart from each other. I think that the way they have expressed their ideas is different and my assumption, and this is just my assumption, and my assumption may be based on bias because I know Adam’s work. I’ve only spoken with him a few times very briefly so we’re not friends, but what I know about him is that, or at least what I’ve read about his other work is, he would be very in line I think with a lot of Brene’s points here.

24:56 So now it’s your turn. Now you decide what authenticity means to you, what sincerity means to you, what self-monitoring means to you. So our teachers, and I suppose I would include myself in that category, we’re raising issues, we’re asking questions, we are bringing private conversations out into the public and we are all in our own way doing our best to be in service of others. I know Adam does that and I know that Brene does that. And instead of looking at it as either/or, or as an argument between this concept or that concept, or this person and that person, maybe we can think about it from the perspective of how can we be more comfortable in our own skin? How can we be more willing to be fully self-expressed and appreciate the opinions and perspectives of others without the need to make our perspective and opinions the most important and correct? I think that’s what I think is very interesting and I think about when it comes to this idea of being true to self.

26:27 You may have heard people say things like, “Well, I just have to speak my truth.” And sometimes, the part of that phrase ‘have to’ is very subjective. Sometimes we feel that we wanna speak our truth because it makes us feel good and we wanna make somebody else feel bad. Somebody asked me for some advice the other day whether or not they should tell somebody something about how they’re feeling, and I try not to just say, “Well, here’s what I think you should do,” so I asked a question. I said, “Well, what would be the point of it? Why do you want to do it?” And she paused and she gave me a very honest answer, she said, “Well, because I wanna make him feel bad.” So, my question of course was, “Is there anything else? Is it just that? Is there anything else?” She said, “Well, I really want him to know how much he’s hurt us.” And she was referring to her and somebody else. I said, “That seems perfectly fair to me.” I wonder however if saying it, expressing it just to make them feel bad or as a primary goal or even as a partial goal, if it’s worth saying it. If it is something that you need to say in order to make them feel bad.

28:12 If your truth is designed to make somebody else feel bad then do you need to be that authentic in that moment? Or, can you let it go so you can focus on what you want to create? And ultimately, I think Brene here is really bringing in a futuristic perspective. What she seems to be saying to me is, “Let’s try to create a world where people are honored for their individuality, where they’re honored for their ideas, where we break down these preconceived notions of what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman, and create cultures, familial cultures as well as corporate cultures that respect authenticity.” And sincerity is something that is honored and valued and that we develop our ability to monitor our feelings, that’s emotional intelligence; monitor how we interact with others, that’s social intelligence; and how we stand in the service of others as we stand in the service of our own destiny. This is my interpretation, and I think that maybe we can do that together, maybe we can move forward together and then we are not caught up as much in the definition of things, words, phrases, clichés, etcetera. Maybe we really just sit down and let go some of the ego and focus on being kinder and gentler and a little bit sweeter.

30:00 So that’s it for today. I hope you found this helpful and you can as I’ve said, find the links to these articles in the show notes, if you like what I’m doing here, you may also wanna read Steal The Show. You can get it anywhere books are sold, and please go ahead and take a moment to rate the show five stars, if you like it. And if you do, subscribe also so you can get the weekly episodes. Sometimes I do more than one a week, it sort of depends on how I feel, but I’ll do them sometimes individually like this and sometimes I’ll bring guests. So in the meantime, keep thinking big about who you are and about what you offer the world, I love you very much. Not in a weird way, not that there’s anything weird about it, well actually there could be some weird ways of looking at love. Anyhow. No, I do, I love you because you are a big thinker, you are somebody who cares about the world, who cares about other people in the world and is continuously improving and is honest about how you feel and what you want, and I think that’s pretty cool.

31:13 How do I know that? Because you wouldn’t be here with me at the end of this podcast if you weren’t one of those people, so to that end, we’ll see you next time. Bye for now.