The philosopher Bernard Williams defines authenticity as “the idea that some things are in some sense really you, or express what you are, and others aren’t.” This concept can also be encapsulated by the phrase, “to thine own self be true”, spoken by the character Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Authenticity means realising and manifesting your true nature, which is distinct from external pressures, forces, and influences in society that shift you towards certain styles of being and acting that you come to believe you should adhere to.
There are numerous reasons why someone may be afflicted by a gnawing or crushing sense of meaninglessness in life, but one crucial influencing factor is inauthenticity. When you start thinking, speaking, acting, living, and planning on other people’s terms and expectations, you give up your innate hunger for harmony and self-realisation. On the other hand, when you actively strive for self-concordance and sincerity, everything suddenly becomes imbued with meaning. It’s as if the puzzle pieces fall into place. Authenticity is a nourishing experience, leaving you with contentment, peace of mind, and the illuminating realisation that this is how things are meant to be.
Researchers from the University of Missouri found that the more people expressed their characteristics in a social setting, the more meaning they reported in their lives. Those who are more self-connected are better able to extract meaning from life experiences, it seems.
Our career path is one of the major ways that we confront obstacles in our pursuit of an authentic life. Indeed, when you do a job that significantly misaligns with your personality, values, interests, and goals, then your waking days become stultifying and unfulfilling on a very deep level. You cannot really put a price on authenticity. For many people, the cost of ‘selling out’ or ‘selling your soul’ is too heavy a burden.
Notice Your Authentic Voice (and Really Listen to It)
Each one of us has an authentic voice that resides in our minds. It’s that intuitive aspect of ourselves that knows what is best for us and what will allow us to thrive. Unfortunately, this voice of wisdom can become muted, silenced or overshadowed by the incessant stream of chatter in our heads. This chatter is comprised of other voices that are influenced by the outside world.
We all struggle, on some level, with an inner critic that judges what we do. This harsh, inner coach is borne out of the judgements that authority figures direct at us when we’re growing up. During our development, a self-image develops, and it becomes reinforced and ingrained by our critical inner voice. We carry around this voice like some sort of snide and mean commentator.
You can learn to silence this inner critic, however, and allow your authentic voice to jump up on the podium to speak its truth. Listen to this voice. Once you do, you may realise that your decisions are completely at odds with your authentic voice. Obviously, we’re not all lucky and privileged enough to exclusively do work that bears some relevance to our values, interests, and ambitions. A soul-crushing career can sometimes be a necessary burden.
This is why it’s important to make sensible and well thought out plans, basing your decisions on a realistic assessment of your personal finances and circumstances. If you know, for example, that you want to travel the world or pursue a path in academia (studying a subject that you genuinely view as a worthwhile endeavour), then find space and time in each day in which to lay down a stepping stone – however small it may be – in order to edge you closer to your target.
You want to be authentic in your career path, but you also want to be able to sustain the trajectory that you’re on.
Be Mindful of Other People’s Advice
It can be hard to ignore or reject the advice from close friends or loved ones, especially when the advice they give is based on a caring attitude and good intentions. However, this intention to help does not automatically mean that the advice in question delineates the best course of action.
Be mindful of which comments find agreement with your authentic voice and which ones don’t. Of course, your parents may have accumulated a wealth of life experiences, want the best for you, and understand what you’re like as a person – but this doesn’t necessarily mean their advice is authoritative.
When people jump on the opportunity to offer advice, rather than ask questions and listen, they may be projecting a value system or expectation that they apply to their own life. Of course, this is something which is influenced by wider societal attitudes.
If someone just wants to give their opinion on what you should do, this could also be because they feel insecure about the life decisions they’re making. Furthermore, there can definitely be an element of ego-boosting in playing the role of adviser and believing that everyone should follow the path that you’re on.
Conversely, some words of advice are trustworthy and should be heeded. You may come into contact with highly talented people who are doing exactly what you want to be doing. These people may inspire you to achieve your goals. Friends and family can also motivate you to live authentically. Pay special attention to whether the advice from others is in your best interest and make up your own mind. As the lecturer Terence McKenna said: “If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody else’s plan.”
An authentic plan distances itself from outside pressure, as well as the pitfalls of both limiting self-belief and self-aggrandizement. When you devise your own plan and follow it, this evokes a trusting, inner nod of agreement, saturating your life with the meaning that you crave.