It took me a while before I started calling myself an author.
I've been writing this column for almost two years, and have reached an audience well into the millions. I'm about to finish my first book (which I've ghost written for a New York Times best-selling author), and I'll be publishing my own book--with high hopes--in just a few months. (If you'd like to follow the launch, sign up here for free updates.)
But how about before all of this? Was I an author then?
My high school English teacher (a published author herself) said I had the chops to write for a living, but life took me down a different path. For the next 20 years, my writing consisted of lengthy thank-you notes and anniversary cards to friends and family, humorous top 10 lists for parties at work, and love letters to my girlfriend. (It worked--I'm happily married with two beautiful kids.)
Suddenly, unexpected life changes led to new opportunities, and I decided to pursue my passion. I found myself immersed in a totally new world, the key word being immersed--I frequently felt a drowning sensation, as I struggled to keep my head above water.
But in time, one success led to another. My client list grew. And eventually, I had more project offerings than time to complete them.
I had become an author. Or had I been one all along?
The case against "authenticity."
In a recent essay for The New York Times, Wharton professor of psychology Adam Grant writes about the "Age of Authenticity," when people "want to live authentic lives, marry authentic partners, work for an authentic boss, vote for an authentic president."
"But for most people," argues Grant, "'be yourself' is actually terrible advice."
Grant goes on to describe an intriguing personality trait known as "self-monitoring," which has to do with how much a person aims for authenticity.
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.
According to Grant, "low self-monitors criticize high self-monitors as chameleons and phonies." But although there's a right time and place for authenticity (like with a romantic partner), research shows that we often pay the price for being too authentic.
For example, Grant cites a comprehensive analysis of 136 studies of more than 23,000 employees in which high self-monitors "received significantly higher evaluations and were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions."
Does this mean that you have to be a self-promoting fraud to get ahead?
Not at all. Studies support the theory that high self-monitors dedicate more time to finding out what others truly need, so they can be more helpful.
But if we needn't bear our whole authentic selves, then what should we be pursuing?
Grant credits literary critic Lionel Trilling with the answer: Sincerity.
"Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others," says Grant, "and then strive to be the people we claim to be. Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in."
For example, consider research by Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at the business school Insead (quoting Grant's essay):
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.
"Fake it till you become it. Do it enough until you actually become it and internalize."
Don't get me wrong: I'm not encouraging you to hide your true self. In contrast, I believe best practice is to slowly reveal yourself--making sure to do so at the right time and place. This helps people get to know the real you--without them rushing to judgment.
Meanwhile, figure out who you want to be. Then, work hard to become that person.
Putting it into practice.
Deep down, I always considered myself a writer. It just took time before others considered me one, too.
So, the next time someone asks, "What do you do?" or "What's your profession?" answer the question in terms of "What do you want to do?" or "Who do you want to be?"
Be sincere. Then, work hard to deliver on your words.
Because remember: What we think, we become.