To Thine Own Self Be True: The Paradox of Authenticity

Pete Weishaupt
3 min readApr 16, 2022

The way we think about authenticity poses a real danger to our capacity to grow and learn according to professor Herminia Ibarra of the London Business School. She teaches and researches on those “what got you here won’t get you there” moments. These are the moments when whatever made you successful in the past won’t make you successful going forward. And whatever made you successful in the past may even get in the way of your future success. What’s tricky about the transition is not that the new skills required are difficult to learn, it’s that they’ve often become core to our identity. Not sticking with them makes us feel inauthentic.

People spend a lot of time and money on trying to be authentic. There are millions of books and workshops you can choose from on how to be yourself. But first we need to look at the ways we define authenticity.

The most common way we define authenticity is “being true to yourself.” But which version of yourself? The past self, present self, or your future self? Don’t let being authentic leave you as you’ve always been. Being true to your aspirational self is often what’s meant by “fake it till you make it”.

A second way to define authenticity is by being sincere. Say what you mean, mean what you say. And the word sincere has its roots in the Latin, sin cera. In ancient Rome it was common practice for merchants to hide the flaws in statues with wax. Those merchants who didn’t want to be dishonest hung a sign outside their shops which read Sin Cera; sculpture without wax.

A third definition is being true to your values. And this is what Professor Hermania calls the “authenticity paradox”. It is the quintessential “what got you here won’t get you there” moment. You face a trade-off between doing what it takes to be effective or being yourself. Do you define yourself in terms of the skills and competencies and values that got you where you are, or do you want to move up, be more successful, and have more impact? You fear the transition will require you to sacrifice your integrity and values.

You face a version of yourself at your most conservative and most cautious; which is neither authentic nor accomplishing what you want to accomplish. But you cling to this version. You feel morally justified in staying “authentic”. You’ve arrived at the Authenticity Paradox. And you can’t reflect your way out of it. You have to act yourself into a new way of thinking about yourself.