An Ode to Authenticity

I know things come in waves. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, “In the future, every notion, buzzword, fad, ploy, and marketing trend will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” What troubles me, though, is that such notions, buzzwords, fads, ploys, and marketing trends become ubiquitous to the point at which they stop being examined. At that point, they also stop being consistently defined.

Enter authentic.

If you read this article from Fast Company — “What Does Authenticity Really Mean?” — you’ll get a smorgasbord of options:

  • According to one person cited in the article, “If you want to be a leader, you have to be yourself—skillfully.” So, if you were on the verge of being yourself haphazardly — or being someone else skillfully — it might be best to stop now.
  • According to another source, “It’s not about style. It’s the person inside of you.” Apparently, contrary to what we’ve been told for so long, clothes do NOT make the man. Goodbye, winter wardrobe.
  • According to yet a third source, “Your past made you who you are.” This would appear to be true prima facie; although, the fact that it had to be stated makes me wonder if there isn’t more going on here. Maybe it’s possible my past made other people who they are. Or maybe other people’s pasts made me who I am. Either way, it does seem to explain my existential disorientation.
  • And finally, still another source believes this about authenticity: “It’s about becoming ‘the person you are created to be’.” After interviewing hundreds of thousands of subjects in my lifelong quest for authenticity, the only one who had the slightest reservation about accepting that definition was Frankenstein’s monster. But he left me with the nagging sense that he was conflicted by deeper issues.

Please forgive me for simplifying, but if we really want authenticity to be universally understood (it may not serve the interests of all the folks who are marketing authenticity if that were to happen) — it might be easier to call it what it is:

integrity (noun)

adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

Granted, that would preclude our invoking obfuscatory terminology in the attempt to sound cerebrally hip and trendily with it. You know, the way we throw around terms like disruption and innovation that have all the substance of a bucket of steam. It also would put innumerable contemporary publications out of business, even though there might be a commensurate resurgence in the popularity of dictionaries.

But all that is just so much wishful thinking. Who needs reality when there’s authenticity?

Split Personalities

The part that really intrigues me, though, is that it’s now de rigueur to refer to our authentic selves in the third person, to refer to their prospective presences as if they were somehow not us, not of us: “Let’s be our authentic selves.”

Since let’s is the contracted form of let us, who constitutes the us, the selves that now need to be our authentic selves? If my authentic self is not the dude who got out of bed this morning, showered, shaved, and brushed his teeth, does my authentic self now stink and have a five o’clock shadow and bad breath? Did he even get out of bed? Where the hell is he? Can I at least get him to practice some authentic hygiene?

For reasons that likely will never be clear to me, the contemplation of my other, authentic self-led me to compose a poem to the guy. If I can’t find him to compel him to clean up his act, the least I can do is appeal to his modesty and common sense.

An Ode to Authenticity

I knew that my authentic self
And I were bound to meet.
I hoped that it could be at home,
Not right out in the street.

But one day as my bus approached
My stop at Bleak and Bleaker,
There he stood, Authentic Dude,
Along with a loudspeaker.

“Attention!” he crowed, unabashed,
His voice a grating bellow.”
Then spotting me, he said, “And who
Are you, my passive fellow.”

“It’s me, ya clown. Your other self,
The one of us imbued
With just enough self-confidence
To be a bit subdued.”

“Pish posh,” he said. “Don’t play the fool,
Or you’ll find yourself boobed.
The squeaky wheel gets the oil,
And I’ll be fully lubed.

“I’ll speak my mind when I well please,
Eschew the party line.
I’ll do things just the way I want,
Make all the credit mine.

“Before we know it, hierarchies
All will be extinct.
We’ll be empowered equally
To do the things we thinked.”

“Uh, grammar notwithstanding, Pal,”
I told Authentic Dude,
“If it weren’t for hierarchies,
We’d be rightly screwed.

“They’re just the nat’ral way in which

We organize our lives,

How ants and bees bring order to

Their colonies and hives.

“Lions use these structures to
Ensure that all provide
For ev’ry member of the group
And call each group a pride.

From businesses to governments,
A pecking order’s needed.
Otherwise, all protocols
And logic go unheeded.

“If all of us were equal in
Our aptitudes and skills,
Outcomes would be equal. That’s
Just tilting at windmills.

“There is a point, ya know,” I said
Where authenticity
Becomes a badge of self-defeat
And eccentricity.

“So, take it easy. Pick your spots.
You’ll get your chance to shine.
Sublimate your ego. Then
You’ll find your center line.

“Balance is the key we need,
And sweet humility,
For you and me, Authentic Self,
To find tranquility.

“We’re in this thing together,
Since we share a heart and soul.
Let’s use both to make our way
Toward a common goal.”

If you happen to run into my authentic self before I do, tell him he’s not the center of the universe.

And tell him he can use my bathroom.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. I enjoyed your article and poem Mark.
    Authenticity gets thrown around loosely it seems and people use it as a stage to promote what is real. Everyone’s real is different and constantly changing really. Everyone has a truth by which they define their own authenticity. This hits the fact that we are all authentic, but are we genuine. That would be more legitimate? Great thoughts to ponder here. Addressing your own value is An incessantly internal monologue with yourself.
    Thanks for this read Mark!

    • Thank you, Paula. I tend to approach things from the perspective of language. To use Malcolm Gladwell’s term, there’s a tipping point at which enough people start using a term that the use constitutes abuse, trivialization, bandwagon-jumping, and, finally, nonsense. I also think of something a literature professor once said to me about the letters and resumés college upperclassmen write as they start looking at the job market. He called them “manipulations of codes of sincerity”. So, too, is there a point at which words like authenticity become a code of sincerity. Ultimately, they’re reduced to check boxes:

      √ Authenticity
      √ Innovation
      √ Disruption
      √ Diversity
      √ Empowerment
      √ Transformation
      √ Engagement
      √ Culture
      √ Servant Leadership

      I’m sure you get the idea. My sense is that, as soon as we adopt these codes, these items of intellectual shorthand and shortcuts, we’re checking our powers of discernment at the door, joining the herd, and losing our way. It’s gotten to the point at which the best way for my clients to differentiate themselves from their competitors is to stop using jargon and to start using clear, concise, and very precise expression.

      Thank you for your comments. And thank you for compelling me to think about this some more.

    • Thank you, Darlene. Sometimes I think authenticity’s another of those words that’s on its way to being meaningless because everybody’s always talking about it. But what do I know? As a former boss once said of me, “O’Brien’s just a wordsmith.” 😉

      Happy Saturday.

  2. Mark what a great article. I have found who we are changes so fast in life. Eight months ago I was deep into a new retail concept that I only had a few months to complete. Now I wake up early and walk Buddy mt dog, listen to the bird songs while I drink coffee. I read write and spend time with my family. Who is my authentic self. I think he may have gotten left behind. Now more than ever I am who I am.

    • I may be at the other end of that spectrum, Larry. I’ve always known who I am. It took me a while to grow into myself. But I was always there. Perhaps that’s why I bristle at the notion that I need to be told to invoke or become my authentic self.

      On the other hand, it’s possible that my authentic self is and has always been a curmudgeon. 😉

      Thank you for your comments. I always look forward to them.

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