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The Price of Authenticity In Work & Life

One day a young man was walking down a busy side street in the middle of town when he noticed a small new shop. It was unusual because it was the only shop with no customers inside. To either side people were busy purchasing shirts and watches and the latest gizmos. The empty shop was selling none of these modern items; instead, it was selling values.

The young man wandered inside and discovered to his amazement that indeed the shop was selling values. He approached the counter, asking, “Can I purchase any value I wish?”

The shopkeeper nodded, “Of course. Which one would you like, Sir?”

The young man fidgeted on the spot, then spoke up, stating, “Well, lately I've been thinking a lot about authenticity. I would like to be authentic in my job, but I feel I often end up playing the corporate game and wearing a kind of mask instead. I have tried to be authentic myself, but haven't succeeded.” He looked up and smiled, “But if I can simply purchase it, that would be great!”

The shopkeeper nodded, “Of course, Sir. You can certainly purchase it today.”

“How much does it cost?” the man asked, reaching for his wallet.

“It depends on how much you want,” the shopkeeper replied.

“I want it all. 100%!” the man said enthusiastically.

“No problem, Sir.”

“Yes, yes, no problem!” the young man said. “Tell me, what is the price?”

The shopkeeper replied, “For 100% authenticity, the price you need to pay is 100% courage.”

The young man paused, thinking for a moment, then asked, “Can I pay on credit?”

The shopkeeper shook his head, “Sorry Sir, this kind of payment is required up front.”

Why is it risky to be authentic at work?

I recently had a great chat with Rajendra Agrawal, former General Manager of the State Bank of India on the topic of authenticity in the workplace. When I asked him why he thought it was hard for leaders to be authentic in the workplace, instead of giving me a data-driven answer, he told me a version of the above story. In doing so, he brought home his point with great clarity.

“Living authentically is about living courageously; to live that way, you have to accept a level of risk as part of the process. If there was nothing risky about it, it wouldn't be considered courageous.”

Removing the divide between work and life

Rajendra gave me a sense of calmness when I talked with him. He was more interested in listening to my thoughts in order to learn himself, than to talk; I thought that was admirable, not because he wanted to listen to me, but because he wanted to listen in general; I believe that being willing to listen deeply is a universal sign of wisdom.

But he also shared his thoughts with me freely, and one of the things he said really stuck with me. We were talking about how we have created this big divider between work and life, and we try to live authentically in life, but willingly accept a compromise at work. This can be agreed upon on a rational level, but on a deeper human level, the conflict can create internal tension and disruption. When we don't act courageously to be authentic in the workplace, we lose a sense of our true self in our personal lives also.

What is the result of this inner conflict? Rajendra thought it is the feeling of emptiness and unhappiness.

“Authenticity is the only remedy for misery,” Rajendra said. “You can't compartmentalize your life. It is another fallacy. The idea that in my personal life I can be deeply faithful to my true self, but when I go into business, because it is a jungle, I play games. It just doesn't work. To be fulfilled—to be happy—you need to aim for 100% authenticity.”

Authenticity is about being true to self

Authenticity isn't about character, or ethics, or nobility—it's not about being good or bad, but true to self. Maybe the true remedy for unhappiness is more courage to be holistically authentic?

Perhaps true happiness is found in calming the conflict within? To remove that conflict, we all need to visit that metaphorical little shop in the side street of town, and pay for our authenticity upfront, and in full.

“Tell me, what is the price?”

The shopkeeper replied, “For 100% authenticity, the price you need to pay is 100% courage.”

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