The “meme” word was first introduced by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in 1976. “Meme” comes from the Greek word “mimema” (meaning “something imitated”, American Heritage Dictionary). Dawkins described memes as a being a form of cultural propagation, which is a way for people to transmit social memories and cultural ideas to each other.
And they can drive me nuts. The one at the top of my irritation list right now is “authentic” and all it’s variations and uses. Everyone has to be “authentic”, the “experience has to be authentic” and “she’s so authentic”.
But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Which is another way of saying that even cliches – or overused memes – can still be true.
So what is this “authentic” thing?
“Authentic” and all it’s variations has become a major meme. Why and how it became so important I don’t know for sure, but I have a theory. It goes something like this:
We live in a world of hype, instant expertise and instant gratification. We’re bombarded with calculated advertising, how to lose 15 pounds in 15 days and how to become an expert with a 5-day email course. We’re all happy and successful and things are going just great, thank you very much.
And it’s all lies. Or at best hyperbole and tabloid talk designed to get our attention. Or a way to fit into a society that doesn’t even expect an answer when they ask “how are ya?”
But we’re not fools. None of us are. We know when something is not quite true, not quite right or not quite meant the way the person expressed it. And while we can live with it for a while, the lies, half-truths and empty promises eventually become too much.
And then we say “that’s not authentic.” But what we mean is that the person who made the claim, told the lie or just didn’t mean it – that person is not authentic. They don’t really mean what they said or what they claimed. They’re not authentic.
And from there the use of “authentic” went on to include people, experiences, food, advertising and politicians.
That’s my theory.
Why is being authentic so important?
It’s not. You can ignore being authentic and live your life quite happily. But you’re still making choices every day – and you can use “authenticity” as a measure of how happy you are with what you did and how you did it.
If you do this, your measure of “authenticity” becomes a value measure. And if you’re true to your own values, your life will fundamentally change. That’s what authenticity is all about – living your life by your values, not someone else’s idea of what’s important.
Here’s a dirty little secret:
“They” don’t know better.
When we grow up, our parents are our role models. And most of the time they’re pretty good ones (yes, I know not everyone shares that experience). Then we have heroes – the people or characters we admire and want to be in some way.
And then we grow up some more and we look at the leaders around us. Some of them are good – even great. But we also realize that many of them are not authentic. They have hidden agendas, their own interests and their own fears that make them do and say things that just don’t make sense.
And eventually we grow up enough to realize that we have to decide for ourselves what’s right and what’s wrong. We have to decide who we’re going to support, who we’re going to be friends with, how we’re going to act in tough situations.
And that’s when being authentic – and choosing authentic leaders, friends and colleagues – becomes critical. No one but you can decide whether something is authentic – right or wrong. And to do that you have to know yourself.
So what’s the key to being authentic?
If being authentic is about being true to your own values, you have to know what your values are. And to do that, you have to know yourself.
It’s tempting to suggest that you write down what your values are. And it’s not a bad suggestion, either. There are lots of frameworks for values out there – just Google “value system” or “value framework” and you’ll find lots of ways of capturing your values.
But writing down your values is just a first step. Actually living by them is a lifelong journey.
I know my own values pretty well (honesty, integrity, fairness, getting stuff done, delivering above and beyond, not judging, there’s enough for all, caring and all the other good stuff). But as well as I know my values I find that I sometimes act against them.
Take arguments with your spouse or partner as an example.
Sometimes they’re small and we can laugh them off. But other times they seem to get to a trigger point where they suddenly escalate and become a major issue. We say things that we later regret, storm off or slam a door in frustration.
And that’s just human. We all do that. But when the dust has settled and I look back at how I acted, I realize I was being a jerk. I was acting in a way that is contrary to my values. In other words, I was not being authentic.
And now I have a choice. I can shrug, laugh it off and move on. Or I can choose to look inside myself, try to see what went wrong, and how I could have acted differently. By doing this I will get just a little better at recognizing the signs next time, and have a better chance of not repeating the same destructive behavior.
So here’s the key to being authentic:
- Know your values.
- Practice living by them.
The first part is relatively easy. Just write them down or find a framework that will help you.
The second part is the important one. We can’t just “live by our values” – we’re human and that means that we’re going to make mistakes. Even value mistakes. But when we accept that we’re human, we’re going to make mistakes and we can use mistakes as an opportunity to learn and live a more authentic life – that’s when magic happens.
“Authentic” is no longer on my irritation list
In fact, I believe that being authentic, living a life by your own values and practicing to get better at how we live our lives is fundamental to our own happiness – and how we radiate that happiness to the rest of the world.
And for me, it all comes down to learning about myself every day. Understanding how I react to people and situations, what triggers me, what’s really important and being humble enough to know when I’m a jerk – and apologizing for it.
Follow me for more like this – and for more stuff on my passion for helping small businesses succeed.
If you want to live a more authentic life you should also study stoicism. It’s not as scary or as academic as it sounds – it’s a practical philosophy I’m learning to apply every day. Dailystoic.com is a good place to start.
And let me know if you have any comments.
Now go be true to your values. Be authentic.