4 min read

Conforming Authentically or Authentic Conforming?

When you’re paddling on the Hudson river, you have to keep an eye out for boat traffic.  There are always ferries, tour boats, and JetSkis around, and unpowered craft are the lowest on the totem pole.  

I was paddling after work one day and I saw a commuter ferry that a couple of colleagues often take.  I started worrying about their reaction if they saw me.   One colleague had a blog about his mountain climbing adventures that people mocked behind his back for years.  Would I be teased at work? But I came to my senses.  I was doing something I enjoyed, something that was fun, exciting, and healthy.  I was having the time of my life!  How did that make me the weird one?  Why was I worried about what people from work thought about me?

At work, everyone talks about the same topics.  Sports, TV, drinking, housework, kids.  No one wants to be different.  No one wants to be the nail that sticks out.  Why?  The desire for social conformity -  as demonstrated by the Asch experiment.  It’s the classic desire of wanting to sit at the cool kids table.  In the workplace, there’s even more pressure because not fitting into the culture could easily stagnate your career.  A promotion or raise could hang on the smallest of reasons.  Perception matters.  “Wasting time” on your hobbies when you could have been at the office means that your work better be perfect or you’ll be a ready scapegoat.

Yet everyone also has an intrinsic need for authenticity.  Pretending to be someone you’re not is a burden, especially just to make someone else happy.  Workplaces demand that you sacrifice your true self and become a Team Player.  I was so afraid of being my authentic self that I actually felt a sense of shame that I would be “caught” paddleboarding.  It took awhile, but I started recognizing that my feelings of dissatisfaction and unease were actually fallout from hiding my authenticity.

It’s rare to find a workplace where you can feel comfortable expressing yourself.  Your coworkers aren’t selected by you, they all have different motives and backgrounds, the commonalities that exist are random. During Covid, people saw that they loved working from home.  It’s great because they didn’t have to commute, but also because they were no longer constantly under a microscope.  They felt that they could be themselves.  They could rebel by taking a walk, wearing pajama bottoms, or turning the camera off.

Not being able to express yourself has ramifications outside of work.  Even when I wasn't at work, I wasn't able to fully enjoy what I was doing; instead my mind was always preoccupied by the awareness of not being at work.  I was so obsessed with separating work from relaxing that I made a rule that I couldn’t think about work outside of work.  I spent a lot of effort trying to compartmentalize work and life, only to find out that they bleed into each other.  Only to find out that you can’t compensate for one with the other. Even if it was possible, why spend the weekend filling in the existential hole dug during the week?  

What makes this problem even harder is that it’s so hard to identify.  I didn’t know about the necessity of being authentic and self-expression.  It’s impossible to solve a solution that you’re not aware of.  I didn’t know that I had this need for authenticity.

It wasn’t until I quit my job over a year ago, that I realized the activities I liked most were with the people I liked most, and the people I liked most were people I didn’t have to be guarded around, people I didn’t need to build walls against.  The breakthrough came when I realized that I was spending twenty-four hours a day with my wife, seven days a week, for months on end, and I didn’t want anything to change.  I literally have no filter with my wife, not just because we’re simpatico, but because we respect each other’s values and ideas.

This is true (to a slightly lesser degree) with every other community that I want to be part of.  I need the freedom to be myself and not worry about being cast out of the group for having a different opinion. I believe this sense of belonging is something everyone wants, to be part of a community with universal mutual respect.

Figuring out who you want to be with and what you want to do is hard.  You need to have introspection to truly know what you want, not just to fit in.  It took me years to understand, and I’m still learning.

Now that I’ve left my career, I have more control over who I interact with.  I try to limit interacting with people where I need to hide my personality, or when I’m forced to interact, I try not to care.  It makes it easier to explore my own interests.  I don’t need to spend any effort worrying about anyone else’s reactions, I can just do things.

Try evaluating all of the communities in your life through the lens of how you act inside of them.  Do you need to watch what you say or do?  Do you need to be guarded and put on your best face?  Is everyone in the community filtered like an Instagram feed?  Or can you be free and vulnerable?  

It may be scary to look for new communities.  You may feel that you’re loyal to an existing group.  You might like being part of the in-crowd.  But if you’re constantly on guard, constantly afraid to show weakness, then it’s worth it to venture out, to find a community with the same values and goals, and to show your competence and vulnerability.  The more you surround yourself with people you can be vulnerable to, the happier you will be.

I paddled last weekend.  It was peaceful, I felt the wind, I felt the current of the river.  I felt no shame.  Off the water, I’m working on an idea that I think could actually make a difference.  I’m not worried about other people’s opinions.