The new authenticity: More nuanced than simple transparency

You know authenticity is how you connect with people, but it’s hard to know how to gain authenticity. Just wanting it does not increase it. Also, our perception of what is authentic changes. For example, five years ago, when social media was new, authenticity was transparency. Today, with most things feeling transparent, authenticity is something more nuanced.

1. Authenticity is traditional.
It’s what we expect and not overly inventive. Think the farm-to-table movement. People want real food which means real farms with real farmers. Which is a very traditional lifestyle. Farm to table is traditional food: no Asian fusion. Trends in religion are the same. Gen Y gravitates to religions that are not so much “cool” as grounded in tradition. And in response, the new pope is making huge headway by going back to the roots of Christianity, publicly embracing the shockingly deformed, for example, instead of focusing on elitist and top-down leadership.

2. Authenticity is about grit, not success.
Facebook makes people depressed because people paint such rosy images of themselves. And increasingly people find the constant self-promotion boorish. The well-loved blog posts are those that talk about personal struggle. We find our true selves when we go through a difficult time, which means we are best able to show our true selves while we are going through it.

3. Authenticity does not have its own domain name.
Authenticity is about connecting, not promoting. You do not need your own web site. Because the world does not see you as a destination spot.

I know you are thinking that this is odd coming from me on a website with my name as the .com. But here’s the difference. I spend my life creating a community on my site. You do not want to spend your life creating that kind of community. You have other things you want to do, like have friends and hold a marriage together. So you don’t need your own domain name. It’s so 2010. And if you don’t believe me, think of it this way: no one in Generation Z will have their own domain because the domains that matter are all gone. So in ten years having your own domain will be the mark of an old person.

But more importantly, you connect by creating content on other domains. That’s contributing. Check out this video by Chicago Blackhawk Patrick Kane. It’s a really cool ad for his sponsor.  And check out his teammate’s response here. It’s hilarious. And, note, it’s not on his own domain. Because it’s for fun and connecting, not for promotion. Which is what authenticity is about.

The best connections I make online are when people have something interesting to say. I can read that anywhere, and respond anywhere. It’s not about ownership of a spot online, it’s about participating in the ideas we spread.

4. Authenticity is about caring what other people think of you.
You know that authenticity is a key factor in career success. But like most key factors in career success, people want a shortcut. The problem is that self-knowledge only comes from hard work. It’s a commitment to understanding how people see you and then adjusting what you want to project.

The Harvard Business review divides the ability to be authentic into two skills. One is self-awareness: knowing who you are—your values, emotions, and competence. And the other skill is knowing how you’re perceived by others. Most people have one but not the other.

The first thing to do in your quest for authenticity is to know which half you are stronger in so you can work on the other one. I’m probably stronger in the self-knowledge department, but what makes me a good blogger is that I understand how you perceive me on the blog. People tell me that I’m the same in person as I am on my blog, but I never feel authentic in person because I have a hard time reading how other people perceive me in person.

5. Authenticity is short.
There’s a rule for writing authentically that if something really bad is happening, write shorter. One of the biggest breaks I got in my writing career was that I was one of the only working journalists who was both covered in debris after 9/11 and able to write about it that day. So I got published in Time magazine. I reread that piece all the time, and one sentence really bugs me: “My slip-ons slipped off.” Except for that sentence, it’s an urgent, harrowing account—focused and direct, short. And then in that one sentence I write like I’m a writer in Time magazine, making the mistake of adding something to show people I’m a great writer.

Another important thing about writing short is not allowing yourself to just dump your notes online. We all have a pile of things we want to say, but if you dump them online, like a list of links, it’s actually putting a wall up between you and the reader. Authenticity is the unfettered back and forth between us that reveals something new. You can’t do that in a pile of random links or notes.

The urge to be more, do more, show more than other people can be so strong that it overpowers our desire to connect. I used to think  authenticity was about showing everything all the time and making a big deal about it. I remember going on 20/20 to talk about transparent salaries: “Authentic CEOs make all salaries transparent!”

Authenticity really is quiet, intimate listening. I love the photo up top because it’s me in an empty church, waiting for my son to play his cello. I am doing nothing but listening and responding and caring. When we are doing our best—at anything—this is what we are doing. Authenticity is stark and simple and unfettered, and it probably doesn’t need a lot of self-promotion. Because authenticity is magnetic. It makes everyone lean in closer.


46 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Dang, I never would have guessed that my shiny domain name, so chic ten years ago, would turn into a sign of my impending geezerhood. But the thought rings true. My oldest son, Gen Y, has his own domain but it’s not his name. My Millenial younger sons think having their own domain name is a waste of time, and they’d rather contribute their original work to existing places — deviantArt, YouTube, comments everywhere. They seem much more to want to be a contributing citizen of the world than to be a destination. I’m just going to admit it: I want my blog to be a destination. And so I’m marked Gen X, I guess.

  2. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I now have reread this article twice and it has really touched something. Being authentic is a challenge in the world of work because not everyone is on the same page. It feels the opposite of the old term “game playing” or “politics” and it can get you fired or on the bad list. Yet, I believe it is what we really need to be in today’s world, both personally and professionally.
    Thank you!

  3. Carmen
    Carmen says:

    People will perceive you as experienced and insightful or as a flighty loose canon depending on context.

    Some of us just want to be authentic in a context that fits.

    I always viewed personality type as a way to find context for your specific brand of authenticity.

  4. Marie-INFP
    Marie-INFP says:

    Rejoice! Mailbag is back! Thanks Penelope!

    Big sigh of relief can keep my routine – read new post, read comments (snicker at snarkiest one), mailbag, home school, read comments (laugh or cry don’t have kids), bathroom break to play with my hair (ponder how to get more done in December), coffee, lipstick, start work, stop work, respond to friend’s email that we’re more January people, lunch, lipstick, work, overwhelmed by to-do list, stop work, coffee break, work, coffee crash, cupcake break, work, stop work, lipstick, happy hour!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes. Back. Thank you guys for giving me good advice about my site. Thanks for telling me you missed Mailbag!


  5. The Homicidal Housewife
    The Homicidal Housewife says:

    His Holiness the Dali Lama wrote a book called, “See yourself as you truly are.” I haven’t read it,maybe it’s time.gulp.

  6. karelys
    karelys says:

    I have to print this and fold it in my purse to reread many times.

    It’s like the Tao Te Ching. You have to read it in pieces, let it sink in, act on it, then read some more (and repeat the process).

  7. Beatrix
    Beatrix says:

    This post is refreshing and provoking. I was considering starting a blog to turn my passions into something bigger than myself, and to eventually use it as a platform for starting my own business.

    Are you saying that is an unhelpful thing to focus on in the search for authenticity or am I missing the point entirely? Because that’s an authentic way to build community, even if that person’s name is in the domain.

    I really like the article about the Gen Y religion trend.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, one thing I’m saying is that building a community is a lot of work. But making a meaningful contribution to a community is not nearly as much work. Both require authenticity. I mean, we don’t need to have our own domain name to be authentic online.


  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I never thought authenticity and transparency were ever really linked. However, I think authenticity, vulnerability, and communication are closely tied together. The ability to know who you are, be vulnerable, and find a way to connect with another person takes a fair amount of effort and back and forth. The “quiet, intimate listening” and … “responding and caring” As you say there is no self-promotion and nothing to be proven. When authenticity is done right, it’s your true self on display with no frills that will make the connection possible. Nice post.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s interesting to me that you’d write this, Mark – that you never though of authenticity and transparency as being linked. Because you comment a lot here, and I find your comments authentic and sweet, but you reveal very little about yourself in the comments beyond the fact that you think a lot and read a lot about the topics here.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        So, by your own admission, you find my comments to be authentic and yet my transparency to be very limited. That’s why I don’t think authenticity and transparency to be really linked. I’m transparent to the extent that’s necessary to make a connection and to be authentic. That’s probably a better way to phrase it. Over time and much back and forth, I’m very transparent. I think that especially holds true in “real life” encounters either in person or on the phone. Evidently not so much in the blog comments.

  9. Doug Armey
    Doug Armey says:

    One of your best posts ever. I would try to add something insightful to show I am a good writer but instead I will take your advice and just keep it short. I needs nothing further from me. Well done.

  10. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    Thank you for this post on Authenticity, Penelope.

    I really want to write about my personal struggles, I have a lot, who doesn’t. But it is one of the most difficult things to write about, especially I haven’t yet come to terms with my struggles. For example, living with a husband who thinks you’re bringing him bad fortune by being a woman…

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      Lucy, your comment regarding your husband makes me so sad. But it led me to click to your site and I truly love your work. Your avatar has always struck me as interesting, but I didn’t realize that it was a self-portrait. I also love “A Black Me” and the expression on Alan’s face in the recent Lightening McQueen painting is utterly charming.

      I truly hope that your husband will come to see your value. Take care.

      • Lucy Chen
        Lucy Chen says:

        Thanks MBL,
        I know my husband does love me, and his very superstitious beliefs is inherited from his family. It’s really annoying and makes me feel humiliated almost everyday.

        • Yvette
          Yvette says:

          “really annoying” is putting it mildiy, sounds like a recipe for divorce, to me….

          when people believe in magic, you have to use their magic to fix things, in their belief system. my friend’s house was broken into, so they burned sage to cleanse the bad spirits. it worked, the house was never broken into again.

          you need to ask him what is lucky, and then use that, to balance the feeling of unlucky. (maybe wear the number three, etc., or be creative.) people have all kinds of superstitions around numbers, facing east, spilling salt….

  11. melita
    melita says:

    Is authentic different from honest? If so, how? People often say to me “Melita, you are so honest” or “I love your honesty” and I find it weird because what else would I be? Do most people lie all the time, or often? Is that why being honest is worth commenting on? I think maybe I am just blunt, but in a nice way, and maybe that is what people are noticing. I don’t know…

  12. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    This is one of the WORST posts you have written IMO. I like you much better when you are in your ” I hate all moms” mode. Maybe I missed your point but do you really think there is one shred of AUTHENTICITY in ANY THING ONE ThING these days. Let’s start with Reality Shows that you were going to be a part of until they unauthentically told you your family was not interesting. What they meant is you REFUSED to be phony for the cameras. Books? Lets be the first to read Lindsay Lohens “tell all” book that is coming out. That may be authentic? Okay how about videos. Beyonce says her latest is her REAL artistic self. Nothing to do with selling sex??? Go to the Mall and or watch HSN and QVC hawk their products and see how much authenticity is going on. It is a nice word and a nice post but is no longer applicable in this society. Except for me of course.

    • KellyC
      KellyC says:

      You’re skimming the surface. Dig deeper. Most of the things that are hugely popular are stupid and superficial because most of us are stupid and superficial in the same ways. It’s easy to sell to that. But each of us is smart and authentic in a different way. Beyonce and reality shows are not the entirety of our culture.

  13. Larry Hochman
    Larry Hochman says:

    I enjoyed this post…it’s relevant for the time. But really…this is all a giant pendulum. It swings back and forth. Five years from now we will tire of farm to table and yearn for something more “exotic.”

    Authenticity is when do stuff that feels good to us…and that can be with or without our own domain. It’s a teacher who does his or her best for their students. Or a kid who practices their instrument because they like it, not because their parents make them. And it’s a steelworker who enjoys the fact that some of his (or her) handiwork will be in a bridge over a river in a third world country…or new construction in midtown Manhattan.

    I came up with this a few year’s back. Maybe it’s relevant…”Confidence is usually quiet. But it sure knows how to party!” :)

  14. LLBlack
    LLBlack says:

    Thoughtful post. I have recently become involved in Equine Guided Education – where you work with horses on the ground (little to no riding). It’s a form of coaching and quiet listening is essential. The facilitator may make suggestions to help guide the person working with the horse, but nothing is directive or definitive from the outside. Authenticity is necessary because the horses can feel if you are not being authentic. I started as a curious skeptic in this work, and have found it’s incredible and real. The ability of a horse to sense if someone is not being true to how they feel and what they think is uncanny. This post made me think of this work and how quiet and honest one must be with oneself and the horse to experience profound moments in the EGE context. I don’t know if you all have horses on the farm Penelope, but you should try it sometime. Very powerful and helpful on many levels. I studied at SkyHorse Ranch in Sonoma County, California if you are interested.

  15. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    This post was so confusing to me that I had to go to Merriam Webster.

    Authentic and Sincere have about the same definition – “real or genuine” is what I wrote down from the website.

    All the example sentences for authentic used it when referring to things. All the example sentences for sincere used it when referring to people.

    I could see a difference though, sincere has a more vulnerable tone to it based in the feeling realm. Whereas authentic feels more, I don’t know, just more correct and laudable.

    Many of PT’s posts confuse the hell out me, and then the comments confuse me even more with “this is your greatest post ever!” and “I had to tape this one to my wall”. Always makes me wonder what the heck I’m missing.

    I think PT has a way of understanding what other people out there who are in a certain demographic (who read her blog obviously) feel like they are missing, and then she can fill the void.

    Can you be authentic, but only to a certain audience? And then look false from another angle?

    And perhaps sincerity, for its same definition, is more understood by all humans.

  16. Karen
    Karen says:

    The reason you wrote the post about James Altucher and Ramit is possibly the same reason Facebook makes people depressed. You don’t know them so very intimately, but the internet gives you a virtual sense of who they are and you buy into the marketing. Motherhood certainly shifts a woman’s career path radically but honestly, P, no matter who you are and who you compete against, there is always someone who has more resources. You can turn your frustration into the determination to win your own game. I finally deactivated from Facebook because I was tired of buying into everyone else’s marketing. Now I’ve evicted all those thoughts from my head.

  17. Carmen
    Carmen says:

    There’s something about this post that didn’t sit quite right with me, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on it.

    From my own experience, I don’t fit a stereotype, which is upsetting to some people. They want to label you as fake. My efforts at authenticity will never satisfy those people.

    You, for example, are a very sweet and kind person, but there are people reading your blog who will never accept that side of you, no matter how hard you try.

    Authenticity isn’t about being what other people believe you should be. Sometimes it’s about realizing that there aren’t very many people like you, and accepting you won’t draw a big crowd.

    People want to claim their own identity. There’s nothing wrong with creating a blog or website or creating a business to do just that.

  18. Jack
    Jack says:

    Disagree about #4.

    Authenticity is about caring more about what you think of yourself than of what others think of you.

    Acting on your true beliefs is authentic.

    Acting on your perception of how others will react is not.

  19. The Corporate Sister
    The Corporate Sister says:

    Love love it when you say that “authenticity is about grit, not success!” And I could not agree more! As a millenial still working in Corporate America, I am so tired of only hearing the success stories of those who’ve made it, but won’t necessarily tell the rest of us how. As inspiring as they may be, there’s just a missing link for the rest of us struggling our way through, and it’s authenticity!!! Thank you for a wonderful article, if only we could get more of it!

  20. Keith Williams
    Keith Williams says:

    One of my favorite quotes is from Blaise Pascal: roughly, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” It’s a struggle to distill an idea to its essence, cutting out the filler; it’s particularly difficult when Buzzfeed contributors amass hundreds of thousands of hits for a thought-free compilation of gifs while I spend far more time just verifying references. (#5, meet #2.)

    I disagree with #4, though. I recognize the need for soliciting feedback on my presentation; as a livable-streets advocate in New York, however, I’d be in the fetal position were I to heed many people’s opinions of me. I think standing up for one’s beliefs is much more authentic than toeing the line, which this bullet seems to imply.

  21. Tommi Gustafsson
    Tommi Gustafsson says:

    Since some people disagree about #4 I’ll defend it a bit.

    Understanding how others see you does not mean that they have to like what they see or agree with you. Knowing they perceive what you mean them to – and that’s the authentic you – is a valid point.

    Think about it the other way: You know people mostly misunderstand you, your beliefs and values, but you’re authentic?


  22. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    OK, I want to weigh in on #4 too. My interpretation, to borrow a phrase, is that it is nuanced. You have your remit and you need to be true to it but you do need to know how people perceive you and adjust accordingly to really excel.

    I liken it to great stand-up comedians who are out to get laughs. But the best ones know how the audience will perceive them (say if they have a big nose or are fat) and use it to great effect to get even more laughs and win the audience over (Sarah Millican – so authentic :)

    P.S. Penelope my perception of you did change after I had a ‘live’ encounter with you – it took some reconciliation of my perception of written you and live you. Now I think I mostly agree you are the same, but definitely still softer on the blog – I guess either my reading of it or your editor is a smoothing filter.

  23. Michael Cortes
    Michael Cortes says:

    Doesn’t most of ghost e world still work for traditional employers? (Yes, you can also call them old.) Therefore won’t authenticity get most people fired?

  24. jrandom543
    jrandom543 says:

    How does authenticity help, if you’re an authentic asshole, egomaniac, and just generally unpleasant person who blames everyone else for all their faults and inflicts their problems on everyone around them?

  25. downfromtheledge
    downfromtheledge says:

    A lot of blogs start with an honest message. Eventually the sincerity drowns amidst a barrage of “See me!” and “Buy this!” emails and ads.

    There is something off-putting about the endless self-promotion of our generation, which you hint at in your mention of facebook. I often look at posted pictures and wonder, why would someone even be taking a picture at that moment?

    Pet peeve: The bazillion posts about how to write a good posts, and the bazillion copycats using stupid, annoying formulas for titles and storytelling, all cluttering up the blogosphere. Everyone wants to win a popularity contest, instead of offering a piece of writing that is worth something.

  26. Gary
    Gary says:

    I’m too lazy and impatient to be authentically authentic or transparent. Is it okay to fake sociopathy or extreme narcissistic personality disorder to get what I want?

  27. Lydia
    Lydia says:

    Thanks for this. I went to a nutrition school where they coached us to become our brand and with that, pleeeease use your name as your domain. Mine wasn’t available, and I also loathed the idea of becoming forevermore “Lydia, the (fill in career choice here),” in great part because more often than not it serves to magnify a divide between other people and me, rather than shrink it. Plus, I’d rather be a jack of all trades than a master of one (and am an ENFP, prone to flight as you’ve said).
    I’ve also found myself retreating more and more from public view and have berated myself for it routinely, believing that if I can’t be open about my flaws and faults and home life then I won’t find a substantial following as a writer of any kind. I still mostly believe that, but I find this post reassuring in the sense that I still have a lot to offer without losing my treasured privacy, i.e. authenticity without transparency.

  28. Coach Oz
    Coach Oz says:

    Thanks for the article Penelope. I think people forget to realize how important being authentic is. For people looking to advance their career, I’d say its a key characteristic that hiring managers look for in interviews.

    Coach Oz

  29. Anne Davis
    Anne Davis says:

    Yes! We can’t agree more about the idea of authenticity. Especially in the job market, which is why we have tried so hard to put background check tools into the hands of the job seeker. Being transparent and authentic with employers is the best way to seal the most honest, worthwhile impression!

    Love this post!

    – Anne

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