Clarity often visits unexpectedly, and it seldom stays for long. Especially when it concerns who we really are.
One morning last winter I was holding on to a ski lift absentmindedly, half enjoying watching Jen and our children being dragged up the mountain ahead of me, and half worrying about a sentence that I kept reshuffling in my mind.
I had gotten up early after a late night writing to meet a looming deadline, and neither hot coffee nor cold sunshine had yet managed to wake me up entirely.
The realization aptly found me there. Attached to my family, to my work, and to a cable pulled slowly upwards by a tired engine. It hit me with absolute certainty. The feeling that this restless, quiet, groggy, loving, worried, sporty bag of being was me.
My true self, I mean. Who I really am.
I felt relief and resignation, a liberating
of closure. There was no need to find my self any longer. (At least for a moment or two.)
Then it all dissipated and I went about the rest of a gloriously uneventful day.
Three millennia have passed since “Know Thyself” was carved above the entrance of Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Five centuries since Shakespeare gave Polonius the line “To thine own self be true.” But these days, in many quarters, it’s not religion or literature that we turn to for help. The quest for self-awareness and authenticity takes us elsewhere. We are meant to find and express our true self at work.
I spend my life with people—executives, students, acquaintances, friends, and colleagues—preoccupied with their true self. Sometimes, obsessed by it. Many can only feel its absence, and long for it. A few are skeptical that any such true self exists.
“I came here to find myself,” I have heard many managers explain when asked why they’re attending an MBA or executive course, or taking a new job. It is an ambition people now cite as frequently as that of becoming a founder, partner, MD or CEO.
You and Your Team
When you’re feeling stuck.
That is especially true of managers at mid-career, who often feel that their material comforts, titles and accomplishments have come at the price of neglecting their true selves. But once they resolve to stop neglecting it, efforts at introspection and attempts to loosen up yield few results. Their true self is nowhere to be found.
Theirs is not simply a longing for lost time. It is a longing of our times. The question is why it feels so compelling and elusive.
The fluidity of the business world—where we are meant to find, shape and fulfill, rather than be born into, who we are—creates more opportunities, for more people, to craft their career and life trajectories than we ever had in the past.
The same fluidity, however, leaves us with few moorings and little direction. It makes the search for a true self more necessary, a quest to find a point of orientation that might stop us from getting lost in the effort to adapt to ever shifting demands.
In an age of loose commitments, constant change, and nomadic professionalism the true self provides a mirage of certainty, commitment, and direction. Self-discovery is the new duty, only turned inwards.
As Winnicott had it, the true self is both a gift and a surprise. It is a state made possible by caring others who leave us in peace long enough for us to notice and express our needs and wishes of the moment, and who respond kindly when we do.
Children who experienced such unobtrusive yet responsive care often enough, Winnicott noticed, felt freer to express themselves and explore their environment. Those who did not hovered anxiously instead, waiting for others’ cues.
The former, he contended, were more likely to grow into adults trusting of themselves and others, and able to be spontaneous when circumstances allow—an insight now confirmed by decades of research on attachment styles.
In the journey from nursery to workplace, however, the concept of the true self has become both more popular and dramatically different. We have not just taken it to a different context. We have taken context out of it. The true self has turned from a gift into an accomplishment, from a fleeting experience of possibility into an enduring image of who we are.
Self-awareness has become a synonym of conformity, another word for being mindful of what others think of us. Authenticity has become a synonym of consistency, a term understood to mean acting uniformly in different domains. And we have come to regard the true self less like a seed and more like a diamond. Less like something to be nurtured over time, and more like a gem hidden within, that once dug out, polished and displayed promises to become a precious status symbol and source of market value—as long as we can hold on to it.
Reduced to an image, however, the true self becomes little more than a good selfie, an image crafted with the not-so-secret aim of flattering ourselves and impressing others. Such images seldom feel true, and if they do the feeling does not last for long.
Because the truth of our selves is not defined by how accurate, enduring or pleasing their contours are, but by the freedom to draw them. It does not rest in consistently conforming to a reflected image, but in having the possibility of being spontaneous and surprised, in not knowing ourselves and having room to find our selves out.
Seen this way, the true self is neither enduring nor consistent. It is ever changing. It is not an end. It is a beginning. It can be found but cannot be held on to. It does not always feel good. And it is neither found nor made. It is freed up. We don’t know it when we see it. We feel it when we can forget it.
Work that gives us joy, or that others applaud, may well be an expression of our true selves. But that work is not our true self. The moment we think it is we become captive by, rather than makers of, it.
This is why I often advise those who long to be true to themselves at work to stop asking themselves who they really are, and ponder where they might be freer. And who would help them manage the mixed feelings that freedom entails.
Because ultimately, we need firm attachments to stay true to ourselves. Without loving others (in both senses of the words) freedom quickly becomes confusing, unbearable, or both—and anxiety takes its place.
While feedback may affirm our authenticity, it is love that frees it up. The kind of love that helps us to stop obsessing about, yet does not let us give up on, our selves.