On Authenticity

Posted on 14 February 2017 by Joseph

I've been pondering the idea of authenticity. I started thinking about the concept after listening to Noah Kagan's podcast with Jason Fried. Jason, a lover of cars, was asked about his favorite cars. He answered Aston Martin, and one of the reasons he gave was Aston's dedication to what he called authenticity of materials - if it looks like wood, it is wood; if it looks like metal, it is metal. In contrast, in many cars, even high-end cars, chrome elements are really chrome-plated plastic; woodgrain is veneer. Jason talked briefly about the cost of this authenticity of materials. The cars still need to be largely handmade, and of course are rather expensive.

More generally, this is an example of what I'd call authenticity of design. Authenticity of this type is imbued in a made thing by the creator, and the creator's dedication to authenticity is what prompts it. Therefore, authenticity of design is externalized. Beyond authenticity of materials, skeuomorphs - design elements that evoke other made objects of a different type - are an example of inauthenticity of design; affordances - if it looks like you interact with something, you can - are an example of authenticity of design.

A week or so later, I was listening to another podcast, The Tim Ferriss show with Adam Robinson. Adam and Tim discussed battling depression, and Adam explained that one of the breakthroughs that helped him emerge from depression was also one of authenticity - his authenticity of self-image. In my own words, the idea is that we are often so focused on selling ourselves, on creating an image of ourselves, that we embrace that image regardless of how well it reflects who we really are. This creates an internal conflict, because if we believe in a false image of ourselves - an inauthentic image - we compare our real actions and feelings to it and find ourselves lacking. This discord likely affects people differently, but I imagine one of those ways is depression and self-loathing.

I'd characterize this type of authenticity as authenticity of self. Authenticity of this type is both representative and the creation of the same maker - it is about one's own representation of one's self. In this way, it is internal authenticity, in contrast to the external authenticity of design. I'll discuss some more examples of this type of authenticity below.

One thing I find interesting about both of these types of authenticity is that they are both of intrinsic value, sometimes to the detriment of extrinsic economic interests. By that I mean that often the world around us often rewards inauthenticity. As a result, efforts to remain authentic must be motivated by an intrinsic force, an assignment of value to authenticity itself. As I write this, I feel like there is an almost moral overtone to the entire concept, though I don't feel like authenticity (or its lack) is really related to ethics, which are about our relationship with those around us. Instead, I feel like authenticity is kind of like an inward-facing morality.

Since hearing the discussions above and thinking about them for a while, I've come to see authenticity, and the struggle for authenticity, everywhere, and particularly in business. Companies often market themselves as something they aren't truly. Tech companies in particular often like to pretend that their work is wildly innovative and groundbreaking, and that they are leading the charge in some new direction. In reality, many of those companies, particularly larger companies, do very little innovation. Instead, they provide relatively reliable if somewhat prosaic software with great account involvement and great support. These benefits are super valuable, so why the inauthenticity? In my opinion, it costs these companies quite a lot, both in terms of dollars to maintain this facade, and in terms of a deeper conflict in the organization itself - akin to the internal conflict we feel when we are inauthentic with our image of ourself. This conflict manifests in disjointed strategy and wasted efforts as the business units, products, and employees seek to find relevance within the image the company presents for itself. On the other hand, the benefits are dubious at best - who is being fooled? Surely not the customers, at least the ones you can retain.

I think companies should seek to be authentic in their marketing. If it looks like wood, it is wood; if it looks like metal, it is metal; if you say you're innovative, you are; if you say you support your products rabidly, you do. Instead of presenting your company as something you aren't, present it as what you actually are. If you want to be something else, become it (or a least invest in becoming it) before you start saying it. Incidentally, this is just as true for individuals as it is for companies. Say what you are, and be who you say you are.

Unfortunately, as I said above I think the value of authenticity is first an intrinsic one. This means that companies in particular, but also individuals to some extent, are often incentivized to operate outside of authenticity. Authenticity costs something as well, and that cost combined with the frequent external reward for inauthenticity make it hard to stay the course. However, I think the rewards are much more long-lasting than the external rewards. These rewards are both internal and external.

Externally, authenticity is often reward by rabid enthusiasm from others, as in the case of Aston with Jason Fried. People tend to admire these products, want to talk about them, want to show them to others. I think a lot of the recent popularity in buying higher quality products (selvedge denim, or Darn Tough socks, for example) is a reflection of the market desire for authenticity, and possibly even a backlash against inauthenticity. For companies where metrics like net promoter scores are beginning to take such an important position, this kind of reward can recommend authenticity over the more fleeting reward for inauthenticity.

Beyond external rewards, maintaining an authentic image promotes an inner harmony of sorts. I think this is what Adam Robinson was referring to, and I think it extends beyond just ourselves to our organizations at large. In many companies, a mission statement serves as a good starting point, but I think it's important for the entire company to reflect the authentic value of the company internal as well as externally - from leadership to HR to PR to marketing to sales to engineering to operations. When everyone in the company is aligned, and everyone is saying the same thing, and the thing they are saying is an honest description of what the company is, every action that is taken is on-mission. Without that, a mission statement is as divorced from reality as the marketing. When a company devotes itself to authenticity, nothing is a lie and nothing is pretense.

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