Caveat permanentum: Nothing in this blog is research-based or empirically verifiable. I’m not against those things, but other people are much better at them than I am. So while I’d love to have you stick around, if you’re looking for Big Data, look elsewhere.
So the immediate cause of this post is the first episode of the Henry & Heidi podcast, in which Heidi casually accuses Henry of “sugarcoating things” when he appears on other podcasts. Henry begs to differ, and fun antics ensue. Henry Rollins is a good example of someone who built his career (both the Black Flag part and the spoken word part) on NOT sugarcoating things. Punk music is about radical honesty, a reaction to what you might call the radical dishonesty of the ’50s. Kids fed up with a sugarcoated version of reality where everyone felt intense pressure to appear happy and normal all the time, while pushing anything unseemly down into the Lovecraftian depths. Kids pissed off because of all of the negative externalities of this state of pretense. Rampant, unacknowledged alcoholism. Pervasive, unspoken ennui.
To many grown-ups of my generation, this flat-out rage against the machine feels a little embarrassing now, a little teenaged and naive. If we’re making fun of things, it’s sideways, with irony, with an underlying sense that the war has already been lost. But the threats punk unmasked and fought against remain very real, and very much with us.
There’s a lot of talk in psychology these days, for example, about the importance of “authenticity,” and businesses are frantically striving to build the reality or the illusion of authenticity into their workplaces for fear of losing talented millennials, to whom (surveys and turnover stats show), authenticity is important. It is hopeless perhaps to attempt to define what being authentic really means. For the purposes of psychology, the subjective feeling of authenticity must suffice. If you feel like you’re basically allowed to be your (mostly) complete self, rather than being contorted into unnatural knots trying to serve some external ideal, it’s all good.
As the 1.5 people who have been following this three-posts-old blog of mine know, I’m very into podcasts these days. In that world, Marc Maron’s a good example of a guy who is obviously striving to be his authentic self, warts and all. He’s loud. He’s brash. He says the F-word a lot (see how inauthentic I’m being here? I use that word all the time but somehow feel the need to tone it down for you, Dear Reader. Or let’s be even realer: Big Think is a for-profit company based on licensing a video-learning product to corporations, and my boss announced at a meeting recently that the F-word is not okay on the site in case any Citigroup execs might happen to be looking at it. Can I be that honest?).
So Maron kind of annoys me, personally, but it’s clear both from listening to him and from a conversation he had with Louis CK on his show once that his career has improved the more “authentically himself” he has become. By which I mean unafraid to be uncool and annoying. Unfettered.
Now, if you are an executive at, say, Citigroup, and if you’re not the CEO or something close to it, you probably cannot afford to be your authentic self all the time. Likewise if you work at McDonald’s.
Flashback to when I was 18 or 19 years old. Full disclosure: I was a child not of obscene, but of undeniable privilege who had never really worked a day in his life up to that point. In the summer after my first year in college, I went to Oakland, California, to live with my best friend John, who was at Berkeley. I was supposed to get a job: On this point my parents had been clear; no job, no stay in California. So wandering aimlessly down the streets of Berkeley looking for a job, I happened upon a flyer on a telephone pole that said “Jobs.” And that is how I began my first and only day of work for CALPIRG, a door-to-door environmental advocacy organization. Let me be clear and brutally honest: I did not care about the environment, particularly. In a bare, nondescript office, a 40-something guy with a ponytail and an earring gave me and 10 other hapless kids the spiel, then we were each turned loose on a different suburb with a map in hand. I knocked on doors. Often nobody was home (relief!). If people were home, I awkwardly stumbled through a script about how “we” were the people who had cleaned up some bay or other. Some people were nice and invited me in for a beverage while they wrote out a check. But there’s one guy I really remember. He was just getting home, getting out of his car in his driveway. “Hi!” I said. “I’m Jason! I’m with CALPIRG! We’re the group that–” The guy put his arm around my shoulders. He looked into my eyes. “Jason,” he said in a calm, soothing tone, “F– off.”
From a payphone (remember those?) I called home, crying. Then I quit.
After a couple of days of recovery and wound-licking, my next career move was to walk around looking at store windows (rather than telephone poles) for “help wanted” signs. I found one on a KFC. I filled out an application and — BAM! — I got the job! That evening, reading the employee manual at John’s house (while tripping on LSD, and so looking a little deeper into this thing than I might otherwise have done), I once again burst into tears. The manual regulated everything from hair length to the brightness of your smile, and as I stared in horror into the void of it, I felt myself face to face with the reality of money and what I’d have to become (for the rest of my life) to get my hands on it.
I was not (you may have intuited) the thickest-skinned kid on the block. But both of these stories get at the heart of this issue of authenticity. It is really painful to have to pretend against your will to be something you’re not. I imagine strippers, porn actors, and prostitutes (with the possible exception of the rare variety who claim to feel empowered by these professions) experience this kind of dissociative state to an exponentially higher degree than the rest of us, but in every profession and every relationship it’s there to some degree: the question of how much honesty you’re allowed to get away with, and how much dishonesty you’re willing to take.
On an episode of the Myoclonic Jerkpodcast I recently heard (Yes, that’s right: All I do is listen to podcasts), one guest was a guy who grew up in a family committed to “radical honesty.” It’s what it sounds like: telling people what you think all the time with no filter. The guy was describing how he had trouble in romantic relationships because (my words, not his), he just never shut up about whatever he was feeling at every moment. Radical Narcissism, really. And he explained how he’s only now, as a 30-something-year-old man, beginning to understand that there’s value in what psychologists call “theory of mind”: the ability to understand that other people have feelings and perspectives.
I don’t want to tie this post up in a neat bow. Honesty and authenticity are complicated. Am I being dishonest if I don’t blurt out to the woman sitting across from me on the subway as I write this: “I think your sunglasses look ridiculous!” Well, kinda. But I’m also respecting her right to sit there and read whatever she’s reading without being accosted by my opinion. At one end of the spectrum you have a guy like GG Allin [probably NSFW], who used to poo and cut himself with razor blades on stage. That was honest. On the other you have Henry David Thoreau’s “mass of men lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation.”
Every relationship (with bosses, with lovers, with the general public) is a negotiation. We negotiate a sense of an authentic self against the feelings and needs of the other person for the unique benefits the relationship brings us both. It’s cold, but it’s true. Where we run into trouble, especially in love and work, is when we stop asking ourselves: Is anyone getting a really raw deal here?
Talk to Jason Gots @jgots on Twitter.