Inauthenticity is a uniquely 21st century issue, which has become an increasing part of society on every level – from governments and big tech, down to our everyday purchases. It seems like there’s never a week without a media storm about some aspect of authenticity, and we are fascinated by it – from NFTs to Barnard Castle and ‘Partygate’ lies, to Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler, and of course most recently the propaganda used to justify Russia’s war in Ukraine. The lines between reality and illusion are increasingly blurred; the need to distinguish between the two is an urgent daily challenge.
Alice Sherwood is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Policy Institute at King’s College London and a director of an open-source intelligence company, Alice spent 5 years extensively researching the subject, culminating in the witty, timely, and insightful new book, Authenticity: Reclaiming Reality in a Counterfeit Culture.
In this interview, I speak to Alice Sherwood about what authenticity means, why our culture has become so obsessed with authenticity, impostor syndrome, the dangers of authentic leadership, and how we truly can be more authentic in our lives.
Q: What is authenticity?
[Alice Sherwood]: Google nGram shows the frequency of word appearances in the hundreds of millions of books and text articles scanned by Google. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the appearance of the word ‘authenticity’ has been rising. It’s a strange word; it can mean so many things – personal authenticity is shorthand for being true to ourselves and living up (or down!) to our internal values. Factual authenticity is different again, we may ask whether something is an authentic, real, account of what happened. In this case, authenticity is about facts, not feelings. The facts must be objective and stack up – completely the opposite, let’s say, of the highly subjective nature of personal authenticity. It’s no wonder we’re confused!
The kind of authenticity we think about in the 21st century is only 300 years old. For most of human history, you had a relatively immovable place in society; you were a king, you were a peasant, and it didn’t change. You also, most likely, had a strong faith which gave you guardrails for behaviour and meaning. You knew why you were alive, you knew what you were here to do, and what would happen when you die. We don’t have those guardrails around society now – it’s much more complex, atomised, and diffuse, and we have yet to join the dots to give modern society ‘meaning.’
We live in a society where our pursuit of authenticity is more important to us than ever, but we’ve created a society which is also extraordinarily fake. I want to understand this and understand how we can fight back.
Q: Is there an evolutionary reason for authenticity?
[Alice Sherwood]: There is a deep evolutionary reason to fake, to be inauthentic. If you are a harmless butterfly who looks poisonous, you are more likely to survive. There’s also an evolutionary reason to spot fakers – so you know, for example, which of your prey are pretending to be poisonous. Nature provides us with rafts of examples of why we should be wired to deceive or to spot deception – this is core to the concept of trust which is necessary for society to function!
Q: What is impostor syndrome?
[Alice Sherwood]: Impostor syndrome is the feeling that success is underserved, or that you will be ‘found out.’ In most cases, the people who get impostor syndrome really shouldn’t! The research also shows that beyond a certain age, it is more common in women than men, perhaps because women see fewer role models in higher positions in careers and therefore feel, by virtue of a lack of representation and role models, that they must be the fraud. It perhaps is the case that this is true for minorities too.
The only people I’ve come across who don’t have impostor syndrome are the real impostors. The conmen, con artists, the deceivers in our society who have no problem pretending to be who they are not. They’re not bothered, they don’t get impostor syndrome, and don’t reveal the ‘tells’ the rest of us may give away.
Q: Do we confuse originality and authenticity?
[Alice Sherwood]: We are a very crowded society. People must find some way of standing out from the crowd. The internet has amplified this as people jostle to find attention, influence others, get into the public eye and gain influence. The question is – are these people trying to be more authentic? Or are they trying to stand out? We often look at those people and see them as quirky and unconventional – this often translates to us feeling they are brave or different by not letting society dictate to them how they look or what to do. We admire that I think, as most of us go along with society’s expectations. We admire the quirky ones, the ones who break the rules, the ones who dare to be different and live a different life. We assume they’ve peeled away the constrictions of society and are being themselves. The assumption here is that they’re being more authentic because they’re being true to themselves – but – it could be a façade. The unconventional, quirky, rule breakers among us are not necessarily authentic. It could well be putting on an act.
Q: What do you make of the ‘authentic leadership’ movement?
[Alice Sherwood]: The authentic leadership movement talks about bringing your true self to work. What happens if your true self is not a good leader? Or obnoxious to your colleagues? Or a narcissist? What if your true self is an axe murderer? As I see it – we should be talking about bringing our best values to work- that are most aligned with us and the company.
The alignment bit is critical; imagine if you are running Apple, and you’re not deeply creative. Imagine if you are running an engineering company, and you don’t care about safety?
Q: What is the link between authenticity and business?
[Alice Sherwood]: Businesses have a huge, and important, role to play in authenticity. Businesses provide everything core to our lives, from our laptops to our cars, from our fashion to our food. These products give our lives meaning in many ways. Our 21st century pursuit of authenticity is about meaning. We’re looking for the authenticity to provide meaning in life – it’s more than a checklist, it’s almost a spiritual quest.
The ‘job’ of business was to provide us with straightforward physical objects- now most of our objects are brands that have values attached to them. The story may be about how this ‘thing’ will help you reach your potential, or unlock some social good, or bring you status. Businesses are creating those intangibles, they are selling our feelings back to us in a way that breaks-through our cynicism, so we buy into it.
We’re choosing brands like we choose friends. And that is a huge responsibility because they’ve got to be a real friend, not a false friend.
Brands also have a signalling value which historically traces back to the values and craftmanship of products that had a brand attached to them. Nowadays, we’re not picking the craftmanship, we’re picking the signal. This is why fake goods are such a huge problem – they allow you to signal the quality without ‘spending’ the value.
Q: How can we be more authentic?
[Alice Sherwood]: The reductionist position is that we must peel away the layers to find who we really are. I worry that there’s no clear rationale for where to stop, and before you know it, there’s no onion left. Perhaps it is better for us to peel away the distractions and be more aware of what we’re paying attention to. There is a phrase, tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are. That is how I would see the quest for authenticity.