Recently, a group of Host Team members gathered to talk about an issue that has deep resonance for entrepreneurs: How much of your authentic self do you bring to your work, and how has that changed since you went independent? Creating your own career trajectory is, by definition, a path towards greater self-determination. Yet, in the pressure to engage clients, be a decisive leader, and manage the daily hustle, we often struggle with balancing self-expression with the need to develop an enterprise that serves its stakeholders. We all know effective leadership and good entrepreneurship depend on transparency. Yet, how much do feel comfortable going beyond transparency into radical authenticity?
The answer, for Hubbers, is that authenticity is the lodestar for social innovators. Defining how we express that authentic self, however, has as many answers as there are entrepreneurs. In this candid conversation, we explored how to be ourselves while respecting the needs of others, ways to make space for others’ self-expression, and pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones.
Will: It definitely has changed since I left the corporate environment. It depends on the audience that I am dealing with. I have changed my perspective to always bring myself, but I share different aspects of my self depending on the context. It can mean something as simple as deciding whether to wear jeans and T shirt vs a suit. Still, it’s more a matter of adapting, rather than censoring; I bring everything now. The industry you’re in also affects how you can self-present. When someone is trusting you with something important, like financial information or life coaching, you need to align with the image they have of someone they can trust.
Charles: The thing is not to intimidate people, too. Wearing a suit, for instance, can read as an attempt to be intimidating in a setting where no one else is wearing a suit. If you are a formal person, though, people will come to understand that it’s your comfort zone.
Christina: It can definitely be more authentic to self-present formally. Informality is not the same thing as being authentic. Dress, for instance, can also be about mindset. Whether you work from home or solo from a coworking space, the temptation is to be casual. Dressing for work signals to your brain that you’re in work mode, if that’s how you think. It can be more about the ritual of preparing for the day by crafting what you feel is your best self.
Charles: It became a logistical challenge to wear a suit mainly because I had to bike between two offices each day and meet with different types of people some of whom would be very intimidated by a suit. I used to think about what to wear in different contexts . So now I keep different sets of clothes in both offices. I don’t like wearing a suit, necessarily, because I don’t see people’s real selves–I see their reactions to a self-presentation that could indicate power or prestige. I get afforded privileges because I look a certain way, whereas without dressing in a suit, I would get people’s unfiltered reactions.
Christina: Changing gears a little: we didn’t become entrepreneurs to be comfortable. We’re also committed to personal growth, which means that our definition of ourselves is evolving.
Where do you draw the line between leaving your comfort zone and being inauthentic? That is something I think about. Some of the best opportunities in my work and personal lives have come from leaving my comfort zone, sometimes based on ideas of what I “should” do–network more, brand myself more. Yet, many people are introverts, and find that leaving their comfort zone is not only challenging, but feels untrue to their core character. There are also issues of privilege: some people lack the resources to network when we have work to do, or can’t afford conference tickets, new hobbies, or other chancy endeavors. Each time I leave my comfort zone, I ask myself: am I hesitant to take up golf, or join a new Meetup, because it’s not clear it’s worthwhile, or because I truly don’t think it reflects my core values?
Demetria: That’s an awesome and important point you bring to the table, Christina. Drawing the line between one’s comfort zone and being inauthentic can be extremely challenging. However, as entrepreneurs, we must be brave enough to dare to erase it a little. When I left my career to become a full-time voice actor, I went to any and every networking function I could even if they weren’t tailored to my industry as you never know whom you may meet. Over time, I learned to trim my attendance to functions I knew would bring me even a little bit of ROI. Ironically, being bold enough in the beginning gave me courage in areas my introvert self needed – which is a huge ROI as my career is now expanding into on-camera acting. Still, as an entrepreneur, I have to deal with some barriers to entry in the form of finances. For example, I’d love to join a golf club for business and social reasons, but my money needs to go to coaching, revamping my website and acting classes, etc. So I look for events where I can volunteer and get to know/get in to those valuable nooks and crannies that could boost my career. Am I being inauthentic or not my true self by crossing the line of my comfort zone? Only if it violated my values and character. I don’t do “office politics” and I’m not going to be cheesy and placate you in hopes of getting a gig. I’m going to be my true self which (sadly) at a networking function is starting off at the refreshments table seemingly obsessed with grapes and finally meandering around people until someone says “Hi” or I take a breath to do so myself (attaching myself to a group already chatting is extremely uncomfortable for me). As an introvert, I dread the end of the “nice” chat because I know it means back to meandering [laughs]
Christina: Demetria, that is such a good point. Sometimes, our definition of our true selves just needs expanding. There’s a line between defining yourself and limiting yourself. Also, a huge difference between core values, which we don’t change, and limits, which we need to change in order to grow as entrepreneurs.
Amy: Speaking of pushing past barriers, not all are self-created. It’s a privilege to even be able to think about being your authentic self, since many people don’t have the opportunity.
Many people from marginalized groups need to translate and censor themselves when existing and engaging outside of their own community in order to avoid bias, judgement, or other repercussions- sometimes even including danger. It’s important to be mindful of that when having this conversation because our (white/male/straight/middle class – read: dominant) experience creates a bias that makes us think that our right or ability to exist authentically is equal. It’s also important to think about the versions of authentic we deem worthy of our acceptance, our interest, or of reward.
Also: when we think about being our authentic selves, we need to also care deeply about whether we’re creating space for others to do so, even if we’re not familiar or comfortable with it. We need to think about situations where we don’t bother to step outside of our conditioning and assumptions, when do we not bother to translate properly- and leave our assumptions and judgments in place?
Does it even occur to us to leave behind judgement so that others can be themselves? As a community, I think it’s important that we take a moment to assess our emotional reactions to, for instance, different communication styles or explore our resistance to certain topics of conversation, tone, vocabulary and grammar, etc.- and think beyond our initial impulse. When we talk about importance of creating space for others, we have to remember that we were conditioned to respond in certain ways, and might be missing a valuable chance at connection, learning, understanding… and developing strong relationships, projects, and communities.
Christina: This has been an amazing, honest, and really productive conversation. Thanks, everyone. This is part of what makes Impact Hub so special: we are able to have these conversations and feel safe putting our authentic selves out there.
Demetria: Very valid points you’ve made, Amy. Cultural and societal conditioning can make it hard for some to be comfortable with being authentic in certain spaces. The reality is that such spaces may be slow in being created or may not be created at all for those who are being marginalized. It’s also imperative that entrepreneurs understand that there is a difference between space being made for you or bringing your own seat to the table. There are plenty of examples where marginalized individuals have done the latter. Of course as a community, we must push for the former but the wheels of change can tend to move by inches. Inauthenticity many times is grown in the dark spaces of fear and lack of knowledge. Combating the fear and assumptions many from marginalized groups may have can be a huge boon to moving those wheels forward and with greater speed.