On Being Authentic

Feb 19, 2016

Recently I was at a meeting which focused on improving teaching skills. The meeting was two hours long, and all of the information was presented by one person.

One of the main points I took away from the class (and probably the one that was given the largest percentage of the two hours) was, "Don't talk too much." This simply meant that the teacher should be a facilitator of discussion rather than a lecturer because the students would remember the information better when they took an active role in the discovery and application of it.

The irony in this situation was that the teacher who was presenting the information was doing quite a bit more talking than the class members. She asked some questions and was always extremely respectful and attentive to whomever was answering, but she seemed intent on saying everything she'd written down even when many of her points had already been mentioned by members of the class.

Early on in the evening, she said something like, "If this was a regular classroom, I would be doing very little talking, but tonight's format is going to be a little different. There will be a little of, 'Do as I say, not as I do,' so please don't go home saying, 'Oh my goodness, she talked so much!'"

Unfortunately, that's exactly what I went home saying.

The whole class seemed to be a study in contradiction, and I had no idea why a class focused on teaching skills couldn't benefit from employing the same techniques it was teaching. It made no sense to me. Furthermore, I've been in other situations with this same teacher, and all of them have been very lecture-heavy, so it was hard for me to believe that this was the exception to her normal teaching style.

This past month, I've been rereading Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project for one of my 2016 reading goals. The day after the above experience, I read a portion of the book that not only gave me insight to the experience from the night before, but also helped me understand myself better.

Gretchen was talking about some of the anxiety she felt while working on her project. Sometimes she would imagine what her various critics might say: "You have it easy...You're not depressed...You're not spiritual enough...You just talk about yourself." It bothered her, but then she realized, "If I do the project my way, I'm unspiritual and gimmicky [according to her critics]; if I tried to do it a different way, I'd be inauthentic and fake. Might as well 'Be Gretchen.'"

I read that paragraph. And then I read it again. And then again. Everything from the night before gained clarity when I looked at it through this lens of authenticity.

The teacher in question is a gifted speaker. I think she feels quite comfortable behind a microphone with an audience in front of her. She delivers her words with authority and conviction. This is one of her talents, one of her strengths.

And yet, the information she had to present stressed, "Let the students do the teaching. Open a discussion. Don't feel bound by your prepared agenda."

It was in direct conflict with her personality. She might have believed it. She might have wished she could teach that way. But it wasn't who she was.

And so, she did what she felt comfortable with: She presented the information as a lecture.

Once I came to this realization, I felt much more forgiving about the two hours, but I also felt sad. Although, in the end, she'd been authentic to her preferred teaching method, her words didn't have as strong of an impact because she couldn't back them up with her actions. I wondered if it would have been better for her to share teaching techniques she could have supported through example and left the ones she couldn't to another day and another teacher. Yes, the current trend in teaching is to guide the students to make their own discoveries, but there is more than one way to teach just as there is more than one way to learn. What a stagnant world this would be if we all taught in exactly the same way using some proven method for success.

This whole situation has made me reconsider my own actions. Am I being authentic? Or am I trying to fit some pre-prescribed model? Are the clothes I wear and the books I read and the music I listen to dictated by other people or what I'm truly interested in?

I've mentioned before that I've never thrown a friends birthday party for any of my children. Sometimes I feel guilty about this, especially when my sister-in-law gives me a little nudge, "Maybe just when they turn seven?" However, organizing a birthday party that involves twelve seven-year-olds sounds chaotic and noisy and crazy to me. If such a party were in my child's best interest, I think I'd force myself to make the sacrifice, but I'm not sure it is. So can't I just acknowledge that birthday parties aren't my thing and celebrate and make my children feel loved and special in ways that I feel comfortable with? Can't I just adopt Gretchen's first commandment and "Be Amy"?

Of course, this is not to say that I shouldn't be making the effort to seek improvement and become better. The decision to "Be Amy" shouldn't become a crutch or an excuse for mediocrity. But there are many, even hundreds, of ways I can improve and stretch myself and grow within my own sphere of interests. I can "Be Amy" even while striving to "Become a Better Amy."

Going back to the teaching experience from awhile ago, I almost wish I could sit through the two hours again. I know I would be less critical and more attentive. I know I would look for the bits of wisdom that resonated with me rather than focusing on the little contradictions. I know I would embrace my own uniqueness even while embracing this teacher's. I know I would recognize the simple wisdom of being authentic.

I'm curious to know your thoughts on authenticity: How do you stay true to yourself even while striving to improve? Are there things you don't do that everyone else does? 


  1. Oh, yes, there are a lot of things i don't do that everyone else does...go to concerts. Drink pop. Swear. Spend tons of money on my wardrobe or season sports tickets. Say things just to placate people. Have friend birthday parties. :-) (Although, we did a couple. We made a big deal out of letting the older kids have one when they turned 8.) I do yoga because I need it, even if others don't see the value. When I became truly comfortable being myself, life was quite a bit easier.

    1. And I enjoyed reading your thoughts!

    2. I love these, Havilah! You have always struck me as a very authentic and genuine person!

  2. I find it difficult to balance authenticity and avoidance. I remember after reading the Happiness Project thinking "be Michelle" to say no to so many things. It quickly became a crutch for avoiding a lot of stuff, particularly parties and social obligations that I probably will never enjoy but where my participation is important.

    1. Yep, I totally agree with you. I think if the only rule of Gretchen Rubin's happiness project was to "Be Gretchen," then it would just become an exercise in laziness and avoidance. However, combined with other goals, I think it can help you stretch yourself but do it in areas that you're actually interested in (and I think you have to be willing to try new things and then evaluate them honestly).

  3. I think you definitely reached a nice state of grace in feeling compassion for that teacher/presenter, but I also think your initial response was correct too. Yes, it's important to be authentic to yourself and your style and interests, but that teacher should've been able to rise above her comfort level and actually be an effective teacher. I like the way you phrased it, "Be a better Amy," and that's how I will think of it from now on. Not just "be Suzanne," but "be a better Suzanne."

  4. Oh, I really like the "Be Amy" concept, Amy. The birthday parties are a great example. I just returned from a vacation with my husband and daughter to Disney World. And one of the things that we all learned by the end of the week is that future trips will go a lot better if we accept that I'm going to get tired earlier than they are, and should be able to "Be Jen" and just go back to the hotel early. I may have to read The Happiness Project (I read Better than Before and liked it a lot).

    1. That sounds a lot like me, Jen! I love traveling, but I need to remember I'm always happier if I have some quiet time to myself every day!


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