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The Quest for Authenticity Starts Early

by Chip Conley

An excerpt from Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness and Success

With a successful career in the hospitality industry behind him, Chip Conley says he’s moved from Chief Executive Officer to Chief Emotions Officer. In his new book, Emotional Equations, Chip explores the idea of using math as a way to better understand and manage our emotions. Two of the biggest factors in Chip’s emotional equations are self-awareness and courage, as this excerpt explains.

Infants begin to gain self-awareness between eighteen and twenty-four months of age, when they start becoming conscious of their own thoughts, feelings, and sensations and how they are separate from other people and objects. From that time on, we struggle to fulfill Oscar Wilde’s famous advice “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

The process of growing up can be one big exercise in stepping into other people’s expectations for you, rather than becoming conscious of and comfortable with your own dreams. One of the words drilled into us as teens is “responsibility,” the ability to respond appropriately to situations in life. But that word loses its meaning if we tend to be more reactionary. Something happens, and we react immediately without taking time to consider our response. A number of influences define how we react: our parents, the rules in our community, our most prevalent emotions, and, of course, our growing ego.

Though there are a few folks who need to completely change who they are—their family name, their religion, their physical body and even their sex—in order to feel authentic, most of us simply manage a slight twinge of self-betrayal. But we know or feel when we’re somehow out of alignment, and a thin veil of dissatisfaction arises when we give ourselves time to acknowledge it. As our identity becomes more fixed—or secure—in our young adulthood, we build a life around it. And of course, the more we invest in that identity, the more painful it may be in the future if we realize that, in fact, we are far off our authentic path. For many people, it’s easier to conform and pretend than to make a big shift. Who has the time or the skill set to pound rock all day looking for that hidden self? Psychologists have shown that authenticity is not simply an aspect of or precursor to well-being but the very essence of well-being and healthy functioning. Living a fulfilled life is living an authentic life.

Your Tools: Self-Awareness and Courage

… They’re both vital. Self-awareness without courage means that you know who you are but the rest of the world doesn’t. Courage without self-awareness can lead to macho posturing. So this is a multiplication equation, because the alchemy of those emotions—not just their addition—creates authenticity.

Self-awareness means that you’re an expert at emotional hide-and-go-seek. In our youth, when we tried to fit in, our sense of self may have gone undercover, or we may have defined our identity based primarily upon the groups we were a part of—whether a sports team, cheerleading squad, theater group, or no group at all. We became so attuned to listening to our external antennae that we neglected the internal antennae. We get so obsessed with looking good that we forgot what it means to be real.

I’ve come to understand this “inner me” by seeing it as an archaeological dig into layers of rock and sediment built up over the years. In my teens, my achievements made me feel worthy, which reinforced my goal-oriented behavior. In my mid-twenties, I started digging with the help of a therapist and discovered some spacious, miraculous caverns where a sense of understanding about who I was existed under all those layers—no matter what was going on in the surface world. Still, the older I got, the more I had to break through in order to get to the core: a sense of my authentic truth.

Carl Jung suggested that, at some point during our middle years, “the glowing coals of consciousness buried deep within the personality begin to break into flames. When this occurs, hitherto repressed and hidden aspects of the self may seem to overwhelm the conscious self, initiating a difficult period of disorganization of the personality.” That is what we call a “midlife crisis.” The most important challenge might be in finding the willingness to give up who you think you are in order to find out who you might become. That is the path to authenticity.

So how can you open yourself up to self-exploration and awareness without the help of a guru, therapist or hard hat (for excavations)? First, if you’re going to do this on your own, you will need a certain amount of objectivity in order to “witness” yourself. The patterns in which you think and behave every day can be difficult to discern and take responsibility for. Moving toward self-awareness requires you to see yourself in an unvarnished way and, as much as possible, without being judgmental, since a harsh critic will shut down the archaeological dig.

Try these four sets of questions as a means of starting to develop the objectivity necessary to be self-aware:

  1. Who knows you best? Would they describe you more accurately than how the rest of the world sees you? When you’re in their presence, do you show up differently than you do in the rest of your life? What are a couple of emotions that you feel in their presence, and what’s the source of those emotions?
  2. What’s the biggest masquerade in your life today? In other words, when do you feel the largest disconnect between who you are and what you’re doing? What were, or are, the circumstances that led you into this situation? How do you cope with or compensate for this feeling of disconnection? And how do you think it affects the people and relationships in your life?
  3. These are my favorite interview questions to ask execs who want to join my company: How are you most frequently misperceived in the workplace (or at home), and why? What’s the “real you,” and why is it that others don’t see that as much as you’d like them to? What’s been your biggest mistake in your career, and what did you learn from it? It takes a certain amount of self-awareness and courage to answer that one.
  4. If an objective observer, someone who doesn’t know you, watched you twenty-four hours a day for a month, what do you think he or she would list as your three greatest strengths and your three greatest weaknesses? How do you feel about each of those six qualities?

Courage can be a natural result of spending sufficient time getting comfortable with your center. In fact, the Latin root of the word comes from the center of your physical being: your heart. Courage takes great heart. After years of blending in socially, a self-aware person can feel a certain pride when he starts marching to his own internal drummer. Feeling that elevation or liberation creates a momentum that brings courage along with it and empowers you to be your authentic self. Once you start moving into that positive direction, there’s a self-sustaining ripple effect that gives you even more courage to be authentic. Self-awareness feels good.

Reprinted with generous permission from Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Chip Conley, MBA, founded Joie de Vivre Hospitality at the age of 26 and, as CEO for 24 years, expanded it into a collection of more than 35 award-winning hotels, restaurants, and spas. A veteran practitioner of emotional intelligence in business, Chip is a sought-after speaker and best-selling author.