By Jaya Saxena • January 05, 2015•Writers in Residence
Welcome to a new year, readers! I am thrilled to invite each of you on my journey to explore what it means to be an authentic professional self.
Before I begin that process, though, it seems only logical to first think through what it means to be authentic. In an effort to do just that, I spent some time reflecting on what authenticity means to me. If any of this sounds too new agey or Dr. Phil-ish (and, he does pop up quite a bit on the Internet if you search for any related themes), rest assured that one of my goals in this column is to offer exercises and practical suggestions for those who might be struggling to define their professional identity and/or striving for authenticity in the workplace.
In simple terms, authenticity is about being your real, genuine self. It’s about being rooted in your values and beliefs and living a life that is a true reflection of them – even when faced with the possibility that you may be judged, rejected, or disliked. In brainstorming about this post, I asked several female attorney friends for their thoughts.
As one stated, “it means the ability and the comfort level to be yourself rather than shaping yourself into a cookie cutter image.” Another shared a similar thought – “The world, sometimes in well-intentioned ways and voices of loved ones, will try and tell you what your gifts are and how you should use them. They may be voices of truth, but the most important voice is the inner voice.” And, I’m sure many of us have experienced the compulsion to fit into a particular mold or use our gifts in a certain way.
It follows that an authentic professional self is characterized by genuineness in the workplace, and values and beliefs that are aligned with the very nature of the work and reflected in actions towards classmates, colleagues, and clients. The friends I asked shared the following additional thoughts:
- It requires finding the right fit or environment for yourself and the definition of what is a right fit could change over time. “A position that might be the right fit for you today may not allow you to be your authentic self years down the road because of life changes or new interests/skill sets."
- It means “not sacrificing my values and beliefs even if I’m not practicing in the area of law that I’m most excited or passionate about” and also not sacrificing personal life, relationships, or other activities.
- It’s being comfortable to talk about your culture or your personal interests at work, or share your thoughts on topics in a respectful way even if others have a differing viewpoint.
Another friend addressed authenticity as a working mom, which I can very much relate to as a mom of a 20-month old (going on 13 years old so it seems at times) girl. She described one aspect of her authentic professional self as bringing her full self to work, which includes the fact that she is also a mom, partner, community member, etc. as each of those roles is important to her.
So how is it that I, along with many others I’m sure, have struggled to be my authentic professional self at one time or another?
One reason might be because we haven’t invested in the time or energy to be self-aware or gain self-knowledge. We may not have taken the time to assess our values – things like Relationships, Travel, Leadership, Diversity, Financial Stability, Status and so on and so forth. In order to live our values in work and in life generally, we must first identify what it is we value. These are some simple starting points as outlined in one of my all-time favorite books, The Creative Lawyer: A Practical Guide to Authentic Professional Satisfaction by Michael F. Melcher. As Melcher states, we can start by evaluating where we are now and identifying our core values. You’ll likely see me reference Melcher’s book in future posts because it was so instrumental to me when I was contemplating a job change and seeking professional fulfillment several years ago.
We may also struggle to be our authentic professional self because of Fear.
We may be afraid of not living up to someone else’s expectations of us or of not listening to the voices of loved ones. We may be afraid of voicing or acting upon viewpoints that differ from those around us. Or, we may be concerned that others will not like us or that we will be judged.
I will delve into some of these fears in greater detail in a later post, including the idea of “covering,” a concept I only recently learned and find extremely interesting. Author Kenji Yoshino begins his book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, by stating “Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” In other words, we may manipulate or even hide an aspect of our outer identity in order to blend into our environment. Here are a few specific examples of covering:
- Having an ethnic name, but going by a more Americanized nickname;
- Downplaying or not even talking about our roles as mothers in the workplace;
- Not attending a work event with a LGBT partner; or
- Hiding a mental or physical disability
The reality is that “covering” has a number of harmful unintended consequences – not only do we end up masking our authentic selves, but it can also come at the cost of work productivity and success.
Now that we have explored what it means to be authentic and addressed some of the challenges that may stand in our way, my future posts will move us forward on this journey to discover our own authentic professional self.
In the meantime, I invite you to identify your core values by completing the exercise below. Hopefully, the exercise will help strengthen your self-awareness and self-knowledge so that you can start living the values (or perhaps it will reaffirm what you already know about yourself)!
Exercise #1: Core Values
There are countless strategies for identifying your core values. I offer the questions below, which are taken from Melcher’s book. I answered these questions myself (I’m actually looking at my answers in the book as I type) and found them to be extremely useful.
- When do you like being you (e.g. when I’m learning something new, when I’m helping someone, when I’m connecting with other people)?
- Think about a time when you felt alive and engaged in what you were doing. What words come to mind? How did you feel?
- What are your interests? Try and be specific. Perhaps it helps to think about books you’ve recently read, what you enjoyed doing as a child, hobbies or activities, or characteristics embodied by people you respect.
Once you’ve jotted down your notes to these questions, start to create a list of your top 10 core values. One way to get started is to find a list of core values on the Internet (and there are plenty of them!).
Until my next post,
 Michael F. Melcher, The Creative Lawyer: A Practical Guide to Authentic Professional Satisfaction (American Bar Association 2007).
 Kenji Yoshino, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Random House Trade Paperbacks 2006).