Must one try to be different?

In my last article, I proposed the three key gates to personal growth – Efficiency, Authenticity, and Focus – whilst providing an example of growth through the Gate of Focus. I am very pleased to report that Tobin’s debut gallery opening last night was a success. Congratulations Tobin, and I know that you will find more growth through your passion in painting!

A few people I encountered have managed to grow through Efficiency or Focus, but very few have found the Gate of Authenticity. Why is this gate so elusive to many? Short answer: if we keep looking for it, we will not find it. A few folks find this gate very simple and straightforward to go through. Most struggle to find it.

I noticed this pin-up on a corporate wall recently:

Contrary to popular beliefs, this quote is actually not about Authenticity at all. It simply refers to a survival strategy we could choose to adopt if we wish. If we seek to be authentic, this is the wrong quote for us.

As soon as we feel the need to be different, we are already veering away from being authentic – because our intent to be different would drive thoughts and behaviours that are “not us”. Believe it or not, being authentic simply means being who we really are. The challenge for most of us is: who we think we are keeps changing over time. Does that mean that the next time we genuinely feel authentic, it makes all our previous authentic selves unauthentic?

It is not so simple.

If we study the science of the mind, we will know that our sense of identity is misguided by layers and layers of misconception, so how we see ourselves is most likely misguided by the impulses and the condition of our environments, filtered through the perspectives we have developed through stages of our lives. These impulses often disguise themselves as ideologies and passions. Therefore in fact, every time we think that we have discovered authenticity, we are most likely just giving ourselves another label. Thus labelling gives us a false identity that lasts for a while, until a next critical life situation manifests itself and causes us to rethink, re-evaluate, and invariably come up with another label. The human mind inevitably needs to rationalise in situations of change; otherwise, most of us would go insane.

The key to Authenticity starts with the understanding of the difference between knowing (acquired knowledge) and experiencing (direct knowledge). For example, we know that most of us probably will live until 70-80 years old. That is acquired knowledge – something that we learn about through observation and education. Somehow such knowledge does not feel real for many until we turn 50 or even 60. But if we ever experience a moment that brings such knowledge to life, in a way that it hits us in the face in all its rawness, then suddenly this direct knowledge becomes alive and highly influential to how we would then live out the rest of our lives. It is via these raw moments that great individuals of the human race are “reborn” and go on to fulfill their destinies. If you have watched Whiplash, you might have noticed a raw moment when our protagonist Andrew “knew” that he “was” a great drummer. Such sudden knowledge was beyond the realm of expectations and beliefs; it was directly true to him; it was him. Blessed are those who experience these moments whilst they are still very young!

Once we have established this understanding, then the next step is to literally forget everything we know about Authenticity through books and speeches. All these have played a role to get us to this point, but will not take us any further. Let me introduce our next helpful friend – her name is Inspiration.

“Inspiration” has its Latin root in inspiratio (noun) or inspirare (verb) – literally meaning “to breathe deeply”, or in its expansive form, “to breathe in the air of vitality”. When we are inspired, do we not feel refreshed, full of (new) energy, thus alive? A common misunderstanding about inspiration is that it comes from outside of us. Contrarily, true inspiration comes from within. When we think that somebody or an event or a thing inspires us, in fact, they are only catalysts that trigger that source of inspiration from within. In other words, without those catalysts, that source of inspiration would not have woken up inside us at that moment. Inspiration is the magic potion that connects external catalysts with dormant sources of vitality within each of us. Inspiration is Alchemy!

Coming back to our friend Inspiration – this is how she would help us. Once we have dropped the books and stopped relying on the concepts and expectations that the external environment impose on us (including what is written here), try to remember a moment, as early in our childhood as possible, when we felt truly alive (aka. inspired). The key characteristics of this moment are: we were full of energy without feeling the need to be active, we were calm and content with ourselves, we felt useful and connected to everything around us, and the world felt perfect to us. Most people that I have worked with have managed to recall these moments, with extreme vividness. It is as if they have been living this moment over and over again many times in their lives. They would remember most of what their senses could pick up, what the surroundings were like, the expressions on the faces of certain people around them, as if these moments only occurred yesterday.

Remember how it felt so alive back then, whom we were with, what we were doing and not doing, what we were holding in our hands, what we were looking at or listening to, then contemplate on that moment – and we would be well on the way of discovering who we really are. When we recognise those false identities, we will stop chasing them. Being authentic is not about being perfect, far from it. It is about knowing our strengths and weaknesses, knowing what drive or demotivate us, and standing up for what we represent. Our quirks are part of who we are. They are colours of the world. Be authentic, stay authentic – there is no need to try to be different 🙂 The natural differences will then come through.

“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion” – Edgar Allan Poe

Emerging high performing organisations know that their only true and sustainable differentiation is in people – not their people, but the people – through intertwining paths in their lives – have come to build those organisations together. I believe that Authenticity is the ultimate key to high performance.