‘Be true to yourself’ is a well-worn phrase, almost a mantra. I know I pepper talks (and writing) with the phrase. I think I know exactly what I mean and had assumed others did too. I do not mean that you should give up all social graces and be blunt in every situation, telling people to get lost (or a more offensive equivalent) because that’s what you really feel about them. I think there is a difference between honouring your inner beliefs and acting accordingly and simply being downright rude and unpleasant. So I was surprised to read an article in the Guardian recently that seemed to think the phrase meant exactly that latter interpretation and therefore it was lousy advice to give.
Likewise there seems some doubt about the wisdom of using the word ‘authentic’ (again I’m guilty of this, though less often I think than of talking about being true to oneself). The same article took exception to the phrase, as did Lucy Kellaway in a totally different context. She noted that while being exhorted to be ‘authentic’ on a big screen in front of them, the women at a corporate finance event looked as if they were being anything but in their dress. As she put it
‘700 immaculate, high-heeled women swallowing unquestioningly a series of platitudes about the importance of being themselves. The only diversity in evidence was that while some were wearing Miu Miu, others were in Diane Von Furstenberg and Burberry.’
Nevertheless I believe both phrases have their uses in researchers’ lives. In particular, and where it is clear Kellaway’s women fell down badly, I do not think being true to oneself, or being authentic, requires any sort of uniform (Designer or otherwise), let alone that they allow some norm to define us. In fields dominated by men such as physics and engineering, I also refute the idea that it means turning into an honorary man (which might be thought of as a different kind of uniform), assuming male-by-default is the only way to get on. A decade ago I rejected the advice to have voice-coaching to lower my voice that a well-meaning supporter offered me; I am who I am and I believe passionately what matters is what I have to say not the pitch in which I say it. In conversation with Alice Roberts last week (recording to be up on the Churchill College website soon) she told us how she failed to be promoted and the only thing they seemed able to hold against her was her ‘lack of gravitas’. Gravitas does seem only to be associated with men, but Bristol University lost her – and all her talents – by being so short-sighted.
My advice remains to those trying to find their feet: be true to yourself or, if you prefer, be authentic. What I usually mean by the phrase is not to allow yourself to be pushed into things that you don’t believe are right for you. It is all too easy to think there is a ‘right’ way to do things, right choices to be made, right boxes to tick, which is all very well if they appeal but futile otherwise – not least because in all probability you won’t excel at them if your heart isn’t in the task at hand. We’ve all known students who’ve followed their parents’ wishes in choice of subject at university only to regret it bitterly and possibly even drop out as a result. We only have one life, and it is important that it is one’s own life that is led and not someone else’s dreams that are followed.
So, if you decide half way through your PhD that it was a mistake, there should be no shame in deciding to leave and follow some other dream. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet worked out what that new dream is, it might be worth finishing off the PhD before trying your hand at something else. Only you can judge which feels ‘right’, but giving up – as opposed to positively moving on – is prone to leave an unpleasant taste.
None of this is to ignore the fact that part of everyone’s life involves donning some sort of facade to permit greasing of the social and professional wheels. One may have to work with colleagues one would rather not or turn up to work on days it would be nice to go out and smell the roses. But doing things like that, I don’t believe is ‘inauthentic’, so much as a tedious necessity. When talking about being authentic I am talking about the big picture, not the mundane day-to-day dross. Which is why I think the Guardian article is wrong. One should distinguish between what needs to be one’s primary focus day after day from the temporary social graces that may serve to cover other feelings.
I believe things get corrosive if every day your job feels at odds with your aspirations and if the only way you can get through that job is by cultivating a persona that leaves you feeling diminished and uncomfortable; things are likely to go personally downhill if you feel the rewards for behaving like this do not match the cost. In the long term, if what you are doing just isn’t ‘right’ for you, or if you’ve accepted some responsibility which sits uncomfortably with either your values or what you perceive as your career/life trajectory you need to focus on who you really are and decide if the game is worth the candle.