Authenticity Isn’t Enough

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“I asked someone why he did cocaine. He said ‘because it intensifies your personality.’ I said ‘Yeah, but what if you’re an asshole?'” – Bill Cosby

Being authentic, intensified or not, may not be all it’s cracked up to be…

Everywhere you turn, social media pundits herald the word “authenticity” as the key to success in blogging, twitter, Facebook and pretty much all manner of 2.0 communication. “You’ve gotta be real, authentic, let it all hang out,” we’re told. “Because that’s what readers, listeners and viewers respond to.”

Oh really?

So, you’re telling me that if my real, authentic self is a withdrawn, low-key, insanely-bland, disinterested bore and I hang that all for all to see, people will line up to participate in that experience…because I’m being authentic?

Sorry, not buying it.

Authenticity may well be a key to going through life comfortable in your own skin, it’s a touchstone of the way I try to live. But…

Authenticity is not an automatic ticket to success in an attention economy.

Because, if you choose a platform or business building model where a key element is attention, you’ve got to be not only authentic, but significant.

So people like people like Seth Godin, Chris Anderson, Daniel Pink, Malcom Gladwell, Arian de Bonvoisin Chris Guillebeau, Chris Brogan, Naomi Dunford, Havi Books, Hugh MacCleod, Brian Clark and Penelope Trunk succeed because they are not only real, but, in being so, significant to a large enough tribe of people to matter.

And, here’s where it gets tricky.

Because, a lot of people either:

  • Can’t figure out how to be both, or
  • Won’t allow themselves to be authentic enough to be significant even though they have it in them, because it will reveal way more than they’re comfortable revealing to the public

If you’re in the first category, you may want to seriously reconsider whether you’d want to operate on the “front end” in an attention economy and, if so, start working on ways to become an authentic signal.

And, if you’re in the latter group, make your choice consciously, knowing that what you hold back may in fact have a very real limiting impact on the size of your tribe and your income. Or, an interesting alternative is to be authentic and significant through the shield of an avatar.

This is similar to what certain writer’s do when crafting extraordinary, compelling, authentic, significant content under a pen name in an effort to share their voice and have an impact, while still remaining publicly “protected.” I know it sounds odd to increase authenticity by hiding your identity, but, it can be immesnely freeing.

Look at at Witness Protection 2.0…it get’s the job done.

So, what about you? Are you authentic and significant? Can you be?

And, what about my theory on authenticity not being enough in an attention economy?

Do you buy it? What’d I leave out?

Let’s discuss…

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32 responses

32 responses to “Authenticity Isn’t Enough”

  1. Yikes, way to hit me square in the head on Monday Morning!

    This is what I have been struggling against for a bit- “Won’t allow themselves to be authentic enough to be significant even though they have it in them, because it will reveal way more than they’re comfortable revealing to the public…”

    I finally took a few steps over the last week to break out of my self limiting fears and I have been really pleased with the results. It takes some guts and a little bit of childlike naïvety to step off the ledge, at least for me it did.

    Simply acknowledging that I can be authentic AND significant was a breakthrough moment. I AM enough, I DO matter, I have something ESSENTIAL to say, and there are people out there listening….

    As far as moving forward and at the same time staying “protected” …

    I have spent so much time branding myself that the ideas were getting lost. By lost, I mean I simply didn’t share them. Spending time and attention on building a following based off my charisma has been fine, but what happened is that I sat on the ideas that I was wanting to share in the first place. Perhaps if I spent more time just sending out the message, less time on how people perceive it, will be what makes it all fall into place.

    It reminds me of a post of yours a while back- the one about why some things go viral in an instant- because they are good ideas that speak to a cross-section of people. Maybe one can spend time molding the message, but I believe that ultimately the message is divine inspiration anyway so you might as well just jump in feet first and contribute instead of spending all your time on charisma and pottery ;0)

    Woo Hoo, Yippee, and Yay!

  2. Mike CJ says:

    Yep – I can vouch for what you say from personal experience. When I started my blog, I held so much back, including who I was! It’s a long story, but I had serious financial issues at the time. When I finally got to the “Screw it! I’m going to let it all out!” stage, things just took off in terms of traffic, feedback and pretty much every measure of success there is.

  3. Sunday says:

    Yes, I’m also in category 2! And it’s so nice to know I have company. I started my online life with a gardening-blog nom de pixel, partly so I could combine my various gardens into one fictional garden, but also I’m sure for yes, reasons of protection. It’s also quite fun and, yes, liberating.

    Maybe because of this or maybe because all my work on shifting perspective is actually having an effect, I find that I care a lot less about revealing myself lately, online and off. Life is finite; might as well have a say while we’re here.

  4. Excellent post, Dan. Reminds me of a debate over Authenticity vs. Authority I orchestrated recently with input from Godin, Brogan and other attention economy thought-leaders –

    Good to see it still rages.

  5. Brandon W says:

    I’m reminded of author and blogger “Stanley Bing.” He’s been successful while working from behind a cloak. His true identity has since been discovered, but he continues using his character, and people go along with it. I think the trick is in creating a brand. Sure, you can be “Brand You”. I also think of “Fake Steve Jobs” and how successful he’s been, despite the obvious lack of authenticity. A guy named Frank who loves Catalan food could open a café named “Frank’s Café” or he could open one named “Café Barcelona.” Either might be deemed authentic in his customers’ eyes. It’s all about the brand he creates; and frankly, option 2 might be a better name to build a brand on. Being authentic is simply about not BS’ing anyone. If Frank tries to tell his community he’s Catalonian when he’s clearly Irish, that’s BS. But if he says, “I’ve toured Catalonia extensively and studied their fine foods. It’s delicious! And now I bring it to you, at Café Barcelona….”, well, that’s authentic.

  6. Kieran Crotty says:

    Do I buy it? No.
    But I appreciate the discussion.
    I think being authentic, being real is important. I’m not a good faker. But I have learned that it is far better to just be myself. People can either love it or leave it. If this is being ”authentic” or being ”real” then I am all for it.

    However as humans we learn alot by imitation, consciously or subconsciously. Its the best way to learn, imitate, copy even if this means faking. But take it further and makie it your own. Picasso said ”Good artists copy, Great artists steal”.

    Thats all for now folks!

  7. Glad you opened up the box of worms on “authenticity”. I think there is a delicate balance between your personal life and your professional persona. Some individuals are comfortable allowing their entire personal life BE their professional persona with social media. There are others, who use a very delicate balance between using personal experience to strengthen their argument or stance on a particular issue.
    It’s great for someone to point out that it’s not only authenticity, but significance being the kicker. Are making a substantial impact on your chose forte or area of expertise? Are you making the effort to engage other front runners and eager new players at the same time?
    I think success online is being a honest professional, yet remembering not all your “friends” on Facebook are truly intimate nor should everyone know every intimate detail.

  8. meredith says:

    How does one have a faux name AND take advantage of facebook marketing ? If you use your real name on FB you cannot have a separate online persona – this has been an issue for me – I wish to seperate my online presence from my personal one – be authentically me but use a pen name or something similar to my own. Any advice about how to work around that? FB throws a monkey wrench into that strategy unless you dont mind not connecting with friends and family or you are willing to risk consequences of being permenantly banned……

  9. russ somers says:

    I’ve thought about this in the context of the Dr. Seuss quote “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” At first glance, that’s odd advice from a guy who did his best work under a pseudonym.

    But he was quite possibly more authentic as Dr. Seuss than he was as Theodore Geisel. Just as Robert Zimmerman was more authentic in the persona of Bob Dylan. We’re all in the process of creating ourselves.

  10. Ryan Waldron says:

    How do you tell whether someone is “authentic” in their writing unless you know them personally outside of that?

    I think what we may be calling “authenticity” here is really just consistency of persona. It may BE authentic, but how would we know?

    The significance bit is just another way of saying that the persona these successful producers present is appealing.

    That’s not greatly different from any performer: singer, actor, writer, etc.

    The difference is that if you’re great at it, you can make that persona anything you want it to be.

    For the rest of is, the only hope we have of being consistent is to just be ourselves and hope for the best.

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  12. Being real is important, especially in business… You need to be valuable, but being trustworthy and authentic is invaluable…

  13. It is amazing how we spend so much time trying to explain and discuss authenticity. Post the past 25 years of a lot of marketing noise where people marketers felt it was about turning up the volume we forgot how to be subtle. That is why there is so much talk now about tribes, authenticity, and context. Old messages that may get there due. Should be awesome and great.

    Not Looking to sell but understand the point. Sanskrit word Satsang is about a group of people seeking the truth. This should not be the populist marketing mantra but exhibited in action. People often feel you more then they hear you.

  14. Alex Damien says:

    This is so true. But I don’t think it’s really faking your personality, but rather becoming someone more interesting. Maybe creating a second persona for yourself. And besides, most of the super introverted people I’ve met aren’t happy with being so shy. So I guess it depends on the person, really.
    If they want to become someone more interesting and meaningful, they can do it, but if they’re too afraid of it and don’t want to become more extroverted, then it really doesn’t matter.s

  15. Nicole says:


    Are you planning on launching something incognito?


  16. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Shelley – “I have spent so much time branding myself that the ideas were getting lost.” Yeah, been there myself. Easy to talk about how to do it right, a whole nuther thing to do it right, lol!

    @ Mike CJ – Agreed, sometimes, you’ve just gotta say screw it, let’s do it!

    @ Sunday – Believe it or not, I’m actually in category 2 myself. There’s a ton of stuff I hold back and I know it hurts this blog’s growth, but it’s a decision I make consiously

    @ Mike – Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out

    @ Brandon – it is interestin that sometimes hiding behind an avatar allows you to be more authentic and significant

    @ Kieran – Actually, it sounds like you do buy it

    @ sophiesbubble – You used that key word – “impact”

    @ meredith – Interesting question about FB and avatars. Don’t really know enough about FB to tell you how to make it work. Anyone else know?

    @ russ – “We’re all in the process of creating ourselves.” Love that quote

    @ Ryan – I have to disagree, with rare exception, if someone steps into a personality that does not jive with who they are, whether you know them in person or not, over time, something begins to feel wrong to those aorund them. And, if it doesn’t, that may be a sign that the personality is more in line with the true identity that that person may have thought. Also, it has to go beyond “appeal,” and rise to the level of impact.

    @ Website – While I’d love to agree that being trustworthy is critical, too, that’s not universally true. For me and you, maybe, but then you have people like Tucker Max rising to fame, not because he’s trustworthy, but largely because he’s not…in the most flagrant way,

    @ Robert – Yes, it is a longstanding conversation, in part, because it speaks to the exploration of human nature and that never gets old

    @ Alex – Becoming someone more interesting…or hiding behind an avatar that allows you to reveal the more interesting side of who you already are?

    @ Nicole – One never knows…do one?

  17. Hilory says:

    Interesting post, though I am not sure that I completely ‘buy’ your conclusions. First, authenticity is a skill–it may take time to develop. Why not allow someone to slowly build up the confidence to reveal their flaws and weaknesses? Similiarly, what I may perceive as ‘significant’ may differ from your perceptions. A particular turn of phrase may yield an ‘aha’ moment for me, while you may find it to be something that you have read 100 times. In the end, authenticity and significance are a potent combination, but that doesn’t mean that a voice should be silenced because the author has not yet achieved this combination. Often observing the struggle to grow can be powerful in and of itself.

  18. Roy Murphy says:

    I like the idea of re-thinking the idea of authenticity and how powerful it is or isn’t. But there is a a danger of excluding the conversation to those who are natural showman, can write, have a voice or those marketing or creative professionals who “get” how to construct a compelling argument (old style, top down company PR, for instance). Which is what we’re trying to get away from.

    For my money telling it how it is, is the only way forward. I’ve seen too many client meetings going round in circles, too many people trying to be something they are not.

    If your tribe/consumers/customers becomes smaller because they don’t like transparency, fair enough. I still think the brands and the people that embrace authenticity will be the winners in the long run.

  19. Kelly says:


    Interesting discussion! I know several folks who allow a “nom de Internet” to reveal the more interesting side of who they are, and sometimes I’m jealous of that freedom. But for me it’s all-in, because (fairly) raw truth just suits me.

    When I have a zillion readers, maybe I’ll be sorry, but I don’t think anyone in your excellent list above is wishing they could start over in disguise!

    Still you know the Billy Joel song, The Stranger? “We all have a face that we hide away forever….” It’s just that for me I don’t “hide” any differently online than I do offline. Some stuff’s played close to the vest—and I can still be very honest about everything else.



  20. Melissa says:

    Talking about the Cosby quote at the top, I can think of many people who have made careers out of being assholes (a few shock jocks come to mind). I can also think of some people with bland personalities who have been more than a little successful (Martha, for example). However, these people have something to say that some people want to hear. So, they are authentic, AND have something that others at least believe is worth hearing. It’s important to have both. The authenticity helps in that their message is then consistent. For example, if Martha suddenly started swearing during one of her TV shows, I think she’d lose some of her followers (although I’d personally pay money to see that show). However, if you aren’t contributing something new, either in content or presentation, by being out there, then I think it’s important to get off the stage.

  21. Sean says:

    “Allow yourself to be authentic enough to be significant.”

    Wow. This post definitely make me sit up and think about how we present ourselves. The key with being authentic is in the presentation. You may be the most exciting person, doing the most amazing things that any of us have ever read about, but if it is given in a meek whisper it will go unnoticed.

    This is definitely going to be on my back mental burner for a while.

  22. “Authenticity is not an automatic ticket to success in an attention economy.” – Agree with this quote. We have seen many blogs and websites authentic enough but unable to raise the enough interest of the audience to guarantee the return readers.

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  24. I think of it as being authentic within my chosen brand which means while I’ll talk about my personal life and let my own challenges show through, I don’t talk about everything in my life.

    And I also amp up my personality a little bit turning up the wattage because my day to day self is not going to bring in the customers – I’m a normal person and it’s personalities that sell stuff.

  25. […] Be more than just authentic, be significant Jonathan Fields at Awake at the Wheel tells us Authenticity Isn’t Enough to be successful.  You can be real, but useless to your intended audience.  You have to […]

  26. […] Fields at Awake at the Wheel tells us Authenticity Isn’t Enough to be successful.  You can be real, but useless to your intended audience.  You have to […]

  27. wow – you’re so right. I have always thought that authenticity can’t stand alone either. In my world it goes hand in hand with “trustworthy” and “remarkable” to create some substance in your brand. I also think that people often see’s authentic as something real and pure, but to me it’s very close to the word “cool” these days. =)

  28. Oh dear. I’m using the word ‘authentic’ very much in my blogposts and speeches. In connection with trustworthyness. Reading your blogpost, it became clear to me, that I automaticly load it with an unconsious value – Taking for granted, that an authentic person at the same time is realible, and trustworthy. ‘A good person’.
    I’m totally in love with Seth Godin, especially the ‘Stop trying to be perfect – start being remarkable’ from ‘The big moo’. I even claimed my self to be a ‘Purlpe cow with a big MOO’, sometimes ago.

    Perfectionism is neither authentic or trustwothy in my perspective. Remarkability is. And it’s much more fun being remarkable a.k.a. significant. Remarkability rocks the world.
    Thank you for giving me the possibility to get wiser.;-)

  29. IvánPérez says:

    Yeah, it’s funny how sometimes by advicing the uncommon we ignore the common and they change roles. Thanks for reminding it!

  30. Authenticity isn’t enough because it takes people time to recognize, verify and truly understand it, but people don’t have the time: attention is a scarce resource.

    Thus authenticity is a weak selling point to a new potential customer/fan/reader, even if it’s what keeps people coming back. There’s gotta be significance to get the first hook; after that, authenticity amplifies the significance.

  31. […] Fields, Authenticity Isn’t Enough: Authenticity is not an automatic ticket to success in an attention […]

  32. NomadicNeil says:

    I think if your considering the potential outcomes of different degrees of authenticity, then you are not really authentic at all.