When Authenticity Ain’t Enough

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It’s been the buzzword of all buzzwords in social media for at least a year.

And, in response to my recent post, What People Think IS Your Business, many folks shared how important they believe it is “be authentic,” then let the chips pretty much fall where they need to fall career-wise.

The world, we’d like to believe, will rally to support authenticity…and respond with money.

So, here’s something that’s gonna be a bit jarring…

Being yourself matters. Being authentic matters. In life. In business. In relationships. In everything. It’s what allows us to align actions with intention. It makes us feel good. It let’s us own our lives. It is sooo important.

But…BUT…in business, often times authenticity ALONE won’t get you there.

To become truly magnetized from a business standpoint

Authenticity must align with mastery and need

Think about it.

  • What if you have an authentic desire to help others, but you’re also authentically horrible at it?
  • What if you’re authentically under-skilled, under-trained, unprepared to lead…not yet enough a master of your authentic craft?
  • What if you’re authentically lackluster, abrasive, nasty or defeatist?
  • What if you’re authentically anti-consumerist, anti-business, anti-money?
  • What if you just haven’t lived long enough or engaged in life deeply enough to have something deep enough to share that people connect with in a way that makes them want to open their wallets?
  • What if you’re struggling to figure out which way is up…authentically?!
  • What if you’re wholeheartedly, utterly and authentically a raging asshole (actually, sadly, that is monetizable)?

Yes, it’s a good thing on a personal level to honor who you are, to revel in it, to love it, embrace it, own it, find the richness in it and, if you’re so inclined share it or use where you are as a touchpoint from which you’d like to evolve. Hell yes! Be that person. Embrace your bad (bad, as in “cool,” k?) authentic self! Live it, breath it, own it, grow it if you feel the need.

But, does embracing that authentic self mean you deserve to get paid?

Um…NO! At least, not always.

Existing in a blaze of authenticity doesn’t AUTOMATICALLY translate to value to others.

For some people, it does. Either through effort, enough time and sweat to have mastered a craft or organic inclination, they’ve developed their authentic selves, energy, skills, abilities, interests, ideas, innovations, products, solutions and mastery over years or decades in a manner that resonates so strongly with the needs of others they become magnetized. And, so do their solutions.

But, for many others who’s authenticity hasn’t yet become aligned, through effort, seasoning and whatever else goes into the mix, with value for others, it doesn’t. Nor should it.

Nobody, me included, is automatically entitled to get paid to just be and do, authentic and glorious as that being and doing may be FOR US.

There are zillions of artists, poets, painters, writers, hackers, makers and more out their completely and utterly embracing their authentic selves. They love, love, LOVE IT, but they’re not creating extraordinary enough work or serving a need that others perceive as valuable enough to pay for. Or pay enough to live on.

They are authentic…and they’re destitute.

Or tied to a day job that generally doesn’t do all that much to allow their authenticity to flourish.

When you live authentically, your inner life gets a lot richer. You get to paint, play, act, write, create, be. That’s an amazing thing.

But it’s only when your AUTHENTIC SELF TRANSLATES TO VALUE FOR OTHERS that you get paid to be authentic.

If you don’t care or need to care whether that alone creates a living wage, cool beans. Be with that own it. And, own the financial consequences of that choice as well.

If your wholehearted devotion to authenticity creates enough value for others to pay you, either through concerted effort or organically, rock on. You’ve found that magical sweet spot most others aspire to. You may not have overtly intended to. You may say you don’t care about the sweet spot or what others think, but truth is, the fact that you’ve chosen to seek value from others in exchange for your efforts instead of just keeping it a personal pursuit speaks volumes.

And, if you’ve not found that place yet, if you’d kill to find a way to get paid to live in your authentic self and it’s not happening no matter how real you get, start asking what you need to do to find the sweet spot between that authentic self and what people value. It may be a matter of time and work. It may be a matter of approaching your art in a way nobody else does.

Here’s the real formula that wraps it all up:

A + M + N/D = ML


  • A = Alignment/Authenticity
  • M = Mastery
  • N/D = Need/Delight
  • ML = Meaningful Living

If you want ML, you need all three ingredients, even if it takes years to get to a place where you have them. For some, M may come relatively quickly and you may be able to scale your revenue lock-step as you increase your M. Are there the occasional outliers to this equation? Of course. But they are rare.

And, here’s where we come full circle back to the post that the kicked this whole conversation off.

When it comes to the N/D part of the equation, what other people think about you, your business and your solution matter.

They’re not the only things.

But when you want to get paid, it’s not enough to just be authentic, what other people think and, more importantly, feel about you and what you create is the difference between making bank and owing the bank.

You may not want to cater to that. Or lead with it. But, it matters.

As always, love learning from you guys, always open to your thoughts.

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45 responses

45 responses to “When Authenticity Ain’t Enough”

  1. Jen Gresham says:

    YES! Thanks for spelling this out, Jonathan. It’s so important.

    Some of the most authentic people I know are pre-schoolers. Sometimes our authentic selves are amazingly insightful and endearing, but sometimes they are also selfish and short-sighted. That’s why maturity is also so valued in the workplace (at least by managers)!


    • “Some of the most authentic people I know are pre-schoolers.”

      That’s a great quote, Jen. I’ll use that the next time someone preaches at me the doctrine of authenticity above all else.

      Awesome post, as always, Jonathan.

      Dave Crenshaw
      Author, The Myth of Multitasking: How Doing It All Gets Nothing Done

  2. “Authenticity must align with mastery and need” That just floored me. It’s something I understand but had never verbalized.

    I love seeing it in black & white.

    For many, authenticity means letting their lack of confidence or problems lead their business. What sense does that make? If you’re going to do this – have a business, make a name for yourself – I think you OWE it to yourself to dig deep to find a more magnetic, energized, and service-driven part of yourself.

    Thanks for these recent posts. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to them over & over again!

  3. Annette says:

    It sounds so obvious and yet it is something that I have never seen spelled out with so much clarity and simplicity. Just Genius! Thank you so much Jonathan.

  4. Totally spot on Jonathan. I love your analogy of an authentic asshole too – how true.

    It’s finding that sweet spot of what you offer that is unique, serves a need and does so in a big way – big enough that you can get paid to do what you love and help others.

    Rather insightful for a Friday morning sir!


  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, remarkablogger, Grant Griffiths, Mark Silver, Dick Carlson and others. Dick Carlson said: Yeah, being authentically sucky doesn't cut it. RT @jonathanfields: When Authenticity Ain’t Enough – http://su.pr/2B2Her […]

  6. Dave Ursillo says:

    As “unmathematic” as my mind operates, the equation “A + M + N/D = ML” is killer. I might have to post this on my desk.

    Thanks Jonathan,

    Dave Ursillo

  7. Dick says:

    What is “PDL” in the equation?

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Haha, sorry, PDL was a placeholder while I was was writing, edited it to ML (meaningful living). Try refreshing your browser. 😉

  8. What I’ve seen is authenticity + EGO = failure. You’re absolutely right – we must add value to the marketplace to get paid… for anything. Being yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you or your product is of value to anyone else.

    I’m frequently amazed at how some people seem to not understand the ‘other’ in a conversation. I’ve come to believe that we live in an age where there is little empathy for the listener, the client, the customer. Instead, we’re told to wage war, to bowl them over with our marketing, rather than engage them as equals. After all, if you’re not one up in the conversation, where are you?

    Having grown up in a schizophrenic household, where insanity was the rule, I learned that I can only be me. I’m about as authentic as a person can be. That doesn’t mean I share my whole self in every occasion. Sometimes, to my own peril, I forget that another being is hearing with their own ears, filters, ideas and life. I go barreling in with truth and authenticity. It’s not a winning strategy.

    That said – I love the formula.

  9. Kevin Kruse says:

    Jonathan, great post and the line, “What if you have an authentic desire to help others, but you’re also authentically horrible at it?” made me laugh out loud.

    BUT, I think your formula could be improved by changing the plus signs to multiplication. If any one of those variables is a zero, the ML will be zero!



  10. Jason says:

    ML !== A + M + N/D

    You also need W.

    W = Whisky.

  11. I love this Jonathon,

    There seems to be a sense of entitlement floating out there, “If I’m being authentic, then the money will come, all I have to do is sit and wait for it.” It SO doesn’t work like that. You can be authentically broke! For some reason it brought to mind the famous Jim Rohn quote… “Motivation is not enough. If you have an idiot and you motivate him, now you have a motivated idiot.”
    Thanks! I enjoyed reading and sharing with friends.

  12. Kelly Kim says:

    Great post.

    This is indefensible, as it comes from the heart, but… often (if not always) what we are AUTHENTICALLY drawn to or what we desire, as you say, we ARE good at. I would question whether we are authentically drawn to something if we are authentically horrible at it.

    Rather than trying to gain mastery in something we are horrible at, perhaps we should question whether we are *authentically* drawn to it in the first place, or whether we have projected some sort of light upon it that we are chasing.

    i.e. “I really really really want to be the next Oprah.”

    I think a lot of people want to be Oprah because they have projected their light on to her and her profession rather than seeing her as an example of what it looks like to find our own place in the world and to serve from there, authentically.

    Anyway, just a small point. Love the article. I think what you’re pointing to, to me, is that it is wonderful to stay true to your authentic nature, but you also need to stay practical.. feet on the ground.. with GROUNDED self-assessments, etc.


    • eliza says:

      Well said Kelly!!
      You verbalized perfectly what I was feeling internally after reading this entry but all I was coming up with was some kind of sandwich metaphor that wasn’t working 😉

      Thank you for opening the conversation Jonathan!

    • The Oprah analogy is a really great one because most people would wish only for her current lifestyle and success.

      The great thing about Oprah is that she was “Oprah” even when she was just a young local TV anchor. She wasn’t in it for the paycheck even in the beginning when I’m sure she really needed it.

  13. Good one. This is one of the most overused words in the blogosphere and has been for awhile. It’s become cliche and meaningless to me, not that it ever had much meaning. Sounds good, though 🙂

    Good insights here.

  14. Hiro Boga says:

    Ah, it really depends on which self we’re talking about, when we talk about being authentic.

    We have our being along a continuum, from unity and essence to pattern and form–from our universality to the ecology of our lives and our utterly unique personhood.

    So to be authentic to the whole of our selves is to be aligned along the whole arc of being: soul and spirit as well as skills, knowledge, experience, desire, passion, genius, needs, relationships, heart, community and service.

    I love the clarity of your post, Jonathan. Thanks for opening and holding these wonderfully necessary conversations.

  15. Ken Carlson says:


    Nice article–you’ve got me thinking!

    I don’t understand what the “sweet spot” between my “authentic self and what people value” is.

    Sounds like you might be saying that if people value something other than my authentic self, then I should be that something else in order to make money.

    I certainly don’t believe that the money will flow JUST because I’m being true to myself. My contention is that as individuals we become MORE attractive to others when we are real.

    The world is littered with people that make gobs of money and yet are just shells of people–directed by their record label or shareholders, etc… to say, do, and be just the right person.

    Look no further than Hollywood movies to see this deep longing for each of us to live authentically.

    Growing in authenticity isn’t about making money–it’s about being yourself and knowing that there is no price tag for that.

    Ken Carlson, Life Coach

  16. Lisa says:

    Thank God someone said it! Like some of the previous comments, I have had similar thoughts but never verbalized it. My two Labradors are authentic too, but they don’t even have a bank account!


  17. Maria Brophy says:

    Jonathan, this is an awesome article and a fresh look on authenticity.

    I’d like to offer another perspective, though, on the following: “There are zillions of artists, poets, painters, writers, hackers, makers and more out their completely and utterly embracing their authentic selves…but they’re not creating extraordinary enough work or serving a need that others perceive as valuable enough to pay for. Or pay enough to live on.”

    And my perspective is this: Many of these creative people who are “starving” may very well be creating extraordinary work, but they are lousy at selling it / marketing it / pricing it. And their authenticity is all over the board…

    I deal with this issue every day and I see often that a very gifted painter may be living in his mother’s basement, but yet a less talented artist is a millionaire. It’s a perplexity that I’ve dedicated my life to analyzing!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Maria, that’s a really important point and you’re certainly someone who’s got experience there on many levels.

      This is a very streamlined equation, there’s definitely room for nuance. I’m going to be writing more on that soon, and probably have some kinda surprising things to say there, too.


  18. Eric says:

    Now I’m diggin’ it Jonathan!

    If you’re selling a product it matters that people like what you’re attempting to sell or you make no $.

    Though I wouldn’t want to make money selling a redundant reprint of 100 other products out there.

    So you’re right there’s a magical sweet spot to be found for sure.

    Great food for thought!


  19. This is SUCH a powerful message and formula you’ve put out, Jonathan. As usual, you are spot on.

    I have one slight twist on Jason’s (Much More Enjoyable Suggestion of W = Whisky) to propose…

    A + M + W/N/D = ML

    …where “W” = what OTHERS want

    The hardest lesson I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is the vital importance of “W”. For instance, I’m passionate about women & money. Originally I focused my efforts on trying to educate young women because I knew the information I could give them would have the biggest impact when there were in their early 20s.

    WHAM. The market spoke. Turns out for most folks, you need life to spit in your eye a bit before you WANT to have someone authentically give you masterful personal finance information that you need and which could cause great delight in your life down the road. So NOW I focus my work on primary and co-breadwinning women, typically in their late 20s to early 50s who by necessity WANT the A+M+N/D thus enabling me to have a ML.

    It seems so simple and obvious in retrospect but it took a good 18 months to click in my brain. Perhaps if I had more whisky the revelation would have come sooner! So thank you for this fantastic post (& the previous one that started the discussion off). It’s a great reminder of what it truly takes to have a flourishing business.

  20. Cathy says:

    This is fantastic! I’ve given this a thumbs up on StumbleUpon and liked it on FB! 🙂

    I’d say that there’s a sweet spot between being authentic and TMI. I see a lot of fiction authors who either try to be something they think the audience wants, creating these plastic personas, or they’re authentically and shockingly nuts, exposing every wart and neurosis!

    I think that if you drew a Venn Diagram, with “what other people are looking for” and “what you are” as the sets, you’re aiming for projecting that intersection.

  21. Great post, this so needs to be said. There’s always plenty of material out there to defend your life choices, but most people use it to rationalize their unwillingness to do the hard work.

    Mastery and meeting the needs and/or delighting others is the part that makes an entrepreneurial life successful; not just by generating sufficient income, but by increasing enjoyment of life. If I focus on serving others, I naturally delight and meet their needs because I am enjoying myself and extending hospitality and consideration to my clients.

    And, more than just earning a paycheck, my own life is enriched through the pleasure of serving others. Whenever things are ary in my business, I find it’s because I have lost my focus on service. Thanks for the reminder!

  22. Randy says:

    Jonathan, seriously one of your best posts ever. Fantastic in how you articulated a growing epidemic, that: “The universe owes me a sweet, easy life, purely because of who I am.”

    Years ago, I was designing a website, where the design itself was integral to the success of the venture. And based on my clients track record, I knew it would go big.

    So, I was bemoaning to a friend about how, once again, I was kept out of an equity share and got paid a straight fee. And my friend flatly said, “Why should you get a piece? Your client is shouldering all the risk.”

    At first I was pissed by the “betrayal”, but later his point hit me like a ton of bricks. You have to create genuine value BEFORE you get the reward. My portion hadn’t PROVED itself yet, so I was entitled to nothing.

    My client’s portion, his checkbook, was his proof…so he alone was entitled to the prize.

    Once again, fantastic post man!

  23. Contrarian says:

    Jonathan – thanks for making the connection – no doubt, authenticity does not automatically translate to business success or financial riches.

    More important …

    The reward for authenticity is personal freedom which leads directly to a far richer life. When your words and actions are congruent – when what you say squares with what you do, then you are whole, true to yourself, and a person of character.

    You are who you say you are no matter who your with or where you’re at.

    The reason this is such a rare and admirable characteristic is because authenticity requires a great deal of courage.

    From Roman antiquity – Fiat justitia — ruat caelum. “Do justice, and let the skies fall.”

  24. Koby Ackie says:

    This is absolutely true. Finding that middle ground is important for success. If what you say or do, does not resonate with other people, they will not feel compelled to buy YOU.

  25. Long term business success is earned by consistently satisfying the wants of your clients. If you can do that while fully expressing your authentic self, then do.

  26. Jonathan: I’m REALLY glad to see you writing about mastery. Yet again, you’re addressing something precisely that has popped into my mind recently: A lot of people express themselves authentically in their business ventures, but what of real value can they offer and – yes! – what skills have they mastered? Have they put in the ten years or 10,000 hours required typically for mastery – or are they at least making a concerted effort in that direction?

    I’ve been wary of entrepreneurs with authentic appealing messages with no apparent creds.

    Mastery of a field is in part what distinguishes creative innovators – as Csikszentmihalyi brilliantly lays out in his studies in Flow and in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

    Thanks again for ‘amping up’ the quality of conversation.

    Warm regards,

  27. I know you’re addressing people who have not reached mastery yet, but I wanted to add some other notes.

    * What the “right” people – i.e., your targeted audience and clientele, your agent and editor, your benefactor – think matters. The rest are an utter distraction.
    * If you have mastery, then you can afford, actually, to tune out the nay-sayers and hyper-critics. If you have mastery, at certain times in some creatives’ creative process it’s utterly necessarily to forget what other people – even the “right” people – think. You also can be bold enough to take risks, offend some clients or colleagues in your field, and then blaze a new path. Graphic artist Marian Bantjes comes to mind.
    * There are numerous examples of innovative artists and writers who did have mastery, but friends, family, and the general public wasn’t ready for their innovations. Melville had mastered the adventure novel genre – he was quite successful – and then innovated the form in Moby Dick. We know the rest. Cezanne had mastered pictorial representation, but his friends abhorred his innovations in art and pleaded with him to stop. He didn’t. But to further your point, J: Picasso had mastered representation painting, and Miles Davis had mastered classical music. Then they did their thing – and they definitely knew who mattered and who didn’t.

    * Daniel Pink devotes a chapter to mastery in his new book Drive. One section (pp. 126-7) is titled “Mastery is an Asymptote.” In algebra, an asymptote is “a straight line that a curve approaches but never quite reaches.” Pink’s point: You can approach it, but you can never fully realize it.

    To my thinking, that’s the beauty. It’s what keeps yogis aspiring toward freedom and Americans toward happiness.

    Thanks, again, for a provocative post.


  28. Jonathan I agree with everything you say but don’t you find also that the quickest route to mastery is actually authentic doing and being the thing you wish to master? You have the order right in your equation. One must start from within in order to reach a point of realizing which authentic pursuit does indeed hold the most value for others. Without walking an authentic path we haven’t a clue or a chance of reaching authentic mastery. Just ask anyone who has settled for the money without fulfillment.

  29. Jonathan

    Terrifically fun post! I would actually wager to say that Authenticity is the LEAST important in the equation. Yeah, scary thought I know but think about it: can authenticity be proven? One could argue yes, certainly, on a personal “vibes” level, but again that realm eludes science.
    Whereas mastery can be pretty easy to recognize with a little education and exposure.

    Which is to say, in an X-Files context, Mulder “wants to believe” in authenticity, but since it can’t be pinned down by science, Scully would want more before making a decision;-)
    OK, yeah, but that’s not to say that I don’t feel it is vital. Sure, it is. But, I think this may beg the question: What IS authenticity?

    Thank you, as always, and have a top-flight weekend!


  30. Evan says:

    I think authenticity helps with the know part of the know, like and trust equation. Perhaps the like part and probably the trust part.

    It can help distinguish you among the other offerings too. People respond positively to authenticity.

    All of which probably amounts to: authenticity is part of marketing not sales.

  31. Shenee says:

    This is amazing! And so helpful. I have been thinking about this a lot, especially with some of my clients I work with. I think we think that it will just come to us if we just be ourselves and create and love the world and man does it not always roll that way. We must offer something of value if we are truly gonna shine. For real : )

    I feel pressure to develop a brief identifying phrase.
    Shenee Howard, Awesomeness Activist

    I’m gonna start introducing myself that way!

  32. Tisha Morris says:

    YES! You hit the nail on the head with this post. Very well said. I love @Claudia’s comment above of AUTHENTICITY + EGO = FAILURE. I believe I too have been caught in that equation before. I do believe that our MASTERY is often achieved in striving to figure out what the VALUE part is. In other words, in finding the value we further our mastery.
    Thanks Jonathan!

  33. Totally agree! I actully coach my clients to consider the intersection between being “authentic” and the “market segment” that supports what they have to offer! Love your formula though! Thanks for the post.

  34. Kent says:

    Very good point Jonathan. Thank you for being candid about this issue. I think you are exactly right… it is always a combination of things that eventually lead to success–at least sustainable success. I feel too many people are too elated about following the common advice of putting their heart on their sleeve that they don’t often honestly examine other variables. In some cases, the expression “well, this is just part of the process” becomes a cover for, “well, maybe it’s time for me to step up my game.”

  35. Oh, yes yes yes. THANK YOU. As a woman totally devoted to assisting others in being more “authentic” in their communication, I am thrilled by your meaningful distinctions on this topic.

    What I find even more striking is that – even if a person knows where their strengths lie (often what we are referring to in the “be yourself” domain), they have no idea how to express themselves with that “authentic” style and voice that so many marketing gurus share is so important. This whole “be authentic” thing can really be overwhelmingly confusing, really. I’m so thrilled you are distilling it into a business analysis process, rightfully.

  36. I think it is important to remember that our authentic self is never fixed into place – it’s always changing, adapting, and growing in new ways.

    Being true can be a fantastic starting point, but we need to take the “true-ness” and develop it into something valuable to others (if we want to make a living doing it). That is where M and N/D come in.

  37. All – Thanks for the great comments. Good thought provokers in there.

    Hi Jonathan – Thanks for bringing up this important issue. I often percieve that authenticity is just another way to say “the world owes me, I’m entitled”.

    Hey, I’m being authentic, I should be getting something for it. No you shouldn’t and no you aren’t really being authentic except maybe being that authentic asshole (which I really loved).

    I see several flavors of authenticity. Those that are true to a calling, those that are true to themselves, those that are true to a feeling of higher purpose. These are not about “themselves” but rather about being true to something else.

    The world is not just about you or me. It’s about you, me, we, and us together.

    If you strip out the manipulation and are actually genuine (vs. authentic) you are likely to attract positive people and positive situations. No, that doesn’t gaurantee $$ but what it can do is up the happiness scale.

    Money isn’t everything, nor is ego, nor is “authenticity”. The sum of our whole selves is greater than our parts.

    I believe that it’s when we come to embrace the whole that we find greater happiness. We have better accepted who we are and to me, that is being authentic.

    Best wishes for joy and happiness to all of you.

  38. Sometimes people use the word authentic to stop growing. “Hey, I’m just being me.” Well, if “being you” just blew by someone on the highway and flipped them off, your authenticity isn’t helping.

    I like what Tom said about authenticity being a path to mastery.

    Thanks Jonathan, I often learn a lot from you.

  39. Great advice. Many moons ago, I had this great idea to write a children’s book, except I discovered one slight problem.I am not keen on children. Never had any. Never wanted any. Never been around them. They’re like martians to me. You get the point, I’m sure. That made me realise “I” was not the right person because I would never be able to be authentic and master that, so I turned to the dark side and now I’m writing about vampires. (I sound like Darth Vader…I’m a nice person really lol)