It’s rare, nowadays, for careers to be linear. That goes for other aspects of our lives — relationships, interests, means of engagement — as well. That we have to reinvent ourselves as we go along is a truism by now.
It’s also trite to observe that the ways we present ourselves, interact with one another, and experience what’s happening around us are going to change depending on the context. But that’s what makes authenticity so fluid and elusive.
So let’s talk about context. What does it mean? And let’s talk about authenticity. What does it mean?
At its most basic, context refers to the environment or setting within which something is taking place. You can wear ripped jeans and a dirty T-shirt when you’re playing with the dog, but you might not want to wear them to a business meeting. You can use slang and four-letter words when you’re having a beer with your friends, but they might not be a good idea in a job interview. Essentially, what works in one context doesn’t necessarily work in another.
So what establishes context? Many factors: expectations, location, levels of familiarity, noise levels, temperature, room size, formality, analytical frameworks, history … clearly, there are many elements. Some are obvious, some not so obvious. And we’re barely scratching the surface.
Context is the starting point for analysis. Is this — campaign, initiative, branding approach, legislative exercise — successful? Well, what is it trying to accomplish? Whom is it trying to reach? What are its key performance indicators? Success depends very much on the answers to those questions, among others. Despite the complexity of its makeup, then, context is a relatively simple thing to grasp. At its most basic, it’s the answer to “what’s happening around us?”
Authenticity, on the other hand, is much more slippery. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart of the United States Supreme Court declined to set out a detailed definition of obscenity, but observed, pithily: “I know it when I see it.” It may seem a little glib, but the same thing applies to authenticity. You know it when you see it, but you and I may not be seeing the same thing, and that’s what makes it so subjective.
And that’s also what makes it so much harder to define. We all want to come across as authentic. We all want to be authentic. We want our brands to be authentic. We don’t want to be thought of as phony or artificial or shallow. We can toss about terms like genuine, resonant, sincere, straightforward, honest, and so on, but how they’re measured depends very much on who’s doing the measuring and what they’re being measured against.
So what’s this got to do with career planning? Recall the opening paragraph. We have to reinvent ourselves as we go along. We amass certain qualities, certain skill sets, certain personality aspects, as we go through life. These go beyond just job experience or professional qualifications, extending to personal interests, things we do outside the workplace, relationships, and more. They’re the combination of things that make us who we are.
And it’s in the context of career directions that we need to evaluate those aspects of ourselves and decide which are worth emphasizing and which should go on the back burner. It’s often difficult to single out particular aspects of ourselves and keep them out of sight; there are valid reasons for this, especially when we feel we’re not presenting a true picture of ourselves. It’s natural, in situations like this, to second-guess ourselves, and to think that because we’re suppressing a large part of who we are, that we’d be a bad fit for a certain role, or that the role would be a bad fit for us.
It’s not something to be dismissed. The importance of using your intuition and listening to your inner voice is the subject of far too many books and articles to list here. And if you need to check your thinking with someone else, biased or otherwise, well, that’s what friends, counsellors, mentors, and colleagues are for.
It’s a tricky balance. Listen to yourself, but give yourself credit — you may be more flexible than you know. Ultimately only you can judge how authentic you are.