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Set your inner voice to ‘authentic’

June 29, 2015

I was at an RSPCA Summer Open Day on Saturday, the lure of a glass of home made lemonade and ginger cake for £1 on the chalked sign was too much to walk past, so I popped in out of the cold.

One of my previous dogs was a shaggy, doe-eyed bearded collie cross, an RSPCA rescue dog. A more loving, loyal and hairy Wookie look-a-like hound you could not wish for. She had paws and a heart the size of a lion. I’ve been a sucker for supporting any dog sanctuary, stray or care charity ever since.

The great pleasure of a dog is that you can make a fool of yourself with her and not only will she not scold you, but she will make a fool of herself with you too. My last dog, Tess, a golden retriever who passed on aged 14 last November, liked nothing more than a good play fight and cuddle, and next to my wife, she was the best kisser ever. She was also great at cleaning your ears with her big wet tongue. Thoroughly. But let’s move on.

Dogs are miracles with paws, when they laugh they laugh with their tails, they share our lives in a way that most other animals can’t. Each evening Tess waited for me by the front door, face smiling, mouth open and tail wagging, ready to dote and bark for around twenty minutes to announce to the entire neighbourhood that I was home from work and we were off for a walk.

Dogs’ lives are too short, their only fault really if you ignore the chewing of the occasional CD or loss of cakes from the carrier bag on the kitchen floor as you fetch the shopping in from Tesco. We all long for affection altogether ignorant of our faults, and we get such unconditional love from dogs that we take it for granted.

I think we are drawn to dogs because they are the uninhibited creatures we might be if we weren’t certain we knew better.  They fight for honour and territory, make themselves heard without inhibition when they need to, and self-clean body parts with no moral restraint. You would think that for all their marvelous instincts that they appear to know nothing about numbers, but if you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving out only two of them.

The most affectionate creature in the world is a wet dog, happy to share the entire experience, but in order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train her to be semi human.  The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming a dog. But enough about the dog, my reason for writing this blog was partly about the authentic behaviour of dogs, but really this blog came about because of a number on experiences this week where the unauthentic behaviour of humans really made its mark on me.

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit and lack of authenticity everywhere. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his or her share, but we tend to take the situation for granted and totally ignore it. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognise bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it.

So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves, and we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. But set against the honesty and sincerity you get from your dog, the polarity of dog behaviours when compared to some humans led me onto thinking more about the meaning of authenticity.

Being authentic means that the gap between who you are and who you portray to be as close as zero as possible. In other words, being authentic means brining the ‘real you’ wherever you go, in every situation and conversation. You can look at it from a moral angle, but I’m particularly interested in the simplicity for being authentic.

Let’s start with what happens when you are not authentic. You will start with creating an image of yourself that is different from who you really are. It takes an effort to do that. Now, you will have to act out that image and make everyone believe that what you act out is who you really are. It takes even more effort to fulfill that.

Once you act this out, you need to remember this image for a long time, because you need to behave consistently with your image with all the people that have seen you portraying that image. That seems like a burden that you have chosen to carry to me. Politicians across the entire spectrum have consistently fallen into this trap.

I always believe in the best in human nature, and trust most people to be generally honest. Indeed society is built on trust. However the last week saw the culmination of a three-year legal case I was involved in as the primary witness for the prosecution on a business fraud case, and this has been illuminating.

I fully appreciated I was one of the key elements in bringing an offender to justice, supporting the victim of economic crime and provide them some closure if no recompense for losses suffered However, my overriding thought is the lack of authenticity in the justice system, both the people and the process.

It is adversarial. The focus is on winning rather than discovering the truth. Criminal justice should be inquisitorial – the prime focus should be on discovering what happened and then on punishing or rehabilitating appropriately, surely? Listening and watching the interaction of both sides of the legal and moral divide tell me the system has given up on rehabilitation and simply focused on creating the most enormous and costly bureaucracy possibly.

Lawyers are motivated by wealth, yet recall In the Ancient Roman Republic, it was illegal for lawyers to accept money or gifts from clients as it was felt to be a corrupting influence. This has dire consequences and certainly corrupts the entire system as far as I can see, there is no authenticity in any aspect of the dna pervading. Victims are ignored, if not often forgotten.

This lack of authenticity in the process quickly set the tone for my daily interactions with most of the staff in the judicial system. After a week of missing authentic communication with the people I usually spend the week with, this a new theme that is becoming the cornerstone of everything I do. It all started with noticing how I greeted and responded to the court staff.

It usually went something like this: Hello, how are you today. Good, you? Good. Alright, see you later. Not only did I not really care about how the person was doing, I also played along with his fake enthusiasm, but it wasn’t just me! When other staff asked me How are you doing? they kept walking without waiting for an answer. How are you doing? has become the new Hi. Most people don’t really want to know, nor do they really mean it.

The idea is that we are interacting daily on a superficial level, but very few of us want to snap out of it and have a genuine conversation. Naturally, talking about authenticity made me hyper-aware of my own patterns and non-genuine conversations, and I tried to stay true and present at all times, even if it made for awkward situations. Trust in humanity will only continue if we cultivate authenticity and sincerity in face-to-face conversation.

With the domination of the digital marketplace, everyone is banging on about customer experience, customer engagement and customer loyalty, but the latest I reckon is customer romance. I say this as I was lashing on the Aloe Vera gel to my thorn-filled hands after a Sunday in the garden, the Holland & Barrett gel for bio active skin treatment was just the job, but the subtle we’re good for you struck me as an example of authentic branding.

Maybe an unfashionable brand, maybe I was just recoiling from being grumpy all week, but a visit to their web site gave me ideas around customer romance as a strategy, the authenticity of their style of communication is contagious, and there’s no better way to connect with a customer than to be sincere, transparent and honest.

We need authenticity now more than ever, and I must admit I’ve been an advocate of President Obama since day one, admiring his openness and evenhandedness, underpinned by his purpose and beliefs. This week his handling of a heckler at a LBGT event in the White House, and his presence and leadership at the Charleston memorial service for victim Clementa Pinckney, where he lead the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’, showed once again the authenticity of his leadership and character. It makes a difference.

One way out of this hall of mirrors is to insist ever more loudly that oneself is really, truly authentic, and innumerable products now advertise themselves as ‘real’, following the lead of Coke’s slogan ‘the Real Thing’. Even my Marks & Spencer’s underwear is branded ‘authentic’, posing the question of what an inauthentic pair of boxer shorts would look like.

However, too persuasive a performance of authenticity will be taken as a sign of falsehood. In my authenticity-obsessed mindset I want something to be real, but I’m on a hair trigger to cry foul if it seems too real to be true.

It also reifies a simplistic notion of what is fake to begin with. A blanket privileging of the concrete and the in-person, an indie disdain for post-production or Photoshopping I just don’t get. The fetish for authenticity, here as in the realms of food and vintage clothing, shows itself to be inherently nostalgic, always looking back to an imagined, prelapsarian nirvana. Maybe it was just an easier way of life in Hardy’s rural idyll.

And then we have ‘reality TV’. To define a person’s authenticity as the perfect conjunction of outward seeming and inward being is not a new idea. But what matters most now is that such personal authenticity be performed plausibly, yet paradoxically, contestants routinely accuse their rivals of being less than genuine. If we all looked at each other through the same lens, what would we see – but let’s not go back to the Criminal Justice system.

Yet it is precisely in high-end product brand marketing that we can perceive the key aspect of the modern authenticity mania and yet the diametric falsehood that sits just below the surface. Such commodities are positioned as ‘aspirational’, because that is now how society has silently agreed to redefine aspiration – a yearning desire to control more wealth and to own more expensive objects.

It’s the same for the ‘Selfie’ and the taking of photos with your smartphone. Why do people take so many mundane photos and share them via social media? I think they’re trying to show their authenticity but it’s stimulated by the redefinition of authenticity.

So what is the implicit bargain when we buy an ‘authentic” Hermès bag? Or a Hublot watch, a clockwork marvel costing tens of thousands of pounds, which prides itself, like all luxury analogue watches, precisely on the amusing superfluity of its engineering? We are being sold the assurance that nimble-fingered workers in a French leather-working atelier or a Swiss horlogerie laboratory have sunk hundreds or thousands of man-hours into its making. It’s a classic timepiece.

It tells the time, unlike Stephen Hawking, our interest in time doesn’t need to extend to the nanosecond measurement.

The authenticity of such an aspirational brand’s product boils down to the promise that artisans have laboured personally on your behalf. A similar fantasy underlies the ferocious insistence that a coffee shop be ‘artisanal’ or at least ‘independent’. The self-appointed guardians of authenticity, it seems, want desperately to believe that they are at the top of the labour pyramid. In cultural markets that are all too disappointingly accessible to the masses, the authenticity fetish disguises and renders socially acceptable a raw hunger for hierarchy and power. And don’t get me on the ‘authenticity’ of Glastonbury. People go just to say they’ve been there and come home smelling for three days of the authentic perfume of mud.

Authentic’ is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means ‘original’, but just being an original doesn’t mean you, or a brand will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney. At its heart, authenticity is about practicing what you preach, being totally clear about who you are and what you do best. When a brand’s rhetoric gets out of sync with customers’ actual experiences, the brand’s integrity and future persuasiveness suffers. It’s the same for people too.

It was a long, tiring, frustrating week. Weekend was good, I love the RSPCA, it’s purpose, vision, values and people, the event made me sad for my lost dogs, and simply highlighted what I truly value in my life, and that includes dogs over people. Institutions of State, or Holland & Barrett? I’ve become obsessed with authenticity and differences between echt and ersatz — but why bother doing anything if it’s not for real?

Authenticity starts in the heart. We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be. Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen. Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently.

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