In our culture, we love buzzwords and catchphrases—until we don't. "Thinking outside the box" sounded exciting the first hundred times we heard it, but then it started to get on our nerves. It's the same with "authenticity." These days everything from potato chips to blue jeans is labeled authentic. The word is so overused that we've become numb to it—it's almost lost its meaning.

The thing is, behind every buzzword is a legitimate problem we're trying to solve. In the case of authenticity, it's that we're tired of fakery and Photoshopped perfection, of trying to live up to impossible ideals of beauty and happiness. I truly believe that most of us will take messy and real over flawless and inauthentic every time.

But it's challenging to be real in a world that wants us to fit in and please everybody. Authenticity is not a default behavior: It can seem easier just to be what others want us to be, whether that means nodding in agreement when our boss says something we don't actually believe or choosing ridiculously uncomfortable shoes to impress a new group of friends (guilty!). There are so many messages telling us how to look and behave; to tune them out, we may need to take action.

For me, that means writing permission slips—to myself. As an academic, I often feel pressure to appear cool and in control; I keep my goofy, silly side locked up tight. So when I taped Super Soul Sunday last year, in the pocket of my jean jacket I had stuffed a note giving me permission to act just as enthusiastic as I felt. When I heard that Maya Angelou was elsewhere on the set, I got so excited that Oprah asked if I wanted to meet her. Was I shy or cool about that? Nope: I admitted I'd like to meet her more than anything else in the world. As we were introduced, I told Dr. Angelou that I often played a recording of her reciting lines from the hymn "I Shall Not Be Moved" for my grad students, and she grabbed my hand and sang, "Just like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved." To this day, when I'm having trouble being the real me, I think of that moment: It was one of the most meaningful professional experiences of my life. I truly don't think it would have happened if I hadn't been practicing authenticity.

Next: How to truly be authentic—and what to dare yourself


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