The existential question today is not whether to be or not to be, but how one can become what one truly is. (Golomb 200)
In contemporary Western culture the ideal of living authentically, of being “true to yourself,” is ubiquitous. Authenticity is “taken for granted” as an absolute value in a multitude of areas, from music, to travel to identity (Lindholm 1). A core component of authentic selfhood is to find an occupation that is a “passion:” work that is “really you.” This article draws on recent qualitative interviews with Australians from a range of occupations about work, identity and meaning (James). It will demonstrate that for these contemporary individuals, occupation is often closely linked to perceptions of authentic selfhood. I begin by overviewing the significance and presence of authenticity as a value in contemporary culture through discussions of reality television and self-help literature focussed on careers. This is followed by a discussion of sociological theories of authenticity, drawing out the connections between the authentic self, modernity and work. The final section uses examples from the interviews to argue that the ideal of work being an extension of the authentic self is compelling because in providing direction and purpose, it helps the individual avoid anomie, disenchantment and other modern malaises (Taylor).
The Authentic Self and Career Guidance in Contemporary Popular Culture
The prevalence of authenticity in contemporary Western popular culture can be seen in reality television programs like Master Chef (a cooking competition) and The Voice (a singing competition). Generally, contestants take part in the show in order to “follow their dreams” and pursue the career they feel they were “destined” for. When elimination is immanent, those at risk of departure are given one last chance to tell the judges what being in the competition means to them. This usually takes the form of a tearful monologue in which the contestant explains that the past few weeks have been the best of their life, that they finally feel “alive” and that they have found their “passion.” In these shows, finding work that is “really you”—that is an extension of your authentic-self—is portrayed as being a fundamental component of fulfillment and self-actualization.
The same message is delivered in self-help media and texts. Since the 1970s, “finding your passion” and “finding yourself” have been popular subjects for the genre. The best known of these books is perhaps Richard Bolles’s What Color is Your Parachute?: a job-hunting manual aimed primarily at people looking for a career change. First published in 1970, a new edition has been released every year and there are over 10 million copies in print. In 1995 it was included in the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book’s 25 Books That Have Shaped Readers’ Lives, placing Bolles in the company of Cervantes and Tolstoy (Bolles).
Bolles’s book and similar career guidance titles generally follow a pattern of providing exercises for the reader to help them discover the “real you,” which then becomes the basis for choosing the “right” occupation, or as Bolles puts it, “first deciding who you are before deciding the kind of work you want to pursue.” Another best-selling self-help writer is Phil McGraw or “Dr. Phil,” better known for his television program than his books. In his Self Matters—Creating Your Life from the Inside Out, McGraw begins bytelling the story of his own search for his authentic “passion.” Before moving into television, McGraw spent ten years working as a practicing psychiatrist. He recalls:
So much of what I did—while totally okay if it had been what I had a passion for—was as unnatural for me as it would be for a dog. It didn’t come from the heart. It wasn’t something that sprang from who I really was ... I wasn’t doing what was meaningful for me. I wasn’t doing what I was good at and therefore was not pursuing my mission in life, my purpose for being here … You and everyone else has a mission, a purpose in life that cannot be denied if you are to live fully. If you have no purpose, you have no passion. If you have no passion, you have sold yourself out (7–12).
McGraw connects living authentically with living meaningfully. Working in an occupation that is in accordance with the authentic self gives one’s life purpose. This is the same message Oprah Winfrey chose to deliver in the final episode of the The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was watched by more than 16 million viewers in the U.S. alone. Rather than following the usual pattern of the show and interview celebrity guests, Winfrey chose to talk directly to her viewers about what matters in life:
Everybody has a calling, and your real job in life is to figure out what that is and get about the business of doing it. Every time we have seen a person on this stage who is a success in their life, they spoke of the job, and they spoke of the juice that they receive from doing what they knew they were meant to be doing [...] Because that is what a calling is. It lights you up and it lets you know that you are exactly where you're supposed to be, doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing. And that is what I want for all of you and hope that you will take from this show. To live from the heart of yourself.
Like McGraw, Winfrey draws a link between living authentically—living “from the heart”—and finding a “calling.” The message here is that the person whose career is in accordance with their authentic self can live with certainty, direction and purpose. Authenticity may act as a buffer against the anomie and disenchantment that arguably plague individuals in late modernity (Elliott & du Gay).
Disenchantment, Modernity and Authenticity
For many sociologists, most famously Max Weber, finding something that gives life purpose is the great challenge for individuals in the modern West. In a disenchanted society, without religion or other “mysterious incalculable forces” to provide direction, individuals may struggle to work out what they should do with their lives (149). For Weber the answer is to find your calling. Each individual must discover the “demon who holds the fibers of his very life” and obey its demands (156).
Following Weber, John Carroll has argued that in modern secular societies, individuals must draw on their inner resources to find answers to life’s “fundamental questions” (Ego 3–4). As Carroll stresses, it is not that the religious impulse has disappeared from contemporary society, but it is expressed in new ways. Individuals still yearn for a sense of purpose but they are “more likely to pursue their quests for meaning on their own, in experimental ways and with their main resource being their ontological qualities” (Carroll, Beauty 221).
Other Australian academics, like Gary Bouma and David Tacey, argue that rather than a decline in religiosity in Australia, what we are seeing is a change in the way people pursue the spiritual. Tacey suggests that while many Australians may “slink away” from the idea of God as something external to our lives, they may find more resonance with a conception of God as a “core dimension” of the person (167). Contemporary Australians continue to yearn for guidance, but they are more likely to look within to find it.
There is a clear link between this process of turning inward to pursue the spiritual, the prevalence of authenticity in contemporary Western culture, and modernity. With the breakdown of traditional structures, individuals become more “free to self-create” (Bauman, Identity 3). As Charles Lindholm describes it: “The inclination toward a spontaneous mode of expressive self-revelation correlates with the collapse of reliable and sacralised institutional frameworks that once offered meaning and succour” (65–66).
For Charles Taylor, the origins of this “massive subjective turn of modern culture” (26) lie in the 18th-century romantic period with the idea that each individual has an intuitive moral sense. To determine what is right, the individual must be in touch with their “inner voice” and act in accordance with it. It is in this notion that Taylor identifies the background to the belief, which is so prominent today, that “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s” (28–29). Lindholm points to Rousseau as the “inventor” of this ideal, with his revelatory Confessions becoming “the harbinger of a new ideal in which exploring and revealing one’s essential nature was taken as an absolute good” (8). According to Rousseau, social norms suppress the individual’s true nature, and so it is only possible for one to be authentic if they break these chains and act in accordance with their inner depths.
For employees in today’s service-oriented knowledge economy, there are significant risks involved in following Rousseau’s advice and expressing one’s “true feelings.” As many researchers have noted, in the new capitalism, workers are increasingly required to regulate their emotions and present themselves as calm, agreeable and above all positive (Hochschild; Sennett; Ehrenreich). To offer criticism or express frustration, to drop the “mask of cooperativeness” (Sennett 112), may mean risking one’s employment.
Nevertheless, while it is arguably becoming more difficult to express authentic feeling at work, for contemporary workers, choice of occupation is still often closely linked to perceptions of authentic selfhood. In fact, in a time of increasingly fragmented careers and short-term, episodic work, it becomes more necessary to create a meaningful narrative to link numerous and varied jobs to a core sense of self. As Richard Sennett argues, today’s flexible employees—frequently moving from one workplace to the next—are at risk of “drift:” a sensation of aimless movement (30). To counter this, individuals must create a convincing story that provides a rationale for career changes and can thereby “form their characters into sustained narratives” (31).
In the next section, drawing on recent empirical research, I argue that linking authentic selfhood to work provides individuals with a way to make sense of the trajectory of their work lives and to accept change. Today’s employees are able to interpret even the most unexpected career changes as a beneficial occurrence—something that was “meant to be”—by rationalising that such changes are part of a process of finding work that is an expression of the authentic self.
The Authentic Self at Work: Being True to Your Essence
The following discussion focuses on how authenticity as an ideal influences individuals’s work identity and career aspirations. It draws examples from recent qualitative interviews with Australian workers from a range of occupations (James 2012). A number of interviewees described a search for an occupation that was authentically “them,” a task that was well-suited to their capabilities and came “naturally:”
I have a feeling that I was sort of a natural teacher. (Teacher, 60)
Medical is what I like, that’s me. (Paramedic, 49)
I found my thing, I stick to it. (Farrier, 27)
These beliefs are quite clearly influenced by the idea of vocation, in that there is a particular task the individual is most suited to, but they do not invoke the sense of duty that a religious “calling” entails. Often, the interviewees had discovered the occupation that was “really them” by working in other jobs that were not their “true passion.” Realising that performing a particular role felt inauthentic helped them to define their authentic self and encouraged them to pursue more fulfilling work. This process often required experimentation, since “one knows what one is only after realising what one is not” (Golomb 201).
For instance, Olivia, a 33-year old lawyer had begun her career in a corporate law firm. She had never felt comfortable in the corporate environment: “I always thought, ‘They know I don’t belong here’.” Her performance at work felt inauthentic: “I was never good at smiling and saying yes.” This experience led her to move into human rights, which she found more fulfilling. Similarly Hazel, a 50 year-old social worker, had started her career in what she described as “boring administration jobs.” Although she had “always wanted” to work in the “caring sector” her family’s expectations and her low self-confidence had stopped her from applying for university. When she finally quit the administration work and began to study it was liberating: “a weight had come out off my shoulders.” In her occupation as a social worker she felt that her work fitted with her authentic self: “the kind of person I am,” and for the first time in her life she looked forward to going to work. Both of these women, and many of the other interviewees, rationalised their decision to work in a particular field by appealing to narratives of authentic selfhood.
Similarly, in explaining why they enjoyed their work, a number of interviewees looked back to their childhood for signs of what was “meant to be.” For instance, Tim, a 27 year-old farrier, justified his work with horses: “Mum came from a farming background, every school holidays I was up there…I followed my grandpa around like a little dog, annoyed and pestered him and asked him ‘Why’ and How?’ I’ve always been like that … So I think from an early age I was destined to do something like this.” Ken, a 50 year-old electrician, had a similar explanation for his choice of occupation: “Even as a little kid I was always mucking around with batteries and getting lights to work and things like that, so I think it was just a natural progression.”
This tendency to associate childhood interests with authentic selfhood is perhaps due to the belief that childhood is a time of innocence and freedom, where the individual had not yet been moulded by society. As Duschinsky argues, childhood is often connected with an “originary natural essence.” We are close here to Rousseau’s “sentiment of being,” or its contemporary manifestation the “real you.” Of course, the idea that the child is free from external influence is problematised by ideas of socialisation. From birth the infant learns by copying “significant others” and self-conception is formed through interaction (Cooley; Mead). Therefore, from the very beginning, an individual’s interests, dispositions and tastes are influenced by family and culture.
Shane, a 29 year-old real estate agent, had resisted working in property because it was the family business and he “didn’t want to be as boring as to follow in Dad’s footsteps.” He saw himself as “academic” and “creative” and for a number of years worked as a writer. Eventually though he decided that writing was not his calling: it was “not actually me … I categorise myself as someone who has the ability to write but not naturally.” When Shane began working in real-estate however, it felt almost automatic. Like the other members of his family he had the right skills and traits to thrive in the business and was immediately successful. Interestingly, Shane’s conception of his authenticity includes both a belief in an essential, pre-social “true” self and at the same time an understanding of the importance of the influence of family in the formation of the self.
Regardless of whether the idea of a natural, inner-essence discernable in childhood pastimes can be disproven, it is clear that the understanding of authentic selfhood as an “immediate expression of our essence” continues to influence how individuals conceive of their work identities. However, at the same time, the interviewees’ accounts of authenticity also acknowledged the role of parents in influencing traits and dispositions. In these narratives of the self, authenticity encompasses opposing understandings of childhood as being both free from social influences and highly influenced by primary agents of socialisation. That individuals are willing to do the necessary mental and emotional work to maintain these contradictory beliefs suggests that there is a strong incentive to frame work identity as an expression of authentic selfhood.
Authenticity Provides Purpose
The great benefit of being able to convincingly rationalise one’s work as a manifestation of the true self is that it gives the individual direction and purpose. Work then provides answers to Carroll’s fundamental questions: “who am I?” and “What should I do with my life?” A number of the interviewees recalled their attempts to secure a sense of purpose by linking their current occupation to their inner essence. As Greg, a 36-year-old fitness consultant described it:
You just gotta think ‘What do you really wanna do, what makes you happy, what are you about?’ … I guess the strengthening and conditioning work, the fitness, has been the constant right the way through. It’s probably the core of what I’ve done over the years, seeing individuals and teams get fit. It’s what I do. That’s my role, if you put it in a nutshell. That’s what I’m about … I was sort of floating around a little bit … I need to go ‘This is what I am.’
By identifying his authentic self and linking it to his work, Greg was able to make sense of his past. He had once been a professional runner and after an injury was forced to redefine himself. He now rationalised that his ability to run had led him into the fitness field:
You look at what is your life mission and basically what are you out here for … with athletics it’s allowed me to deal with any sport, made me flexible in my career … if I was, therefore born to run? Yeah, quite possibly, there had to be a reason.
Like many of the interviewees, Greg had been forced to change his plans, but he was able to rationalise that this change was positive by forming a narrative that connected both his current and previous occupations to his perception of his authentic self. As Sennett describes it, he is able to from his character into a “sustained narrative” (31). Similarly, Trish, a 42 year-old retail coordinator, connected both her work as a chef and her job in a hardware store back to her sense of authentic self. Both occupations, she thought, were “down and dirty” and she linked this to her family “roots” and her identity as a “country girl.” In interpreting these two substantially different occupations as an expression of her true self, Trish is able to create a narrative in which unexpected career changes are as seen as something beneficial that was “meant to be.”
These accounts of career trajectories suggest that linking authenticity to work identity is a strategy individuals employ to cope with the disorienting effects of fragmented work lives. Even jobs that are unfulfilling and feel inauthentic can be made meaningful by interpreting them as necessary steps leading towards the discovery of one’s “ true passion”. This is quite different to the ideal of a life-long calling in one occupation, which as Bauman has noted, has become a “privilege of the few” in late-modernity (Work 34). In an era of insecure and fragmented work, the narrative of an authentic self becomes particularly appealing as it allows the individual to create a meaningful work-narrative that can accommodate the numerous twists and turns of contemporary “liquid” existence (Bauman, Identity 5) and avoid “drift” (Sennett).
Drawing on qualitative research, this paper has analysed the connections between authenticity, work and modern selfhood. I have shown that in an era of flexible and fragmented working lives, work-identities are often closely tied to understandings of authentic selfhood. Interpreting particular kinds of work as being expressions of the authentic self provides individuals with a sense of purpose and in some cases assists them in coming to terms with unexpected career changes. A meaningful career narrative acts as a buffer against disorientation, disenchantment and anomie. It is therefore no wonder that authentic selfhood is such a prominent theme in reality television, self-help and other forms of popular culture, since it is taps into an existential need for a sense of purpose that becomes increasingly elusive in late-modernity. It is clear from the accounts presented in this paper that the pursuit of authenticity is not merely a narcissistic endeavor, and is employed by individuals to work through fundamental existential questions. Future work in this area should continue to make use of empirical research to add depth and complexity to theoretical accounts of authentic selfhood.
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