On the first week of my last job, my boss pulled me aside into a conference room to check in. Before the meeting ended, she told me that she'd heard some of our co-workers complain that they thought I was icy and standoffish. "I just wanted to let you know," she told me. "Remember, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."
My boss later became my mentor and a close friend, and in retrospect, this is one of the best pieces of advice she ever gave me. At the time, however, I was extremely taken aback. Where does she get off saying something like that?, I wondered. Would anyone ever say that to a man? The way I saw it, I had no obligation to be friendly and sociable; I had an obligation to do my job well, so as long as people thought I was doing good work, I didn't particularly care if they liked me. But her words sent me down a rabbit hole where I started obsessing about my behavior.
Was I being standoffish? I wondered. I don't think I was being standoffish. I was just being cautious. I was being reserved. I was just being myself.
For most of my life, I had been told by everyone — by my parents, by my teachers, by old Sesame Street episodes — that being true to my own nature was the key to success. As long as I was honest and authentic, the message seemed to be, there was no obstacle too large to achieve my goals.
It took me years to realize just how wrong that advice was. Being yourself is great advice, provided you are an inherently kind, diligent, extroverted, attractive, and charismatic person. (It also helps if you're white and male.) If you aren't — and most of us aren't — "be yourself" is fucking terrible advice.
I was reminded of the slippery appeal of the "be yourself" philosophy when I read Ivanka Trump's new book Women Who Work, a manual for millennial working women in the corporate world. While the book has (justifiably) been criticized for espousing a bland, mealy-mouthed version of corporate feminism, not to mention a shockingly tone-deaf view of what it means to be a woman in the workplace, few people have focused on what is perhaps the most damaging aspect of Trump's book, which is that it promotes the value of "authenticity."
For someone who has perpetually been accused of being inauthentic, Ivanka Trump is very, very fond of the term "authenticity." She uses it to describe her social life. ("Cultivating authenticity is essential to creating strong bonds with your coworkers.") She uses it to describe her Instagram. ("Becoming comfortable authentically expressing myself as a female executive with kids was a bit of a journey for me.") And she uses it to justify her habit of FaceTiming with her kids in her office. ("The lack of compartmentalization between work and home has fostered great authenticity," which sounds outrageous on its surface but is probably true, if you are authentically the CEO of your own authentic multimillion dollar mid-priced women's clothing empire.)
For someone who has perpetually been accused of being inauthentic, Trump is very, very fond of the term "authenticity."
Most of all, Trump advocates for employees to foster authenticity in the workplace, a repackaging of the kindergarten sentiment "be yourself" for the Pinterest generation. "I like the concept of marrying authenticity — being forthright with ourselves and others about what matters most — with sincerity, which is about aspiring to become a better leader, friend, wife and mother," she writes.
Trump's advice is both self-contradictory — in most workplaces, communicating your own needs is incompatible with your role as an employee, which is serving the needs of others — and toxic. In most workplaces, authenticity, as defined in this context, is not a trait that is going to win you any friends or influence. In fact, if you're a 20-or 30-something woman in most workplaces, it is a trait that is swiftly going to get you shitcanned.
The American workplace, as currently structured, is not one that rewards authenticity in any form; for the most part, it rewards obedience, groupthink, and slavish diligence in the service of company goals. Creativity and vision are rewarded, yes, but only within a limited capitalist framework that defines success strictly within the terms of dollars and cents (no one would be lauding Steve Jobs and Walt Disney as innovators if they didn't make any money).
In itself, there's nothing wrong with this; if all employees were spending their time brainstorming the new iPhone or Disney World instead of executing on goals, nothing would ever get done. But the idea that authenticity is central to success within this culture is wrongheaded and arguably rife with privilege. Because when it comes right down to it, "being yourself" is only good advice if you are white, male, attractive, and an inherently outgoing person. If you're not, it can only serve to work against you.
If you're a 20-or 30-something woman in most workplaces, authenticity is a trait that is swiftly going to get you shitcanned.
The value of authenticity in the workplace basically only applies to those who are inherently extroverted: according to a 2015 report, extroverts tend to out-earn introverts in the workplace by at least $1000. While there has been a recent shift toward rewarding introversion in the workplace, thanks to books like Susan Cain's bestseller Quiet, the truth is that unless you are naturally predisposed toward networking, speaking up during meetings, and openly advocating for your own advancement, being "authentic" in the workplace will probably not work in your favor.
Further, research shows that the value of "being yourself" is an inherently privileged one, particularly if you are not white or male. For women, advocating for themselves or voicing disagreement in any capacity in the workplace comes at a high cost. According to a 2015 study of performance reviews at tech companies, “women are much more likely to receive critical feedback than men," particularly if they are in upper management roles, where they are often described as "abrasive, aggressive, and emotional." The reverse is also true: per a 2016 study, more reserved women tend to earn less and be promoted less frequently than their more vocal counterparts, indicating that authenticity isn't really much of a workplace value at all if you have a vagina.
Encouraging employees to be themselves also doesn't apply to people of color, who are often under immense pressure to code-switch for the sake of their own career advancement. In a world where applicants with "black-sounding" names are still rejected at higher rates than job applicants with "white-sounding" names, for people of color trying to conform to white cultural norms in the workplace, being true to themselves is not an opportunity for career advancement, but an impediment to it.
Above all else, however, the value of staying true to oneself in the workplace also presupposes that your self is, well, instantly likable. If you are an inherently warm, generous, friendly, attractive, and extroverted person, then of course being yourself will work in your favor; if you're a little reserved and socially awkward and anxious and you tend to talk about your predictions for the next Star Wars movie when you're nervous and you get a little bit sweaty toward the end of the day, that might not be the case. And if your personality doesn't stem from anxiety or natural introversion — if you are just, naturally, a cold or awkward or outright rude and obnoxious person, which, let's be real, some people are — then of course being yourself isn't going to work in your favor.
Instead of being myself, I've started actively trying to be the best version of myself: the person that I would want to work with, or the person that I would want to work for.
Before my supervisor explicitly called me out for it, I didn't think I belonged to this category; and to a certain extent, I still don't. I don't consider myself an icy bitch, so much as I consider myself shy, ultra-focused, and a little anxious. But it took her telling me that I came off to other people that way for me to realize that while being myself might work in some contexts — if I was making a difficult moral decision, for starters, or in writing, where a whiff of inauthenticity can stink up the entire page — it was not going to work for me in a social setting, and it certainly wasn't going to work for me in my career.
So instead of being myself, I've started actively trying to be the best version of myself: the person that I would want to work with, or the person that I would want to work for, even if it doesn't come naturally to me. Instead of rushing to my laptop to start my work for the day, I try to smile and say "good morning!" like goddamn Mary Poppins on uppers. Instead of rushing through my emails, I try to take a few minutes out of every day to give a coworker or a writer praise that I feel they deserve. Instead of telling someone their idea sucks, I try to gently couch my criticism and provide constructive feedback. It's not me. It's not my true self. It's not "authentic," as Ivanka, in her infinite wisdom, would define it. But it's the self I would one day like to be.