Authenticity is misunderstood: it isn't about being all smiles and rainbows. Learning to be your authentic self and allowing others to do the same allows you to create more meaningful connections with others. This is an essential skill for everyone, but especially for UX Researchers who rely on developing connections with other people in order to improve their lives.
My journey towards embracing Authenticity started by learning to listen to and embrace being myself. Two years ago, I posted this quote above from, “Self Reliance,” a classic American essay by transcendentalist great, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was having a hard time being myself because I was in the midst of the most traumatic situation at work I’d ever been through and I was standing up for myself and what I believed was right. I was trying to learn how to better rely on myself, so this seemed like a good place to start.
I had someone throwing me under the bus for something that had everything to do with them and nothing to do with me and a manager who was discriminating against me without understanding (or even asking) what was really going on.
Discrimination answers the question, "Why me?" with, "Because me."
This insidious little response from the brain is the root of trauma. Two years ago, this is what my brain started doing to myself: I started blaming myself for being discriminated against. I blamed myself for not being better. For the situation happening to me at all. For saying this in this way or not saying that. For trusting others that I shouldn't have trusted. For believing in a system I thought was there to protect me from another employee who was doing harm.
When I went to HR about the situation for help dealing with a manager who was discriminating against me for being gay, my HR representative literally told me, "Well, I think that's just the way he (my former manager) is. You're free to look for another job somewhere else."
Is there anything else someone could say that would be less validating? It's really hard to come forward to explain a situation like this. To make yourself that vulnerable to a complete stranger and to then have that person cast aside your feelings and invalidate you. What's even worse is that this message came from an Asian woman. I thought if anyone could be understanding and compassionate about a discriminatory manager, it would be a minority woman-someone else who may have unfortunately gone through a similar situation themselves.
Being Gay in Tech
Being gay in the Tech industry is not easy because being gay in this world is not easy. Others might suspect that you’re gay, but most people would never ask you if you’re gay. Working in Tech, working in Corporate America, you are assumed to be straight. And if you’re like many, you learn to pass for being straight.
"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment."
To be gay is to be an, "invisible minority," where you're constantly assumed to be straight and where straightness is constantly reaffirmed by the culture and media around you. Granted, some people might be more flamboyant than others, but we're taught not to disclose this part about ourselves because it's, "Not appropriate" in a work setting to talk about your sexuality. And yet, straight people talk about their straight partners all the time.
I can remember a specific Team All-Hands meeting where one of the presenters-to thousands of people, mind you-created his entire demo of the new features his team was building based on scenarios using himself and his wife as the example participants. Yeah, this is completely innocuous for all my straight readers out there, but for a gay person, this is yet one more example of a straight cis white dude reaffirming his straight white dude-ness in front of a bunch of other straight white dudes in a tech company. This happened ALL THE TIME.
I never once saw a gay person in a position of power talk about their gayness or use their husband as the example. Wouldn't that example be funny? "Yeah, I heard about the silly things that your wife does, but guess what my husband did the other day!" Wouldn't that be a refreshing perspective to hear at the company all-hands?
To be gay is to feel out of place in a world where others who look like you are affirmed for being who they are as you are shunned for being who you are. Thus, as gays, we create our, "Straight persona," of how we are told (explicitly sometimes, though most often implicitly through comments of others and the media) how we should act in the world: We learn not to be, "Too flamboyant," at work. We learn not to talk about, "My husband," when others are talking about their straight partners. We learn to tone down our affect and mannerisms and limit our word choices and references so as not to offend others by quoting RuPaul.
Working in Tech, I was usually the only gay in the room. I was the only gay in a position of power. And I did not hide my gayness, but I did tone it down a bit in order to “fit in” with the boys club. I was shy about revealing too much about myself to others who didn’t seem like they would be open to hearing it. Or, I simply didn’t share things about myself so as not to upset anyone.Growing Up Gay
As children, we develop this straight persona and it is this persona that is validated by others. So, we continue to act as if we were straight because this is the persona we put out in the world that receives attention and praise. This is what causes the rage. We learn to dislike ourselves because our true selves aren't validated and our fake/straight self is validated. We grow up learning to hate ourselves. And thus, of course, we learn that we can't be our authentic selves in the world. We can only be this other, made up self that isn't who we really are.
All throughout High School, I learned how to pass for being straight-albeit, not very well. I wasn’t out to myself or anyone else. The church told me that gay people all went to hell, so I couldn’t be gay and I spent my entire childhood and teenage years trying to be someone that I wasn’t.
I came out of the closet when I was 20 years old. And since that time, I stopped apologizing for being myself and starting trying to figure out who that person actually was. And as I figured out who I was, I started figuring out how I wanted to be in this world. How I wanted to interact with others.
Note: The Velvet Rage is an excellent book that discusses this topic in more depth and many of my ideas here are based on learnings from this book. "My therapist recommended that I read it," is what every gay person I know has said of it. And it's true. My therapist told me to read it and I'm glad that I did because this book describes my life story in more detail than I thought could be possible. If you want to better understand the gay perspective, talk to your gay friends and consider reading this book.
This is why this quote from Emerson is so powerful for me-especially at this time when I was being discriminated against at work. Because the world is constantly trying to strip gay people of what it means to be gay: allowing us to be our authentic selves in everything we do, in how we show up in the world, and in how we coexist with others.
It is a great accomplishment to learn to be authentic to ourselves. I'm going to try a quick re-write of this quote:
To be authentic in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
By the time I'm 38 years old being discriminated against at work, I thought I knew myself pretty well. But I started questioning who that person was because I wasn't being seen for who I thought that I was. I was being misjudged. And when I went to HR and was completely invalidated, I really started questioning my judgement of others. I had to be my own problem!
And that's when I started learning a new definition of authenticity.
Authenticity with Yourself
Being Authentic is not about following or not following the crowd. Being authentic has nothing to do with the crowd and everything to do with being yourself. You can follow the crowd and not be authentic to yourself and you can go against the crowd and still not be authentic to yourself.
The only responsibility to being authentic is a responsibility that you have to yourself. Only you can define and know if you are being authentic to yourself because only you know what it's like to be yourself.
Authenticity has nothing to do with other people.
You set your own measuring stick for what that means for you. If you are acting according to your values, you are being authentic. If you value honesty and ethical responsibility and you don't act in accordance, then you're not being authentic to yourself. But if you act in accordance with your values, you are being authentic to yourself. And you choose your actions, so you have a daily choice and commitment to show up being your self and being the self that you want to be.
The deeper reflection I needed at the time was to realize that being misjudged had nothing to do with me. When I was discriminated against, I blamed myself when really, I should have been blaming the bad manager for acting wrongly. His incorrect evaluation of me, my abilities, my contributions, and my value as a human had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him.
Two years later and after a LOT of self-care and working with an amazing mindset coach, I am finally realizing that there was nothing wrong with me in the first place. And that being authentic to me means that I only have my own values to live up to and that when others misjudge me, it isn't because of me. Only I have control over not being authentic to myself and it is my responsibility to act in accordance to my values.
Through this experience, I've learned that I value being myself, creating safe space for others be themselves, inclusivity and diversity of world-views and lived experiences, honesty, respect, and integrity in all things. If I live up to this, I'm doing my part in being authentic to myself. And I don't have to be around others who don't live up to my values. It's my choice not to work with them and it's my choice not to be friends with them.
Authenticity with Others
Being your authentic self starts with yourself and knowing who that is. Being authentic with others means that you show up as your authentic self when interacting with others. This means that you show up as you are, no matter where you're at.
You know those interactions that go something like this…
"Hey, how are you doing?"
Are you really feeling good or are you having a bad day?
Being authentic is about starting with where you're at and not covering up what you're feeling. What if instead you said something more honest like:
"I'm having a rough day, but I think things will work out."
"I'm a little stressed about this big presentation I have coming up, but I'm working hard on it."
"I just had an argument with my husband, but I know that it's because he cares about me."
I'm not suggesting you use this much truth with your superficial connections, but when you are honest with yourself about where you're at and when you share that self with others, you're being authentic.Authenticity Deepens Connections
You're also opening the door to deeper connections. You're putting your true self out there, with all its' insecurities and flaws, acknowledging this is where you're at. And you're inviting others to share in that space with you. This is what it means to "Hold space," for others: you being you and not hiding behind a façade. When you show up as your genuine self, you invite others to join you in that space. It doesn't mean unloading on the other person, it just means that you invite them to be with you.
Our deepest connections are those that reflect the good in ourselves and inspire us to be better humans.
When we can be there with others and allow others to be there for us, we are actively creating deeper connections with people. I believe that by creating and maintaining deeper connections, we learn to be better humans. And deep down, isn't this what all of us want, anyway? To love and be loved and to relate to others? Humans have a need for community. This is why we congregate with others who have similar ideas and values. Similar interests. This is how you find your tribe. We find others like us who reflect the goodness we see in ourselves.
"Our friends afford us a chance to express our deepest selves, and that the conversations we have with them are a privileged forum in which to say what we really think and, by extension and with no mystical allusion, be who we really are." How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton
Deeper connections with our friends and family lead to more overall happiness and satisfaction in life because we are spending more time being who we really are. And once we learn to be our authentic selves with those closest to us, we can feel safer about opening up to others at work.
Authenticity at Work
I think the goal of being our authentic self is to continue being that same person throughout our lives, in every context, and with every person. Even at work. Especially at work.
As I was being discriminated, I came face to face with exactly what my values are through a situation where those values were threatened. The people around me were not acting in accordance with my values. When I saw them not being upheld, when I saw myself not respected, I did what I had to do: I left.
Two years ago, when Emerson inspired me to rely on myself, I made the conscious decision to leave a career that I loved at a company I had devoted over 10 years of my life.
It took leaving a career that I loved to propel me into being my most authentic self, which inspired me to create my own company, Amplinate, which is based on this value (I mean, I literally put it as the name of the company for exactly this reason!). I saw a deficiency of authenticity in the world, so I created a safe space for me to be my authentic self and to hold space for others to be their authentic selves.
Ironically, the same actions I took to learn to be my authentic self also caused me to stand out as an individual. But my individuality to stand out and do something crazy and different came from my acceptance of myself and a desire to create a better world around me. My authenticity to listen to myself and to learn to be myself gave me the courage to create a better world for others.
Authenticity in UX Research
As a UX Researcher, it is imperative that we create space for others to be their authentic selves, too: our team, our managers, our stakeholders, and yes, most importantly, our research participants.
Conducting research is an interpersonal action-it necessarily involves communicating and interacting with other people. Our ability to do research well is directly tied to our ability to connect with others. To be open to listening to them, wherever they are at. To create a safe space for them to share themselves. Their true selves. Their true opinions. Their frustrations. Their hopes, and joys, and dreams, and fears.
When we allow others the freedom to be theirselves, we more fully grow into being ourselves.
After more than 15 years working as a UX Researcher, I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people. More people than I can remember. But I still remember many of them. Not because of what they said, but because of how they made me feel.
I remember doing ethnographic research in China for the first time and one young man that made me feel so special. As we entered his home, he respectfully asked us to join him for tea. "This is very special tea," he explained to us after we sat down, "We only drink it once a year or with very honored guests, like you. I want you to feel at home here with us." I was utterly blown away. I don't remember much else about that particular session, but I remember how he made me feel. How he created space for me as a guest in his home in Shenzhen. He started with the openness that's required for developing deep connection.Meeting People with Openness
When you are open to meeting people wherever they are at, you build mutual trust and respect which opens the door for them to share themselves. And even though as a Researcher, I'm not talking about myself, we are having a conversation and we are creating a deeper connection. I had one session for a persona study with a mom. Most of the discussion guide was about what she did to be a good mom for her 3 year old son. At the end of the session, she hugged me and thanked me so much for the session, because it felt like therapy (in a good way, for her). Our discussion allowed her the space to reflect on all the things that she does in order to be there to support her son and she left in tears of joy for having had that experience.
I remember another man I was doing research with on a study about how people looked for News online. He was of another political affiliation than me and started talking about [insert X news source here that was the opposite of what I agreed with]. At this point, I had a choice: Do I prejudge him based on his news source? Or do I open up to listening and learning from him?
When you make snap judgements about people based on their political views, ethnicity, skin color, socio-economic background, education level, etc., you shut yourself off from allowing them to show you who they are. You are closing yourself off from giving them the opportunity to be their authentic self with you.
At that point, you might as well throw your research data out the window as well, because you're never going to get the depth you need to answer your research questions.
Throughout my career, I've learned to respect people and approach everyone with curiosity and openness. And this is why I love international research so much. It gives me new opportunities to hear others' stories about the world around them too. We gain so much from hearing each others' stories and lived experiences because we learn that we have so much more in common than we once thought.
Seeing this truth connects us as humans. We realize that we all experience joys and sorrows and pain. We love the important people in our lives and find ways to honor them and respect others around us.
And this is the true heart of Research: seeing each other as fellow humans, each on our own path towards learning to be our authentic selves, and sharing that self with others.
Two years ago, I decided to quit my job because I wasn't able to be my authentic self at work.
One year ago, I created a company to create a space for myself and others to be their authentic selves.
Today, I celebrate the one year anniversary of my company, Amplinate.
Do you have an anniversary of the day you committed to being your Authentic self?
Today, I realized that I do.