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Authenticity vs Change
How to view and work with this dilemma
“I have always been told to be my true self and not to be someone else; yet I have also been told that I need to constantly look to change and adapt. What should I do?”
I got and thought about this question a lot. As an introvert in product, I know and preach that the best way to succeed in this world full of extroverts, is to be myself. In the mean time, I also know perfectly well that it’s no less important to keep looking around you and inside of you, identify improvement opportunities, and make positive changes. Such as be better at presentation, communication, interviews, etc. which requires you to stretch beyond our introversion comfort zones.
So how do we know when to be true to ourselves, when to change for the better?
In this post, I will share my perspective, and hopefully provide a framework to help you make the best decisions for yourself.
What is authenticity? The usual synonyms include “real”, “original”, “genuine”. In my own words,
Authenticity is to know, to embrace, and to express your true value, personality, and uniqueness.
To be authentic, you need to first know who you are and what you believe. Then you need to accept it, be confident about it, and not be afraid to show it.
What about change? What are the meaningful changes one should pursue? I believe:
Meaningful changes are what improve oneself and drive toward better, positive outcomes.
If a change doesn’t improve and does not lead to any better outcome at least eventually, it might not be a meaningful change to pursue.
Manage the “Authenticity vs Change” Dilemma
With these definitions in mind, here’s the framework I use to help me navigate the dilemma: whether and how much should I change myself for a desired outcome.
STEP #1. Be Clear About Who You Are
Take the time to think about and write down who your authentic self really is. Start from:
Your value: what do you believe in? what’s behind almost all the decisions you made? E.g. courage, taking risk, family, growth, health, fun, grit, compassion, honesty, friendship, connection etc. There’s a long list, but pick your top 3.
Your personality: in addition to introvert vs extrovert, Myer-Briggs test help you profile yourself. Not to bucket yourself in specific stereotypical categories, but to use a tool to better understand yourself.
Your uniqueness: Other than values and personality, what makes you different from most around you, that you’re proud of? It could be anything. Your background, orientation, physical and mental features, etc.
These are you foundations, most are non-negotiables. Keep them in mind as you make decisions.
STEP #2. Understand What You Want To Achieve
Now move from inward to outward, and think about: What are the desired outcomes you’re looking to achieve, why do you want them, and how do you know you’ve accomplished them?
Note that the why and the measure are as important as the concrete what. If you don’t know why you want something, it’s probably a vanity goal you’re blindly chasing. If you don’t know how to measure it, you might not be knowing when to stop. Both might be harmful to being true to yourself.
For example: you want that promotion and you plan to do whatever it takes, including fundamentally changing the way you work. But why do you want it? Because of more money? more power and authority to do more? Bigger scope and impact? Or simply a desire for validation. Is promotion the only way to give you what you really want? Or is there something else that aligns better with your true life value?
Another example: you want to be much more likable among your colleagues. What’s likeable? How do you know you’re likeable enough? Do you just keep the scores on how many friends you have at work, and it’s the more the better? How do you know they’re true friends? Would you end up endlessly chasing a vague goal as being “likeable”?
Define your goal, understand why, and know how to measure, before you consider bending backward for it.
STEP #3. Break Down The Goals Into Key Drivers
Once you’re clear about your goals, identify the key drivers that would help you accomplish it. The key drivers are the levers you can pull to approach closer to your goals. By listing the key drivers, you’ll more clearly see:
which ones fit you better as who you are
which ones might require you to make the changes, and to what extent should you change
And that enables you to focus on pulling the right levers, and improving yourself the right way all without having to change your cores (values, personality, uniqueness).
You might find yourself break down a few levels deep to get to the right level of abstraction to be concrete about specific actions and changes you need to make.
I know it sounds a bit complicated. Let’s see some over-simplified examples.
Goal #A: Getting Promotion (As A PM)
Key drivers are:
Making major impacts by delivering great products
Work well with colleagues and key stakeholders
Gain great visibility in front of leadership / management.
I might need to be above the bar for all three, but there are also many different ways to succeed in them. As an introverted PM, I’d focus on:
What I do best in the end to end product life cycle. Lets say my ability to execute and get shit done. (among other things) vs having to be a visionary + a enthusiastic evangelist)
Spend a lot of 1:1 time to connect and align with my colleagues and stakeholders (vs having to deliver amazing speeches for that same alignment)
Knowing that there’s no replacement for executive presence to gain enough visibility, I’d work hard on improving this specific area without having to change my way of communication. Meaning I still need to improve my communication skills in front of leadership, such as being concise and right to the point, be confident, and be flexible in responding their inquiries. But I don’t need to talk like my extroverted colleague who does have their trust in a different style.
So in order to get promoted, do I make necessary changes? Yes. Am I still the authentic self? Yes absolutely.
Goal #B: Win That (PM) Interview
Key drivers are:
Demonstrate product skills
Be cultural fit
Likewise, you need to check the boxes for all three. But think about:
What does it mean by communicate well? Is it lengthy self promotion? Is it using sophisticated words and jargons? Is it to talk like Steve Jobs? None of the above. It’s to be concise and organized, use plain english, and be confident.
How do you demonstrate product skills? Know your stuff and don’t make things up, show your user empathy and analytical skills by thoughtfully running through the exercise in collaboration with your interviewers.
Are you a culture fit and can you fake it? You might be able to fake it to some degree, but it doesn’t do you service anyway. Even if you get the job, it’ll be painful working there, and you won’t last for long.
So what do you do? You communicate in your exact style following the right principles. You work hard to prepare and practice for these interviews, and you do NOT morph yourself into someone else just to shoehorn into the job offer.
True to yourself? sure. Do you change yourself? Not fundamentally, but you work incredibly hard, probably harder than others and you’ve ever done to be successful in standing out from competitions.
Know your authentic self, and then stay true to it. Positive changes for well defined outcomes are not only necessary but also important. You just have to make the right changes for the right things, guided by who you are and what really matters to you.
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