What does it even mean to live an authentic life?


There is a lot of talk about authenticity at the moment. Living an authentic life seems to have become the new yardstick for success. No longer is chasing money or abiding to social conventions enough to lead a fulfilling life. People – and particularly millennials – seem to want to more out of life.

I am no exception to this characterisation, and I even use the term ‘authenticity’ in the description of one of my personal core values. But although I generally know what I mean when I use the word authenticity, I have become curious to find out what it really means to live an authentic life.

In this post, we will explore what an authentic life is and how we can we start living an authentic life?

Taking a look in the dictionary

Let us start by taking a look at the definition that the Oxford English Dictionary offers us for the word authentic. The OED describes authentic as ‘of undisputed origin; genuine’, ‘based on facts: reliable’ or ‘relating to an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive and responsible mode of living’.

It seems then that authenticity differs in meaning, depending on the context you use the word in. If you collect art, authenticity means that the piece of art is undisputedly from the artist’s hand. If you write a book authentically, it means representing and staying true your nature and beliefs. But when you want to live an authentic life, there seems to be more at play than simply genuineness. 

Taking a look at philosophy

This above all:
To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man. 

~ William Shakespeare

The concept of living an authentic life was not born with millennials, but already existed as a hot topic of debate in the previous century, when existentialist philosophers, such as Sartre and Heidegger, posed that living authentically provides the antidote to outside conditioning – to the external pressures of society, religion, culture, politics or parents. The existential philosophers broadly define living authentically as acting in a way that is consistent with your natural self and core beliefs.

They argue that living an authentic life allows us to find meaning and fulfilment in life, which is perhaps why authentic living has become such a buzzword in recent years. As social, religious and cultures pressures fall away, authenticity holds the promise of meaning and fulfilment that the church and state once offered humans.

Taking a look at modern writers

That brings us to the modern world, where authenticity has become the new model of excellence and personal development. This is where we leave behind the philosophical quarrels about the definitions of authenticity and get into some of the more actionable writings about authenticity. Brené Brown writes about authenticity:

Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let out true selves be seen.

She also reminds us that being able to make these choices means we have to cultivate the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable, because our true selves are full of tender places of imperfections. This courage is emphasised by other writers as well.

E.E. Cummings wrote ‘it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are’. And Debbie Ford wrote ‘the greatest act of courage is to be and to own all of who you are — without apology, without excuses, without masks to cover the truth of who you are.

By now we see a clearer picture emerge on what it means to live an authentic life. Living authentically is about having the courage to live in accordance with who you are.

How to live an authentic life

How can we begin to live an authentic life? Living true to your nature and beliefs is an individual journey, since each of our natures and beliefs are unique. Personal authenticity is contextual. What is important to you and who you are as a person is developed in and defined by your social, political and religious surroundings.

And that is where the paradox of living authentically comes in. There is no such things as true authenticity, because who you truly are is always in relation to others and will change as you grow and evolve over the course of your life. We should therefore find the value of authenticity not in a constant self, but in the consistent evolution of the self and the courage to build a relationship with the self. Living authentically is thus a way of wandering through life, rather than a destination to arrive at. There is no simple three-step program to become authentic, but there are three simple things we can keep in mind when we go on our own journey towards authenticity.

1.  Find your values. Finding values that are important to you is a simple way of getting to the heart of what it means to be you. Spend some time figuring out what values matter to you.

2.  Build the courage to live in accordance with these values. In the face of those who will challenge your sense of self and your values, build the courage to own who you are and what you have to say.

3.  Remember the fluidity of your true self. Your true self and values will likely change significantly throughout your life. Keep tuning inward from time to time to see if you are still living in accordance with your self at that moment.

To learn more about living an authentic life, check out the resources below:

Debbie Ford – Courage: Overcoming Fear and Igniting Self-Love. (Book)
Brené Brown – The Gifts of Imperfection (Book)

Clarissa DeanComment