I’m still co-chairing the advisory board for Leaders of Today and Tomorrow, and let me tell you, friends, the program blows my mind on a regular basis. Our dedicated board members, talented mentors, and passionate fellows make every program year inspiring in its own unique way.
One of the things we always say about the program is that everyone learns. The fellows may be there to soak up knowledge, but our speakers and panelists and mentors and facilitators all learn about themselves each year, too. Here’s a great example: I give a presentation on dressing for interviews, networking, and office life every year. In years past, I’ve always gotten questions from the fellows about how to dress professionally while simultaneously expressing their personalities. So I touch on that topic each year now. But a young woman in last year’s cohort responded to my caveats and tips for being unique while also conforming with this tidbit of wisdom: There’s nothing natural about an interview. Interviews are a construct for everyone involved, so why get hung up on self-expression?
Take this a step further: In the vast majority of cases, the person conducting the interview will be on her/his/their best behavior and fall short of showing true colors fully. The interviewer may wear a typical office outfit if interviewing someone she/he/they will be supervising, but if it’s an HR rep screening managerial or executive candidates, or VPs group-interviewing potential CEOs, outfits are likely to be more formal than usual. So although the interviewer may be more at ease overall, the situation is far from natural. It makes some sense that interview candidates would want to dress in ways that aren’t completely contrary to their personalities and personal styles, but focusing on the importance of authenticity is somewhat counter-productive. Because most interviews are unusual, rigid, inauthentic experiences by definition.
Many will disagree with this declaration, and it’s certainly not without exception. If you have visible tattoos, specific shoe or garment needs, unusual hair color, or any non-negotiable element to your style or appearance, it may be essential that you allow your potential employer to see and react to you as you are. But the underlying idea here is that the person going into the interview needn’t be wholly representative of Everyday You. The person going into the interview will be Interview You, a version of yourself that might look different from Everyday You, but is just as valid and real.
Another step further: Authenticity is such a buzzword these days, but how it’s used can be confusing and contrary. Even though people get laughed at and scolded when they leave their homes in raggedy sweatpants or say things that make them seem out-of-touch, they’re also censured if they appear at all forced, fake, or like they’re screening out the grit from their lives. Instagram streams are brimming with perfectly lit images of perfectly staged living rooms and people love them. No one’s posting snaps of their stacked-up dirty dishes even though that’s likely a more common sight. So what is authenticity in a person anyway? Do you think, talk, and behave the exact same way at the gym and the bar and your grandma’s house? If you don’t, does that mean you’re not being true to yourself? Do you worry about being true to yourself when you’re talking with your grandma, or do you avoid all curse words and steer clear of topics like social media and sex? I feel like authenticity is sometimes conflated with inflexibility: The expectation is that you are the exact same, unfiltered person at all times and in all situations. Even though there naturally will be many versions of yourself making up the whole.
One more step: If you’re willing to go along with the idea that there are different but connected versions of you, consider that there may also be different versions of your style. It’s true that someone who wears a dirndl and combat boots on Monday and a skirt suit and slingbacks on Tuesday may seem – at first glance – to have a disjointed personal style. But what if that person took Monday off to be with friends and had to attend board meetings all day Tuesday? Would you feel comfortable wearing the exact same outfit to the gym and the bar and your grandma’s house? Or would you create visually distinct outfits for each destination from items that you selected based on your own tastes and preferences?
People who have developed visually consistent personal styles are often admired and lauded, and focusing on a single aesthetic works beautifully for some. But even those people are likely to wear variations for the gym and the bar and grandma’s house, because all styles have variations and versions. Even the finely honed ones.
Lying, never expressing your opinions, and dressing solely to please others are behaviors that fall into one camp. Tailoring conversation to audiences, picking your battles, and dressing differently depending on the environment fall into another. We all have versions of ourselves, and versions of our styles. Those variations are just part of being a messy, unique, varied, flexible human being.