Authenticity. I’ve been contemplating this word and what it really means for both individual people and brands today, a lot.

If you’ve heard me speak or read my book Do Good, you’ll likely know that I often champion sincerity over authenticity in communications. In the mid-noughties, at the beginning of my CultureQ research project, we uncovered how social media was then training us to curate our iPod playlists and Facebook posts, stylizing them in ways that we chose to present our “authentic” selves. When asked about brands that had crafted their stories from only a kernel of truth, participants in our research shared they were comfortable with this, provided the narrative indeed incorporated a truism—and significantly, that it resonated with them. After all, a sincere brand, like a sincere person, connects on a deeply human level through honesty and genuine action. And as savvy consumers of media, participants in our CultureQ research sensed both when a person and a brand spoke from the heart.

Recently, however, I’ve found myself reconsidering the idea of authenticity and what it really means, especially in its intricate dance with purpose. Even as backlash now has many focused on the next big thing—viewing purpose as a check the box exercise or an aspirational ideal that sets brands up for controversy and people for disappointment—the quest to craft “authentic” narratives continues.

Yet as I consider my experiences crystallizing and activating purpose for both individual people and brands, purpose, alongside authenticity, continues to stand out as a guiding principle in our ongoing process of becoming—becoming integral to the people we serve, the communities in which we interact and, fundamentally, within ourselves.

What does it mean to be authentic, really?

Well, according to etymology, the word authenticity has its roots in the ancient Greek authentikos, meaning “original, genuine, principal,” from authentes or “one acting on one’s own authority.” Authentes further is derived from two words: autos (self) + hentes (doer, being), which itself comes from sene, to accomplish, achieve.

To me, this suggests that being authentic is all about embodying our genuine self and acting under our own authority. As we learned through CultureQ, though, in our modern digital arena the pursuit of authenticity readily risks becoming a curated artifact, tailored for societal validation of our worth, rather than a means of personal fulfillment. This is not to say we shouldn’t seek to connect with our authentic selves…..

Indeed, in its truest sense, authenticity is a fearless expression of self, inclusive of all our imperfections and contradictions. It’s a dynamic, living manifestation that transcends superficiality and unfolds with each choice and interaction.

Moving beyond mechanical purpose

Amid COVID’s virtual landscape, with an increasing desire to find meaningful work and live authentically, “purpose” lost what I define as its true meaning and became formulaic, transactionally focused on doing good. At the height of the pandemic, many brand leaders I spoke with were anxious about a perceived need to develop complex, well-constructed purpose statements and grand “whys” for their social purpose. A task in many ways in conflict with the intent behind living purposefully, which at best includes sincere, small gestures that uniquely define brands and individual people through the way they serve others, society writ large and themselves. This tension likely contributed to the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, rising cynicism around the role brands play in society and more.

Simultaneously, my years of exploring my own purpose and spirituality has opened me to an awareness that purpose offers both brands and people the possibility to more consciously “become” their best selves, choosing in each moment to live in harmony with their values and the world around them or to redefine these relationships and who they are at any given time.

A Universal Pursuit to Become Our Best Selves

What if our ultimate purpose is to become our best selves, acknowledging our interconnectedness and embracing the unique value we each bring to the whole?

Pursuing this involves becoming aware of our faults and simultaneously acknowledging them, rather than editing them out. And while this is simple in concept, it’s by no means an easy task; it requires courage and intentionality. Nor is this to say that all of paths to purpose are identical. Motivated by different ambitions and inspired by diverse passions and skills, each of us follows a unique path to purpose. Another person’s strengths or pathway should never benchmark our own success.

As I suggest above, purpose is about consciously deciding the kind of person or brand we choose to be in each moment as we align with our aspirations, our values and the principles that guide our relationships with others, our communities and the planet. Activating purpose thus is a process of continuous learning and betterment enabling us to craft a living narrative of who we are each day. In this way, purpose is a process of liberation rather than restraint.

Authenticity as a Pathway to Living Purpose

In many ways, I believe authenticity may be a key to living purpose, which in turn is something that many perceive as a pathway to well-being and fulfillment. Importantly, authenticity, like purpose, is not static. It’s a journey intertwined with vulnerability, introspection and an evolving understanding of what motivates us. Those who are authentic strive to align each of their actions with their core values and beliefs, accepting and simultaneously reflecting on their behaviors. Their hope is to discover, and then act in sync with, their evolving self in each moment.

The interplay between authenticity and purpose is a delicate dance that is crucial to our development as individuals (and, yes, also as brands). Embracing authenticity opens us up to growth that empowers us to live purpose with increasing impact. Similarly, purpose reinforces our authenticity, ensuring our actions are not simply aligned with our values but also contribute meaningfully to and harmoniously with the world around us.

And perhaps most importantly, neither authenticity nor purpose are endpoints in and of themselves. They are ongoing processes—part of a continuous state of becoming and fostering a life that centers on achievement, contribution and thriving within our interconnected existence. It is through this passage of self-discovery and evolution that we unearth our truest selves, cultivating empathy, compassion and relationships that transcend “likes” and superficial interactions – and that touch the very essence of our humanness.