The Art Of Authenticity

What is authenticity? Well, if you do a Google search of the word, one of the definitions that pops up is being “genuine or real.” And these days, when nearly everything we see is so curated and filtered, authenticity is a rare characteristic in both people and brands. For example, ever notice how an influencer or a brand/product becomes super popular (usually taking years and a ton of hard work to get there), and then all the copycats start coming out in droves to try and replicate that success as quickly as possible? And very few, if any, of those copycats are actually able to repeat that formula for success. Why? Because they lack authenticity.

Don’t Be a Poseur

I get newsletter emails all the time that tell me how to start this or that kind of business as a side hustle… “Learn how to start your own candle, t-shirt, lip balm, etc. business!” And what happens is the market becomes flooded with people selling products just simply because they think it will bring them “easy” passive income. They hear stories about how their friend’s friend is making a killing at selling doilies on Etsy, and they want a crack at it too. What they fail to realize is that perhaps that friend’s friend has been making doilies since she was 5…she eats, sleeps, breathes doilies and can’t imagine herself doing anything else. But now the new doily poseur gets all excited, finds a manufacturer overseas to make them for super cheap and fast, buys thousands of dollars-worth of inventory, slaps a logo on them and puts them on Etsy and/or Amazon. And you know what usually happens next? Crickets. Why? Zero authenticity. The poseur realizes that there’s a lot more work involved, so they give up after wasting all that time and money on something they didn’t really give a shit about in the first place.

This kind of thing happens all the time (especially in apparel), and as annoying as it is, I know why it happens. Because being authentic is fucking scary. It’s so much safer to follow the formula of what other people have done before you, even though it’s not really “you.”  You start thinking things like “But what if people don’t like/care about/buy the idea or product that I’m really passionate about?” Being authentic exposes your true self and leaves the door open for possible negative feedback, criticism, and failure. Most of our egos are too fragile for that. To go against the status quo and create something truly unique, something that speaks to who we are, takes a ton of courage and risk. It’s really, really hard. That’s why you see so many brands that look the same. Same messaging, same models, same products. Yawn.

Know Thyself

So, what’s my point behind all this? Two things. One, I want you to avoid the fate of the doily poseur. I want you to be really honest with yourself when you start a business or a project, and ask yourself things like:

  • Why do I want to get into this industry/product/service?
  • Do I know enough about it? And if not, am I willing to take the time and effort to learn more?
  • How is what I want to do different from what others are doing in the same space? What’s my value proposition?
  • Can I do this long term?

In short, what is your PURPOSE for doing it? If it’s just for the money, sorry but you need to go back to the drawing board and do a deeper dive into the things you’re truly passionate about. You’d be doing yourself and the world a disservice by suppressing your authenticity and jumping on the latest trendy bandwagon in hopes of making a quick buck. The world does not need more of the same mediocre products and services.

Smoke and Mirrors

The second thing is this—wear those authenticity goggles when you interact with other people or brands. If there are inconsistencies with actions and words, get curious. Simply reading the mission statement on a website isn’t enough. I’ll use sustainability as an example because it’s a popular (and important) topic and one that I’m very passionate about. An apparel brand will claim they’re sustainable because they offer one product made from recycled fibers, but they offer no other products or programs that have sustainability benefits. These are opportunists who try to capitalize on current social or environmental causes by doing the bare’s contrived and hypocritical. You can’t claim to be sustainable if 98% of your supply chain is anything but. Same thing applies to individuals. We all have friends or acquaintances who portray themselves to be a certain way on social media, but in truth, what’s going on behind the scenes is a totally different story. They’re afraid to show who they really are because their identity and self-worth are too closely tied to what people think or expect of them. Caring too much about what others think is an instant authenticity killer.

Be a Rebel

We live in a time when being authentic can feel uncomfortable, almost like an act of rebellion. I know firsthand how uncomfortable it can feel because when I was young and impressionable, I had people tell me that I won’t make a living as an artist. “You want to draw cartoons for Disney? You won’t make any money doing that! Have you thought about being a doctor instead?” I interpreted that to mean “you won’t make any money doing the things you love,” and that’s how many of my conversations with adults went when I was barely even 10. And the unfortunate thing is that even though I ignored them and chose the creative path of fashion design (I still love cartoons though), those comments had lasting and damaging effects and left me constantly questioning whether I made the right decision. I let it affect my confidence and stymie my progress as an artist for most of my life.  It’s taken me over 30 years to fully embrace and be proud of the fact that I’m an artist. I had to learn how to design apparel, but art has always been a part of who I am since I could pick up a pencil.  

The alternative to living authentically would be an artificial life, a life to please other people, to keep up with the Joneses, to impress and feel accepted at all times by family, friends and people we don’t even know. No thanks.  

We should all embrace and cultivate the things about us that make us different. What kind of world would it be if we were all interested in the same things and had the same tastes? Boorrrring…and probably not very advanced either. Our uniqueness allows for variety and the ability to be innovative, thinking of new or better ways of doing the things we’re passionate about, be it pottery, neuroscience or doilies. I could seriously type a whole thesis about this topic, but I’ll end with a quote from Oscar Wilde that sums everything up perfectly— “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

Think of the things you loved as a child.
Those are usually the things that define your authentic self.
Photo collage, left images are Shireen's fashion drawings as a kid, center image is a photo of Shireen as a kid playing dress up and photo on the right is a current fashion sketch.

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