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Five Ways to Live Authentically

Be yourself. You won't regret it.

Five Ways to Live Authentically
Bill Walton, a true original.

Post summary

  • Living true to yourself is arguably the most important thing you can do to have a life well lived.
  • We'll explore the philosophy, art, and science of living true to yourself.
  • Then we'll reveal five research-backed ways to live authentically.


  • This post, like all Monday posts, is free and fully accessible to all 2% subscribers. Enjoy.
  • Become a Member below if you want our follow-up to today's post, dropping Wednesday. It'll reveal a test you can take to help you live more authentically.
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Podcast version of this post

The post

Bill Walton died two weeks ago at the age of 71. He's considered one of the NBA's 50 greatest players and one of college ball's top five.

But Walton wasn't just a basketball player. He transcended the game to become one of the first true characters in sports. There was no one like Walton.

  • He was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War in 1972, a time when it was "off limits" for athletes to speak about politics.
  • He became one of the quirkiest color commentators in all of sports, making strange analogies that tied sports performance to culture, history, and art.
  • He was the first hippy in sports and a longtime Deadhead.
  • He was a force among humans, with millions who loved and were changed by him.

After he passed, I enjoyed watching the tributes pour in. And it got me thinking.

We're all characters—the character of "I."

But it's actually not so straightforward to be "I," to be yourself.

Society twists and turns us. We often act, live, and relate to the world in ways that aren't how we want. We all self-edit to some extent—living based on cultural and societal expectations, not necessarily how we really want.

Consider various polls from Harris and Gallup. They found that roughly 60 to 80 percent of people feel they're not living true to themselves.

This is not new. Socrates discussed this concept 2,400 years ago, telling people to "know thyself." The implication is that living true to yourself is critical to a well-lived life.

He was one of the first of many thinkers captivated by the idea of living true to yourself. For example:

  • Aristotle suggested that we should aim to find our unique potential and live according to it.
  • Nietzsche wanted us to strive to become "overmen," people who embrace their individuality and reject societally imposed values.
  • Emerson wrote about self-reliance and individualism—trusting your inner voice and intuition.

Bill Walton is a fantastic example of all of these ideas. He was assuredly not a self-editor.

He was himself, even if it led to fear, ridicule, and more. And he came out the other side a legend.

Today's post is about the value of living true to yourself.

We'll explore the science of "authenticity" and what you can learn from it. And this really matters. For example, people who live true to themselves:

  • Have better mental health.
  • Are more satisfied with their life.
  • Have better quality of relationships and stronger social networks.
  • Are more likely to reach their big life goals.
  • Are more resilient and better able to cope with life's challenges.
  • Have fewer regrets on their deathbeds.

In Wednesday's post, we'll lay out a test that'll help you assess your strengths and weaknesses in living true to yourself—and how you can improve your unique weak spots.

Let's roll ...

The science of being yourself

  • Section Summary: Psychologists say there are four components to living authentically: self-awareness, unbiased processing, behavior, and relational orientation.

In the early 2000s, a team of psychologists—one in the UK, another at Duke—wanted to dig into what it means to be yourself.

It's a complicated topic—like, what does it actually mean to "live true to yourself?"

As we learned above, thinkers throughout time have developed different theories around it.

So the two psychologists looked at all the writings and research on the idea. They called the quality of being true to yourself "authenticity." They defined authenticity as:

Unimpeded operation of one’s true‐ or core‐self in one’s daily enterprise.

That's somewhat convoluted. So let's just say authenticity is "doing what you actually want to do."

It extends to all facets of life: your thoughts, actions, and how you relate to the world.

The psychologists identified four critical components to authenticity. The more you develop these, the more authentically you'll live.

  1. Self-awareness: Knowing and trusting your strengths, weaknesses, desires, thoughts, and emotions and how they affect your behavior.
  2. Unbiased processing: Not denying, distorting, exaggerating, or ignoring your thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Accepting the full range of your experiences impartially.
  3. Behavior: Acting in ways that jive with what you learn from 1 and 2, rather than trying to please others, get rewards, or avoid punishment.
  4. Relational orientation: Making efforts to be open and truthful in your relationships. In essence, not editing yourself for other people.

Think of these as the four keys to living in a way you can be proud of.

How to be more authentic

  • Section summary: Practice the following five approaches.

This isn't an exhaustive list of ways to be more authentic—we'll cover more on Wednesday. But it hits big concepts that psychologists say work.

1) Be real with others

We probably edit ourselves the most around others.

Humans are social animals. We evolved in environments where we couldn't survive alone.

Some animals can survive alone—but not us humans. So a willingness to please others is a survival mechanism deeply embedded in us all to some extent.

Today, we no longer have to please others to survive. Yet that please-to-survive drive can lead us to act in inauthentic ways. We fall in line and do the socially acceptable thing, even when we don't want to.

Walton was fearless in being who he was. He was quirky. He wore tie-dye way too often. He was a Deadhead. He told others what was on his mind, even if his ideas and thoughts were totally out-there.

If you didn't like Walton's personality, fine. No problem. It's impossible to please everyone.

But his authenticity made him far more lovable and brought him closer to those who did like his personality.

For example, Dave Pasch, who Walton called games with, said Walton would send him insanely funny text out of nowhere—pure, unprompted weirdness.

Here's an example Pasch posted:

A bizarre and hilarious text from Walton

The lesson: Whether you're weird as hell or straight as an arrow, be that person.

2) Say what's on your mind

In 1972, Walton was arguably the best college basketball player in the country. At that time, the Vietnam War was raging, and Walton was staunchly against it.

He dragged some teammates to a Vietnam War protest on the UCLA campus. When the protest got hot, all of Walton's teammates left. It was off-limits for athletes to be political back then.

Walton had a multi-million dollar NBA career on the line. But Walton stayed, continued to protest—and got arrested.

Walton protests the Vietnam War on the UCLA campus in 1972

He stood up for what he believed in, even though his arrest became a massive news story and hurt his basketball career.

His coach, the legendary John Wooden, reamed him for his actions. Here's how Walton responded:

“You can say what you want. But it’s my friends and classmates who are coming home in body bags and wheelchairs. And we’re not going to take it anymore. We have got to stop this craziness, AND WE’RE GOING TO DO IT NOW.”

Wooden knew Walton was right.

Fredrick Douglass said, "I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence."

The research shows saying what's on your mind and standing up for your beliefs—even if it hurts you in the short-term—is a key to long-term life satisfaction.

3) Accept and explore your complications

Being a human isn't simple or easy. It's not just hard to speak your mind, it's also hard to figure out exactly how you feel about a subject.

The researchers pointed out:

"(Self) awareness involves knowledge and acceptance of one’s multifaceted and potentially contradictory self‐aspects (i.e., being both introverted and extraverted), as opposed to rigid acknowledgement and acceptance only of those self‐aspects deemed internally consistent with one’s overall self‐concept."

But a key to living authentically is taking time to analyze your complications.

Life is something like an onion. There's lots of layers and peeling them can result in tears.

But you need to peel that onion. The scientists suggest good ways to examine your thoughts are:

  • Self-reflective journaling. Setting aside time to do this is critical.
  • Mindfulness practices.
  • Practicing seeing situations and thoughts from multiple perspectives.

4) Embrace your shortcomings

Walton was crippled by injuries. His feet just couldn't hold his 7'2" frame.

He wasn't able to play a full season over most of his career, and had more than 40 surgeries on his feet.

Most basketball experts think he would be a top-five all-time great if not for the injuries. But he accepted his limitations, did what he could to play, and came to terms with how his career unfolded.

The psychologist Michael Kernis found that authentic people understand their strengths and weaknesses. They don't get defensive when criticized—they kindly take in the information, assess it, and improve where they can.

They don't blame other people when things don't go their way.

They also don't micromanage others, and let others shine at what they're good at.

Walton was a lifelong Deadhead. He said the following about that last point:

Years ago, I used to plug (the Grateful Dead) with (song) requests all the time. Then I stopped asking and tried to listen more. And I tried to let life like the big river find its course. (Now) I don't care what they play. I just want to go. I just want to listen, I want to be healed. I want to think, I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to dance.

5) Remember: hard things lead to a life well lived

It's not so easy being authentic. This extends to coming to terms with who you are and how you relate to others.

For example, the UK and Duke psychologist note, "Opening oneself up makes one vulnerable to rejection or betrayal." It's easier to go with the grain—molding yourself to society—than against it.

But it helps to lean into that hardship.

Remember, humans get the deepest long-term rewards from doing hard things—from overcoming challenges and the pain and effort they take. The short-term discomfort is required for long-term growth.

Have fun, don't die, and let life like the big river find its course.


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