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Are you for Real? The Importance of Being Earnest

The Globe and Mail – Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"You can't coach authenticity."

-- Producer Brian Grazer

Brian Grazer, producer of The Da Vinci Code, the highly anticipated movie premiering in Cannes today, recently held a fascinating discussion with the best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. They decided that "authenticity" has replaced "cool" as the New Big Thing.

"I can't call it a trend -- that's sort of too goofy," said Mr. Grazer, who was hosting a segment of The Charlie Rose Show on PBS. "But I think ... there is a heightened sensitivity to detecting the lie, whether it is in politics, faith [and] ... of course, in marketing."

Mr. Gladwell, a New Yorker staff writer who has turned out two immensely readable books (The Tipping Point, Blink) and countless essays on everything from marketing to racial profiling to body language agreed: "The authentic has displaced the cool as the really treasured ... characteristic."

They've got a point. At a time in which autobiographical authors are being revealed as fakers, and promising young novelists unmasked as plagiarists, a time in which politicians are automatically regarded as liars, and athletes cheat their way to medals, the desire for authenticity takes on heightened poignancy.

Take the case of Kaavya Viswanathan, the "six-figure sophomore" as she was briefly called. Ms. Viswanathan, a bright young Indo-American student in her second year at Harvard, was heralded this spring as a hot new voice in fiction on the eve of the publication of her first novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.

At the shockingly tender age of 17, she was handed a two-novel advance reputed to be in the neighbourhood of $500,000 (U.S.), rapturously profiled in the media and seemingly on her way to fame and fortune. She even told The New York Times that her mother was considering carpeting the floor in rose petals for her book launch.

Alas, the rose-petal concept wilted when it was revealed that huge sections of Ms. Viswanathan's charming chick-lit book were almost identical to the published work of several other authors. She first tried to explain her way out of it, but when her publisher Little Brown recalled the book and cancelled her second novel, she quickly went from being almost famous to being a famous flameout.

Hers was a sorry case of overpackaging from start to finish. Ms. Viswanathan's parents, two doctors highly ambitious for their daughter, had hired an expensive college application coach to get her into Harvard. The coach, impressed by her writing talent, put her in touch with an agent, who sent her to a book packager, who then sold what was a very slim concept of a novel to the publisher. Everyone fell at her feet because she was such a terrific "package" -- beautiful, young, smart, and even ethnic.

Poor Ms. Viswanathan, whose book, ironically, was about a smart, young girl's search to be authentic as she tried to get into Harvard, is not without original talent.

But she is a stellar example of someone, no doubt under huge pressure, internal and otherwise, who forfeited her authenticity in her headlong quest for success.

She was partly following the culture: We insist on success these days, we demand the big splash. With a kind of winner-takes-all mentality out there, it's no wonder that some people cheat to get the brass ring.

And it's also no wonder that with that level of packaging out there, people yearn even more for the authentic. We all want to discover the real thing, read the real thing, and most of all be the real thing.

Authenticity at work used to be seen as a luxury but now it's developed into a core value in our working lives. But what does it mean?

Messrs. Gladwell and Grazer, already in the stratosphere of their glamorous professions, think it means being yourself.

In Mr. Gladwell's case, it means being a highly in-demand speaker on the business circuit who shows up, as he did recently at the University of Toronto's Rotman business school, sporting casual clothes, unruly hair, and spending 20 minutes, just for the hell of it, lecturing a business crowd on the difference in creative life cycles between Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles.

Watching him wow the crowd (and eventually get to an intriguing point about how we view creativity), I had the thought that he had come to his authentic self only after he achieved initial success and not before.

Of mixed-race descent, Mr. Gladwell has written how he even went back to the tousled, kinky hairdo of his youth after his first bestseller, probably because it made him feel more like himself than the conservative haircut he had sported on the back cover of his first book.

As for Mr. Grazer, he admitted to Mr. Gladwell that he hadn't been able to keep great jobs when he was younger because he was seen as a liar -- totally inauthentic. Now, he is a highly regarded producer who claims he can tell "the real thing" just by viewing an unknown actor during an audition. They have both become "authentic" successes. (Leave it to the critics to decide whether Mr. Grazer has cracked the Da Vince Code.)

The process of becoming authentic is, in fact, a many layered thing. According to Toronto business coach Aron Pervin, who dwells in the less glamorous arena of family business, "authenticity is not about full disclosure, it's about figuring out gradually what you want to share of your beliefs and values with the people with whom you work."

Authenticity, in fact, can be a slow reveal. As you gain respect and influence, you may allow more of who you are to peek out, probably because you can afford to care less and less about what people think of you.

"People find authenticity more attractive because there is a consistency to it --they can bank on it," Mr. Pervin says.

As for Mr. Grazer's opinion that you can't "coach" authenticity, I'm not so sure. I think you can coax someone -- a politician, a chief executive, a public figure -- to trust that their real personality or character is what will bring them success and not some fake version of themselves developed by a marketing committee.

Ms. Viswanathan clearly didn't think she had the right stuff or she wouldn't have poached from others. She was anything but authentic. Her tragedy was being handed an enormous opportunity that she just wasn't ready for, and not being honest or wise enough to know it.

Our culture's tragedy is that our collective heads are completely turned by the "package," by the Next Big Thing. Until it's revealed as completely bogus.

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