Authenticity: Being true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.

I’ve been thinking about – and struggling with – the concept of authenticity lately.

It’s odd, because I’ve always thought of myself as someone who has been pretty true to herself.  I haven’t always taken the easy road to get where I am today. I swam in a company of sharks for many years, remaining true to my beliefs and style, and wasn’t always rewarded the way I hoped, but was often rewarded nonetheless. I also highly regard authenticity in others.  I would rather know the true, moody you than the fake, bubbly exterior you present. As least then I always know what to expect, and can love you for who you are.  Even when you need to hole up and wear pajamas for 3 days, blaring The Smiths and eating ice cream by the gallon.

But being true to yourself is easier said than done. Or maybe just being true to myself is easier said than done.

Speed Bumps

There are so many gates and speed bumps we put up for ourselves – and others – in the pursuit of living this life as authentically as possible, practically making it impossible to be who we really are.  I’m not saying we all don’t have bad habits or quirks that need addressing or changing.  But who we are at our CORE is who we ARE.  And we need to start embracing that in ourselves, and embracing it in others. Some people are funny. Some are smart and witty. Some are loyal and loving. Some are all of these. And truthfully…some are none of these.  In the end, we should embrace all the parts and pieces of the people in our lives. Even the parts we might not like. If I have a terrible sense of humor or a bad sense of time, I am rarely going to be funny or on time. Can’t we still be friends?

Growing up in Aurora and then Lakewood in the 80s, I was one of the few Latinas in the neighborhood then.  People always questioned my heritage, because “Mexican” was a dirty word – I didn’t seem like a Mexican, or talk like a Mexican, or act like a Mexican. I ran around calling myself Spanish or Hispanic, because I didn’t want to self-identify with my Mexican heritage, even though we had been here for generations.  To add insult, while growing up in the 70s and 80s, many of our families refused to speak Spanish in the house, because it was actually a liability.  So instead of growing up bilingual, I can only speak “perfect” English.  I feel robbed.

It wasn’t until I went to college and found a whole new world and sense of self, that I really focused on accepting who I was, and being proud of my heritage…and the rest of me, too.  So I’ve spent the second half of my life living loud and proud, or as my mom would say: working hard, playing hard and sleeping hard. Well, the sleep – not so much, but that’s for a different blahg.

2011 approaches…

But as I look at myself today – December 1, 2010 – I am struggling to answer the almighty question: Who Am I?  A few things have shaken my core and my faith in myself lately. First and foremost, it is HARD looking for a job.  It shakes your foundation, and your self-esteem.  I know I’m worthy. I know I’m capable. I know I’m a valuable asset to a company.  But hiring managers don’t seem to know it. I’ve never wanted for job opportunities my whole life.  But when you change careers, it really puts a kink in your plans, and apparently in who you are on paper. Not that I fully equate self-esteem with authenticity. But self-esteem is certainly part of MY authenticity.  I’ve always strolled through life, confident of my skills.  And now, I’m not feeling so confident.  And that hurts. I hurt.

I’m also in this space of trying to figure out what I want to be in this next phase of my life.  Professionally, I grew up in the tech world.  I climbed the corporate ladder until I found myself unhappily sitting in an executive chair.  It wasn’t the management piece I abhorred; it was the industry. I wanted to do something that I loved, that fed my soul.  So naturally, I gravitated to food and entertaining.  Voila! I found myself owning a restaurant and catering company.  I loved my restaurant. It was me, and it was my aesthetic.  The hardest thing I have ever had to do was close the doors on my baby.  It was the right choice, but again…it hurt. So now I must ask myself the question: professionally, where do I go from here?

Finally, when my sister had her brain hemorrhage, I was shaken to the core, to that deep down spot nobody knows about or understands, except for me.  To watch somebody go through the trauma she has experienced – and be so strong – makes me question all this feeling sorry for myself. This lady has a long road back to wellness, but she handles it with aplomb. For a long time she couldn’t breathe on her own, or speak, or even acknowledge that I was in the room. Little by little, she comes back to us, in pieces. She is to the point where she can mostly eat by herself. She’s now going through physical therapy, and she can speak again, in this sweet and tenuous voice.  But rather than questioning why this had to happen to her, or complaining about how uncomfortable she is, she instead tells me my hair is cute, or thanks me for being there, or asks how my dogs are.  She is a class act, and her authenticity shines through.  And that gives me great pause, and reminds me that it’s time to find my voice again.

A light bulb moment

So, I was having a friendly conversation the other day, about looking for a job, and feeling the need to censor myself online a little bit, as this great technical world has added pressure to finding a job.  Your online profile lives on as a constant reminder of who you are, and how anybody who is looking can find all the information they need.  Then a respected friend, Kelly Craft, brought it all together, and simply said: I am what I am.


…and that’s all that I am.

And so I set off today to find my authentic voice again. I do know a few things about myself.  I am fun. I love life. I am a committed friend. I am a loving family member, to my husband and my dogs and my sweet niece, Melayna.  I am a generous and thoughtful daughter.  I am a hard worker.  And I’m so much more.

I encourage you to take some time to do the same, to remind yourself who you are. Or, if you are struggling, to set out and find your voice. Because when we are true to who we are, we provide the best friendship to our friends, the best love to our families, the best service to our customers, and the best leadership to our followers. If you are always true to who you are, people can never question your intent.

Circa 1600, Shakespeare wrote the following passage in Hamlet, and it still rings true today:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

400 years later, in a much campier version, John Hughes reminds us that we are who we are, and that’s OK.

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us…In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…an athlete…a basket case…a princess…and a criminal…Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

I post on twitter – a lot – and I often find myself making the comment, “Details matter.”  Usually, I make this comment in reference to customer service, or customer experience management, which are two of my passions. But today, as I started thinking about the phrase in a larger context, I realized how much details mean to all of us, every day,  in real life.  Details shape who we are, and how people perceive us.  And in business, it may be the difference between winning, keeping or losing a customer.

Throughout the day, most of us run around thinking about really big issues, like money. Or love. Work. Stress, food, sleep. And then there’s “stuff.”  And I know we’ve all heard the phase: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Heck, there’s even a book written about it.  On some levels, it makes perfect sense. You don’t want details taking over your life, so much that you cease to function.  But I contend that it’s the small stuff that makes us who we are.  That differentiates us from the next person, or the next business.  It’s the small stuff that I remember, and that my friends and family remember, and that your customers will remember.  The devil, as they say, is in the details. (On a side note, I’m on a mission to figure out who “they” is, and why “they” have so much authority and say.  But that’s for a different blahg.)

I have this remarkable friend.  We’ll call her Sharon Swish.  She is a lady who really understands the phrase “details matter.”  She lives it. Last year when I opened my restaurant, Sharon was the first to send a bouquet of flowers with a lovely card, congratulating us on our opening.  When she comes to town, she brings good gifts – gifts that she knows you’ll actually like, because she remembers your favorite colors, that you cook, that you like Razzles, or that your shoe size is 6.5.  OK, I’m not really sure she knows my shoe size.  But she might.  And after she reads this post, I guarantee it will be locked in her steel trap forever.  She has sent me Thank You cards, and these awesome care packages.  She is relentless with the birthday and Christmas cards.  Let’s just say, Sharon remembers.  And she is, therefore, always on MY mind.

By now, you all know that I think Sharon Swish is amazing…so where does that take us?

Well, I contend, that when I set out to write this post, Sharon is the first person that came to mind, because she minds the details.  She has branded herself a thoughtful and engaging friend.  And this ultimately translates into me imploring all of you to think about the details, and to make sure they are not overlooked.  You will be amazed at the kind of results you can have personally and professionally by making sure the details matter.

On a personal level, the details can make us better friends and family.  For instance, when you RSVP to events – and don’t leave people hanging.  Or when you say you are going to call your mom on Sunday, and then call.  Bring a bottle of wine as a hostess gift to a party.  Write that Thank You card you’ve been meaning to send.  These are the kinds of things that make you stand out, that let people know you care, or that they can count on you. Or, perhaps, that they cannot count on you at all.   And this may strike a nerve with a few of you, but even the most minute details matter, like knowing the difference between their, there and they’re.  This may not seem like such a big deal to you, but misuse it on a resume or a cover letter, and you’ll find out what happens.  It can mean the difference between you getting a job or handing it to the next candidate.

In a business context, details matter even more.   In a restaurant setting, for instance, overlooking the details can stop you in your tracks. Make sure your linens are clean and your fixtures are dusted. Your flatware and plateware should be spotless, no exceptions. Your artwork should hang straight and your floor be vacuumed or swept, at all times. Sounds petty, but as a consumer, I am always judging, judging, judging.  And choosing where to spend my dollars.  Last night I walked into one of my favorite pho joints.  I have been there countless times, and have never really given the atmosphere much thought.  This is a little, hole-in-the-wall place, and I don’t expect them to have fine china and crystal place settings. I do expect them to be impeccably clean. On my way out, I decided to hit the ladies room.  And the experience was so dismaying, that I may consider never returning to this restaurant again. The bathroom in any restaurant is a very visible, customer-facing area, and a restaurant should therefore focus on putting their best foot forward there.  To me, a restaurant’s bathroom is a sign of how the rest of the restaurant is kept, especially the places you can’t see.  Like the kitchen.

I realize all of this may sound a little obsessive.  But in the end, I think it’s less about obsession and more about paying attention and following through, and taking the human factor into consideration.  Put your best foot forward, and be judged by what you do, not by what you don’t do.

I still regret, to this day, that I never wrote my Thank You cards for our wedding gifts.  I had what I thought were lots and lots of good reasons.  After planning the whole wedding, interviewing for a new job, taking a lengthy honeymoon, starting the new job, and then moving, I was wiped out.  14 years later, one big detail that still sticks with me as I look back on this time is that I failed to thank all these wonderful people who took the time to pick out a gift for us.  I fear that what they will remember about my wedding is that I did not take the time to acknowledge their thoughtfulness. That may not be true for all, but for the ones who remember…trust me, details matter.

I wish they would invent a hospital disinfectant that smelled like fresh baked cookies.

If you know me well, you’ve probably heard me say this more than once. I am reminded of this notion every time I walk into a hospital, which has been too often as of late.  You see, six weeks ago my big sister had a brain hemorrhage, and I have been on this deeply emotional journey to understand how and why and when and what and what’s next and how I can make it better and why do I feel so helpless, and AAAAAAAGH!?!… But ultimately, I have had to come to grips with the fact that there are no solid answers – just clues and hopes and steps and progress. And love.

So when I walk into a hospital and the smell of sterility hits me, I am deeply aware of the paradox that the hospital smells void of daily life, and yet is filled with people whose daily lives have been completely disrupted. These people are not just numbers or filled hospital beds. These are mothers and daughters, brothers, uncles, best friends, grandmas, even children. Inevitably, my wheels start turning about the impact being in the hospital has on these peoples’ lives.  That the goal of the hospital should be to make the stay of each patient as comfortable as possible, to provide the best care possible, to make a difficult situation easier.

I don’t always find this to be true.

I think the doctors and staff certainly have the best interest of their patients (customers), and good customer service in mind. They do the best they can to make each patient and his or her family feel comfortable, cared for and OK. But ultimately, it’s the insurance companies that rule the roost. Which means the almighty dollar takes precedence above all. The goal for each patient is that they meet certain criteria that will move them to the next level of care, which is generally a lesser level of care.  Read: cheaper.  Patients are shuffled from one floor to the next. From one doctor to the next. From one facility to another.  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, “Will insurance even cover this? And for how long?” It always seems the ultimate question is: Who gets to do the billing?

At the highest levels, the patient ceases to exist.

So, all you customer service leaders out there, those of you who are setting the tone for your company, for your team, and ultimately for your customers, I challenge you. I challenge you as you go forward to remember your customers are not just a bottom line figure.  I beg you to keep the customer experience in mind, as you write your missions and values. Understand that your customers have a back story.  They want to be treated with dignity and respect.  And yes, ultimately, they simply want their issues resolved, whether it’s a product return or a fixed brain.

Most importantly, your customers have a name.  My sister is not Patient #555 in room 742 with Insurance ID ABC.  She is Anna Reyna-Gonzales.  And she deserves to smell fresh baked cookies.