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Authentic: How to make a living by being yourself

Book cover

by Neil Crofts, Capstone, 2003.


This book considers the tensions between who you are and what you do in your work, helping you to move a little toward the ideal of spending every waking hour doing just what you want to do. It tells stories of people who have stepped out of the norms of work life to do what they love doing. Companies could profitably look for ways of enabling this ideal to take root in their enterprises.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in February 2004)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Have you ever felt a tension between who you are and what you do? If so, you are not alone, says Neil Crofts. Thinking about getting up and telling the world what you stand for is daunting enough. Actually doing it is terrifying - but the rewards can be incredible. Crofts invites you to imagine spending every waking hour doing what you love. Now wouldn’t that be something?

Crofts’ book claims to be a practical guide for anyone who wants to reduce the tension between who they are and what they do, and who wants to find a fulfilling way to make a living. He demonstrates the steps you need to take to find out who you really are and what you want from life and how to turn all that into a business that is authentic to you. His book is also about doing business with a profound positive purpose and the supposed fundamental advantage this has over more conventional ways of doing business. It claims to show you how to have multi-dimensional success and everything you need by just being yourself.

An alternative way of doing business

The author draws on his own experience (which admittedly seems to have worked for him). A former head of strategy with an IT consultancy, he says that he broke out of a conventional and highly successful career, took control of his life, and formed Authentic Business, a network of support companies for small businesses ‘with a positive goal’. As a first step, in 2002 he set up an online newsletter to tell the story of successful businesses pursuing a positive purpose and contributing to society and the environment, where profit is an outcome rather than the overriding aim. He followed this up with Authentic Business Guides, which, he says, aim ‘to help good businesses to be big and not big businesses to be good and to demonstrate to the business community at large that there is an alternative and better way to do business’.

Crofts’ aim is to liberate business people from what he calls ‘exploitative business’ - the ‘mindless’ pursuit of profit, shareholder value and increasing bonuses for executives, and to replace it with something that has meaning for them as individuals and makes a positive contribution to themselves, their community, our society and our environment. He says that when he made the leap and set up his business, he attracted incredible support and generosity. He takes this as proof that authentic businesses can be more successful because everyone wants them to succeed.

Another way to look at our society

The first section of the book sets the context about the society we live in and how it works, as the author sees it. It explains, says Crofts, how we arrive at a situation where many of us feel irrevocably tied to jobs we don’t enjoy. People hold back from expressing their beliefs because they are afraid of ridicule. Our careers and lives are blighted so often because we try to be what we think someone else wants us to be. We are frightened when starting a new business to be too controversial in case it frightens customers away.

The essence of the author’s argument is that all but a fortunate few of us are controlled through our childhood, education and youth. We are encouraged to fit in and conform to an industrialised view of humanity where we are simply units in a process. You have two choices. You can either stick with the ‘programme’ and cover up the tension with addictions to short-term distractions (cars, alcohol, fashion, etc) which stop us thinking too deeply about life. Or, you can turn the life you have created upside down and go with your own flow.

What are you going to do about it?

The second section focuses on the personal level and examines what we can do to help ourselves and take control of our lives. If you take the plunge and decide to change, then, according to the author, you need to make four preparations and take eight actions:

The preparations are about focusing inwards and consist of:

  1. Tell the truth. We need to learn to be honest with ourselves - for example about the myths that we create for ourselves about doing or not doing things. We need to be honest in our relationships - if you want to be your authentic self, nothing less than unconditional reciprocal love between you and your ‘significant other’ is acceptable.
  2. Perception and reality. We all interpret information and perceive the world differently. Our beliefs about the world derive from our experiences and conditioning. How can you tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined? If your beliefs are not aligned with your ‘natural language’, you will have a distorted view of their value to the world and your own capability. You may have to re-think your world-view.
  3. Find your ‘natural language’. This is about understanding the way you most easily communicate with your surroundings (which may take different forms). Every one of us has a natural language within which we are uniquely brilliant.
  4. What is my point in life? If we don’t have a point to our lives, we are pointless. In our society, however, the forces of conformity and distraction conspire to disguise our point from us and many of us go through life without discovering it. It demands some hard soul searching so it is necessary to take time, in quiet contemplation, to figure out the answer. Ask, for example, who do you want to do it for and what is the outcome for them?

The actions you have to take are as follows:

  1. Eating your energy. Making your point happen is impossible without good health and energy. The author provides some guidelines on what he believes are sensible approaches to diet. (Drink loads of distilled water!)
  2. Exercise your mind. To keep ourselves at optimum performance we must exercise several times a week. (The author likes cycling.)
  3. Take control of your life. All the previous steps are about preparing and building confidence for ‘coming out’ and only being who you really are in all circumstances and situations.
  4. Avoid distraction and inspire change. Distractions that prevent us from thinking too deeply are all around us. We need to introduce more inspiration in our lives and reduce distraction. Look for wisdom in books and films. You are looking for new ideas and alternative ways of doing things.
  5. Edit your address book. Only share your intentions about changing your life with people who will support and contribute to your thinking. If your friends do not want to support you in being yourself, ask yourself if they are really your friends. (We might argue with this recommendation. Do we really want to drop friends because they don’t agree with what we are doing? Surely, we need to be in contact with people with a different point of view to test our ideas and expose us to different ways of thinking.)
  6. Change habits. Starting to be yourself will involve changing behaviour. Ask whether it will help you realise your point and is it within the scope of your natural language?
  7. Make your plan. 1.) Know where you are. 2.) Know your destination. 3.) Plan the general route. 4.) Plan the initial part of the route in detail. The author provides some useful guidelines here on using Post-it notes for planning.
  8. Come out and be yourself. How are you going to tell the world about your change? A public statement is important because once it is out there, there is no longer need to feel apologetic about who you are. You can state with pride what you are good at and what you are not good at. (The author emailed 4000 people he did not know to tell them he was setting up Authentic Business.)

Being the change

The third section of the book is what we are all interested in. It is all about life after making the big change and describes how to actually make a living by being yourself. As the author says, there is no point making the change if it doesn’t bring greater happiness, satisfaction and success in every aspect of your life. But, if you really do it, you will find that the world starts to work with you most of the time and you become lucky.

Getting started. The author describes how he launched his own business - he admits he came close to the edge and nearly ran out of money, but says that his confidence never wavered and that he knew that if he did the right thing, it would work out. In his case, it seems to have done so.

Working for yourself. The author wonders why so many people are so willing to commit so much of their time and energy to making someone else - their employer - rich. See your job, he recommends, as a practical expedient to get you to where you want to be in terms of learning, experience, contacts and savings by making it a time-limited part of your plan to regain your freedom. (And don’t tell your employer.)

Validating the plan. Draw up a five-year plan with each year given a title which is the theme for that year. For each year choose four or five bullet points which explain how that year’s theme will be realised. The author sets out his own five-year plan for Authentic Business as an example. Test the plan with friends and contacts who can test it for you and contribute to your thinking - feedback is essential.

Simplify, simplify. Getting to know yourself means you understand what you need as opposed to what you want. Get rid of stuff you no longer need - possessions, business documents, etc. - and you will have more space to live and work in.

Time and motion. Use your plan to identify unnecessary activities and ideas and get rid of them as well. Be clear about the sort of advice and inspiration you want to spend time pursuing.

Finding collaborators. The author contends that working with collaborators is much easier than conventional business which is characterised by competition and distrust and so on. Collaborators form a mutually supportive team because their objectives are aligned. To find collaborators you need to be able to articulate your point with great clarity and passion. Use ‘deepcasting’ rather than broadcasting. For example, use the ‘six degrees of separation idea’ to find contacts by telling a supportive friend about your idea and requirements and asking them to recommend you on to other people who in turn will recommend you on to their contacts.

Designing your organisation. In a conventional hierarchy, the team does not have the most appropriate leader most of the time. Crofts believes in a totally flat team-based organisation in which everyone will be a leader and where there is no one leader. Even where there is a nominated leader, real leadership ought to shift automatically around the group according to the task in hand.

Competition. Crofts believes that the notion of competition is primitive. What we need is collaboration around a higher aim and the imagination and confidence to offer something different. Your authentic business that comes from your heart will inevitably be different from any other business. Stay true to your values and stick to your dream.

The meaning of success. The author says that real success involves feeling happy, safe, comfortable and fulfilled. It does not need to involve highly paid jobs and expensive cars and homes, etc. Think of success in simple, personal terms rather than in competitive, egotistic terms.

Those who are already doing it

The last section of the book presents some case studies of businesses that the author believes to be authentic, ranging from small start-ups to substantial businesses. He tells us that these prove ‘beyond doubt’ that, as a way of making a living, authentic business is more successful in more dimensions than what he calls the ‘dominant profit-centric business model’. They include:

Organic Express - a London organic catering firm whose founders set out to provide healthy, delicious food that respects the context of the event and has been fairly traded. They believe that as the company grows they have to be more explicit about their values so that new staff understand them and share their commitment.

Yeo Valley - a ‘truly inspiring business’ - a family business that is the second largest manufacturer of yoghurt in the UK. Attention to detail, a belief that every area of the business is an opportunity for excellence, avoiding wasting money, and taking great care of their cows, their plant and their people, are hallmarks of this value-driven company. They measure their performance by QSPPP - quality, service, people, plant and profit in that order.

Innocent - a successful company set up by three friends to make smoothies and juices. A highly important value is ‘natural’ - not just the juices but also the people - staff are expected to bring their whole selves to work and to say what they think and feel. They make a point of encouraging a direct relationship with their consumers, inviting them to telephone with complaints or questions, and everyone is responsible for answering the phone and participating in the relationship with customers.

Howies - a clothing company in Wales whose aim is to be provocative and get people thinking about global issues through the medium of their T-shirts.

Solar Century - an energy company and a leading UK supplier of systems that turn sunlight into electricity. It believes in profits with a purpose and the purpose is to make a big difference in the fight against global warming. Its long term success depends on those taking decisions holding the values - to be positive, courageous and lead by example - and using those values to evaluate their decisions.

Cafédirect - the sixth largest coffee brand in the UK, set up to help strengthen the influence, income and security of coffee growers in developing countries and link them directly to the consumer in the West. It pays above the world market and supports growers through producer support and development programmes. Its aim is to be a mainstream brand which proves you can trade successfully in a competitive market helping producers in developing countries get the correct price for their goods to provide a sustainable livelihood while providing consumers with fantastic hot drinks.

Neil Crofts’ book will touch a nerve for many people. The search for greater authenticity in our lives is certainly a major preoccupation of the times. If you are struggling with the question of how to be true to yourself and, at the same time, make a positive impact on the world around you, there is much inspirational material here, even if it sometimes comes across as rather idealistic.

The other side of the coin is how established firms might help their people to achieve more authenticity and fulfilment for themselves in their work so they don’t have to make the decision to jump. Perhaps such firms should take a closer look at some of the businesses above that Crofts feels are already ‘doing it’ and examine the way they manage their people. (They might also take a look at the other book Follow This Path which is all about achieving business growth by utilising employee’s real talents and strengths to connect with customers.)

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