“In the morning, after the rain, I headed for a rusting watchtower at the edge of the U.N. compound to see what water had done to the desert. Already frogs had emerged from subterranean slime chambers and filled the air with their calls, and in the trees starlings and doves with mad red eyes cooed and hollered. I was excited, too. The previous week had been hot and dust ridden, and a thousand years of pulverized earth seemed to scrape inside my eyelids. Clouds had been gathering in grand formations for days, but they always sailed out of Kenya dry and mute, only to be torn open by the ragged volcanoes on the horizon, above Uganda.”
Writer and journalist Neil Shae writes of his experience staying in the Kakuma refugee camp in Northwestern Kenya. Established in 1991, the same year as the collapse of the Somali government and the ensuing civil war that continues to this day, Kakuma is one of many camps in Kenya that host displaced Somali refugees who fled their country due to the war. Many Somalis have been in this camp for years, working, and having children that know no other life than that inside the camp. One such child, Halima Aden, was born in Kakuma and along with her family “stood in long lines for water and had to barter for pots and pans and coal. She drank PediaSure in the camp because she was underweight. She grew accustomed to the taste and still drinks it.”
Resettlement of Somali refugees is handled by the U.S. State Department but voluntary agencies (VOLAGS) contract with the government to help in the process and given Minnesota has very active VOLAGS such as Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, and World Relief Minnesota, a number of Somalis call Minnesota their home. Halima is one such Somali having been in the US since leaving Kakuma at the age of 7.
While Halima’s refugee story is unfortunately not unique, what has happened to her in the last few months is anything but typical for a 19 year old university student. Known by her friends as someone who consistently will “try things no one else will”, Halima entered the Miss Minnesota USA Pageant. Not only did she compete, but Halima transformed the competition making national news when, in order to stay true to herself and her religious beliefs, she wore a Hajib and ‘burkini’ during the swimsuit portion of the competition.
Being a 19-year-old is hard enough with all of the peer pressure and Snapchat social media messages to conform and be like a Kardashian, yet here is a young Somali refugee girl taking on the decades-old established pageant industry swimsuit mainstay by staying fulling covered and wearing a Hajib which in today’s society could incite violence from the unfortunately growing number of those less tolerant of those holding her religious beliefs.
This is authenticity.
Halima’s story has important lessons for all of us who might aspire to be as true to ourselves as she is but are more likely in the moment to find ourselves falling short.
The Asch Conformity Experiments
In 1956, Solomon Asch conducted a number of experiments titled – Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority. In these trials, a group of participants were shown a figure with a line and asked to compare it to a second figure with three lines.
One by one, the participants were asked to determine and then announce which of the figures in the right box matched the figure in the left box. What one of the participants didn’t know, however, was that each of the other participants in the room were actually not participants in the experiment at all. Rather, they were working with the researchers and in 12 of the 18 trials, these ‘confederates’ were all to give the same incorrect answer. The actual participant was near the last to declare their answer. The question the researchers were trying to understand was whether or not the actual participant would be influenced by the confederate majority to conform and give the wrong answer or would the participant stand out and announce the correct answer. Just to make sure the answers were obvious; a control experiment was conducted in which the participants did not announce their answers and but simply wrote them down.
The result was that in the simple writing of the answer, almost 100% gave correct answers. However, in the test scenario, of the 12 “wrong” group answer cases, 75% of participants in the experiment conformed and gave the same wrong answer at least once during those 12 trials even though the answer was obviously wrong.
While most of us would think we would be in the 25% minority, this simply isn’t the case. These studies have been repeated and the results have held up over time. The pressure for conformity to the group and not being outcast is far too great even when we know the answer to be wrong.
Decades later, in 2005, researchers repeated this test wondering what is cognitively happening during the experiment. Are the participants consciously making their choice or is something else happening? To understand the answer to this question, researchers took MRIs of participants to understand which areas of their brains were activated under different scenarios.
What they found was surprising.
“There was no activity in brain areas that make conscious decisions…” in either the conformity or non-conformity scenarios. Instead, they found that the conformity group had activation in the area of their brains associated with spatial awareness. It was as if their brains were reinterpreting what they saw in order to bend reality to the group’s perception. It was an unconscious act of brain rationalization. Whereas the non-conformity group had brain activity in the amygdala and other areas associated with strong emotions related to fight, flight, or freeze.
I’m often told that as people grow in their careers from individual contributors to management and higher levels of leadership, they seem to lose their guiding principles and start acting like all of the other leaders. The Asch experiments indicate this may not be a conscious act per se but an unconscious assimilation process to bend reality to fit the group norm.
But all is not lost, there are those that, like Halima, remain authentic. What sets them apart? Some of it is their inherent personality, but there are other attributes you can leverage to make it more likely for you to remain thoughtful and authentic.
Authenticity Brain Hacking
Your Acceptance Group
In their 2011 paper, DeWall and Bushman reviewed the existing research on social acceptance and rejection. They describe how evolutionarily, social acceptance was critical to survival.
“With no fangs, fur, or claws, and with long, vulnerable childhoods, humans are ill-suited to fulfill their survival and reproductive needs living in isolation. Given these vulnerabilities, early humans survived harsh environments by depending on small groups of other individuals to meet many of their survival and reproductive needs.
Because our ancestors evolved in small groups, social rejection likely signified a death sentence. Even among early civilizations, such as that of the Greeks, exile and death were treated as equivalent punishments.”
Furthermore, Chaldini in his book Influence, discusses the importance of social proof. That is, when we see others all doing the same thing, in ambiguous situations we tend to go with the crowd as both a short circuit to the ‘correct course of action’ but also to not ostracize ourselves from the group and ‘suffer’ from social rejection.
The way you can use this to your advantage is by having a clear sense of who your core acceptance group is so that no matter the situation, you always feel safe in knowing that there is a group you belong to.
Halima, for example, has extremely strong ties with family, and her religious community. They serve as a foundation that, regardless what happens, is always there for her. She didn’t grow up with other pageant participants or identify with this group, in fact, she knew she was an outsider and brought her group and her beliefs with her when she stood on that stage covered head to ankle while others wore revealing bikinis.
And while she did not win Miss Minnesota USA, her story, presence, and confidence landed her a modeling job where she now graces international runways while still being true to her beliefs. But how does she make sure not to lose herself and begin to identify with this new group of models? By committing to and spending time with her core acceptance group.
When not modeling around the globe, Halima continues to work at a St. Cloud Hospital pushing her cleaning cart through the halls, changing bedsheets and scrubbing toilets.
“I’m proud of my modeling job, but I’m also proud of this job and that this was my start,” she said. “You go home and you feel good — especially if you’ve done a lot of rooms that night.”
She still shops at the mall, buys groceries, and spends time with her longtime friends.
“I still do the things I used to do before,” she said. “I’m still a part of this community.”
Not only do you need to know who your core acceptance group is, but you must spend significant time with this group. We become the average of the people we are surrounded by and as you move into larger leadership roles, you may be inclined to spend more and more time working which will keep you away from your core acceptance group and eventually, you may lose all contact with that group altogether. If all that remains then is your leadership work group and if social acceptance is critical to your survival and your core group is gone, you’ll suddenly find yourself unconsciously conforming to this group and losing your authenticity.
Avoiding Loss Aversion
Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” introduces the concept of loss aversion and how the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. Essentially, once we have something, we don’t want to give it up and conformity is safest way to keep what we have and avoid loss.
Author Tim Ferriss, leveraging the teachings of the stoic Greek philosopher Seneca, practices a week of poverty from time to time to experience what he calls a ‘worst-case’ scenario where he lives without access to his vast resources.
“Seneca teaches you to value only those things that cannot be taken away, meaning you would actively practice poverty, for example, subsisting on the meagerest of food and clothing for, let’s just say, one week every two months. The way Seneca would phrase it is all the while asking yourself, “Is this the condition I so feared?”
That type of practice … helps you to live life offensively as opposed to defensively. So, I would say that on a daily basis I revert to some of the basic principles of stoicism to make decisions about where to invest my time, which relationships to cultivate, which relationships to sever so forth and so on.”
By successfully managing through his worst-case scenario, Ferriss reduces his loss aversion.
You don’t need to practice a worst-case scenario like Tim to manage your loss aversion, but Bridget Casey provides some ideas to consider –
“To practice poverty for a week (or two, if you really want to get into it), all you have to do is select a limited number of clothes from your closet, shop the grocery store as if you are on the strictest budget imaginable, don’t drive your car, turn off your TV, and cut out any extra spending from your budget. You will be left eating ramen while reading a library book and wearing the same clothes you wore yesterday.”
[reference: for more ideas, check out Bridget’s post – http://www.moneyaftergraduation.com/2016/01/04/why-you-should-practice-poverty/]
But it isn’t so much about giving things up, as much as it is knowing and appreciating the important aspects of your life that can never be taken away.
For Halima, she has put her modeling career in perspective,
“‘I have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, let me make the most of it, and let me have a good time… Because modeling could just be a one-season thing for me, and that’s something I’m OK with.’”
When you believe the same, you will no longer be saddled with loss aversion.
‘We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.’ – Archilochus, Greek soldier, circa 650 B.C.
We all hope that we will do the right thing, and many of us believe we will if and when the time comes when we are asked to do so. Unfortunately, as we have learned earlier, our brains our hard wired to react in certain ways to seek acceptance and avoid loss, both of which make it almost impossible to avoid conformance. The only way to be successful then, is to practice the skills noted above and to practice nonconformity.
By practicing small acts of nonconformance, you will recognize and subsequently become comfortable with the heart racing, stomach tightening, self-doubt, embarrassment, and other associated feelings making it more likely that you will make good conscious versus unconscious decisions.
If you are looking for some ‘small acts’ ideas to practice, consider the following:
- If you are a person who has trouble disagreeing, give yourself one “No” each day for a week that you will use when asked to do something at home or at work.
- If you are self-conscious about what you wear or how you look, purposely wear different socks, mismatched shoes, or refrain from wearing makeup for a day.
- If you use social media, try posting something a little different from your norm.
The idea is to know yourself, identify something that makes you slightly uncomfortable, and do it. Psychologists call this cognitive behavioral therapy. Basically, through repeated exposure to something uncomfortable the reaction we have can be muted and controlled.
Once you have practiced this skill on smaller, less significant issues and build up your confidence, when you are faced in the future with a situation that would otherwise be threatening, you will have the skills to stay true to yourself and your values.
As you come to better understand the story of Halima Aden, what you’ll find is someone whose life experience, relationships, beliefs, and inherent character have created a person who has the skills to be authentic in all aspects of her life. But being authentic isn’t something one can easily do simply by reading an inspiring story, but rather by understanding that it is a characteristic and skill that can and needs to be developed. One needs to have a core acceptance group, understand and combat loss aversion, and practice small acts of nonconformity to build their authenticity muscle.
Ironically, the key to being an authentic leader, is what you do, where you spend your time, and who you spend it with when you aren’t in your leadership role.
Kusimama Imara, my friends.