How coloring my hair for over 20 years taught me a lesson about authenticity.
by Todd Mitchem
In my mid-twenties, it all started. I was working as an improv comedian, tv host (hopeful) and an on-stage talent in Chicago creating a new kind of entertainment concept. I was on top of the world. Then shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday, it started, gray hair. To be shocked would have been a useless endeavor. After all, my father went almost totally gray in his mid-twenties also, who was I to think that my brown locks would be any different. Still, I was not prepared for what would follow and could not imagine how long I would try to hold onto something like hair color in an attempt to make myself whole.
By my twenty-seventh birthday, I was coloring my hair at home nearly every four weeks. When I look back now it's clear that my hair was brown one month, dark red the next and entirely black other months. I became frustrated, yet also was too embarrassed to go to a professional salon to have it colored correctly. Soon my embarrassment turned to justification. "Women do this, and no one cares, so I will also." Regardless of how many times I thought these words something inside told me I was not me. Still, I carried on trying different colors and different styles. At this point you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with authenticity? For a young guy living in Chicago, standing 6'5" and looking all American, it meant a ton. Coloring my hair back then seemed feminine, so I told no one. I was me, but not myself as I tried to overcome my insecurities with color. It was mentally exhausting, time-consuming and ultimately useless.
When I entered into corporate business world at the age of thirty-one there was a moment when I felt it was time to let the gray come forward and that it was time to be my true self, "but people valued youth," so I told myself, and I kept up the charade of hair color.
It would not be until my forty-fourth birthday that I would come to a realization, I was not only coloring my hair, I was hiding behind it in an attempt to stay youthful, to remain relevant in the eyes of others. On the final time I colored my hair it came out looking a ridiculous shade of red combined with brown. It was awful. I made a critical decision in March of that year and completely stopped coloring my hair altogether. I wanted to be myself, and this was a barrier I desperately needed to overcome.
When all the gray finally came something changed in me. I felt like myself for the first time in a long time. Sure, to all my colleagues, friends and family I was still myself, but I felt authentic and more real. A simple hair color change caused me to talk differently, interact with realism I had longed for and to, in general, be more authentic with everyone. Then my suspicions that this was a better fit for my true self were proven. I met my wife, the business I was consulting for took off, and everything seemed to take a new turn.
You see, being authentic is more than what you say and how you act. For real authenticity to take hold in your life, there is a need for total adoption of who you are and what you have been given in the way of personality as well as genetically. In my business coaching 1-on-1 sessions and my book, YOU DISRUPTED, I talk about how authenticity is something we owe to everyone, most of all ourselves. But it was accepting all of myself which caused me to live more in alignment with what I was meant to become. As soon as I let the hair go gray, I met my wife, got a book deal and went on to consult for some very disruptive companies.
I would love to tell you that it was easy and that I never fell off the color wagon, but that would be a lie. As soon as my book was about to be released, I colored my hair again, and again, and again. This time was the same as all the others. While I was using professionals finally, it made no difference because seemingly getting one consistent color in a man's hair is impossible. My coloring mess went on for two more years until I finally said enough.
Now my wife and I laugh about a silly hair journey which dominated so much of my life for so long, but truthfully I am glad I did it because of the lesson I am teaching you now.
Authenticity is defined as: "not false or imitation: REAL" but how can a person be authentic if they are hiding a physical truth? To be our real selves means we must first face all of the insecurities about who we are, what we look like and our whole person. Often in our current paradigm of social media, "perfect" posts and the ability to take photos again and again until they are just right, we forget the fundamental truth of real connections. People want us to be ourselves, and more importantly, WE must be true to ourselves to be truly happy. When I speak to groups, coach leaders of all types or consult with a business, you will hear me talk exhaustively about authenticity and treating people honestly. It was this experience, twenty plus years of hiding from who I indeed was physically, which taught me a valuable lesson. While I may think others want me to put on a show or look perfect, the truth is what most people want is for me to be myself. Thus, my real, raw, unbridled, honest self is all that I should wish for me.
As I say in my book, life is short and we all end up in a canister or a box at the end of it. All we have in the time we have is to be our true selves. Ask yourself, what are you hiding behind? Where are you living falsely? What would happen if you dropped the veil of fakery and simply acted honestly in every small way?
This is true for leaders, parents, friends, colleagues, and the countless numbers of people you meet each day. Now I am letting the gray come forward. Some people say I look wise; others say I look old. But I don't care because my authentic self is what my clients, readers, audience members, friends, and family expect now. Who you really are is what truthfully colors your life with vividness. Covering up your authentic self only ruins the image that is your life.
You can order a copy of my new book HERE