Sara NESS '09 and Her Revolution of Authenticity

When Sara NESS ’09 graduated from Ellis and began her freshman year at the University of Texas, she quickly learned a lesson many people encounter at that time in their lives: living with people is hard, especially in communal settings like college residence halls. But where most might see a housemate situation to tolerate, Sara saw an opportunity to learn from her peers—and to teach others how to do the same.
Today, Sara is the CEO and Chief Catalyst at Authentic Revolution, an organization she founded to teach people how to live and communicate effectively by bringing their authentic selves to their peer and professional groups, their conversations, and their problem-solving processes. She has worked with teams from Google, Mindvalley, and Burning Man, and her writings and teaching have led to the foundation of more than 30 authentic relating communities, as well as performance troupes, nonprofits, and independent businesses.

Sara graduated from the University of Texas in 2013 as a humanities major specializing in intentional living communities such as co-ops and cohousing. Earlier this month she talked with our Director of Marketing and Communications about her career and about how Ellis supported her to find and love her own authentic self.

Tell me a bit about Authentic Revolution. Why did you decide to develop this organization, and what are the goals?

There were a couple of things that led me to it. The most direct one was that I got really interested in intentional living communities when I was in college. I was living in housing co-ops and it was the first time I had a self-determined living situation with a lot of different people where we pretty much had to manage ourselves. That was just a fascinating concept to me. Who leaves a bunch of late teens or early 20-year-olds alone in a house and tells them to manage their finances? I got super interested in this phenomenon of group living, and so I decided to travel around the U.S. and make a documentary about it because I wanted to know what happens after college. Where do people go to keep living in those situations?

While I was on that trip, I met people who introduced me to authentic relating and it seemed like a practice that dealt with a lot of the issues I was seeing in the housing co-ops. Living together effectively comes down to a couple of things. One is structure. What rules and responsibilities do you have? How do you structure the organization of your house? But the main one is interpersonal relationships. How do you navigate conflict when it comes up? How do you talk about things that are difficult? How do you deal when you’re not at your best or when others aren’t? That’s a really, really hard thing to learn.

When I got back I was just fascinated with this idea of having communications games with rules for interaction instead of having this uncertain minefield of trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do or say based on context clues, which is something I know I didn’t always pick up on. Communication games are structured interactions that tell you who’s going to speak, what they’re going to say, and what the format is. They just let you focus on specific pieces of communication without worrying about social stigma. It turned out to be a fantastic way to build community. We’d create these events that would have a sequence of games with a theme, like exploring attraction, or empathy, or curiosity, or polarization, and we’d invite folks. We eventually made it a public group. Over time it grew and the sort of communication that people would learn from it made it a lot easier to connect with them. When I was about to graduate, there were two entrepreneurs who sat down with me and said, "If you want to turn this into a business, we will help you.” That’s what really kicked it off. It’s really hard to form something without help, and so to have their trust was really essential for this to happen.

In society today, why is it so important that we both communicate well with others and bring our authentic selves to that conversation?

There are a couple reasons, I’d say. It feels to me like authenticity is a combination of self awareness and external honesty. People are really intuitive beings, right? If you lie to somebody, then in some sense they can tell that something is off. When that happens over and over, we lose trust for that person over time. For trustability it’s important to know who you are, which is a lifelong process that involves constant questioning like, “Why am I doing the things I’m doing?,” “What am I feeling?,” “What parts of me are comfortable showing that and what aren’t?” I think it’s important to talk about our authenticity with our values, and to think about what’s so important to you that if it was taken away you’d really struggle. Knowing those things as you come in contact with the world is important. Masking takes a lot of energy. If you’re spending so much energy trying to maintain a persona that’s adjacent to who you are, then you don’t have a lot of energy left over to do other things in your life. 

It’s also a lot harder to hide today than it used to be. Our lives are public on the internet all the time, and people can track back your history and hold that up in front of you. I think in some ways it’s actually a really scary development because we do change over time. Your authenticity can change with you; it’s expected. Because someone can hold up something you did 20 years ago and call it out, you have to be kind of careful about knowing yourself because it will sometimes come back to you.

To me, authenticity and relating are two sides of the same coin. If you don’t know why you’re holding the view you’re holding then you’re a lot more likely to be kind of militant in holding it. If you can explain the reasons you think that way, then you have a place to talk with other people about it. You can explain your values and you can explain your views. If instead you’re following something because it’s what you’ve been told, there’s no space for learning or negotiation or growth there. That process of constant questing and awareness gives you space to have really interesting dialogue with other people. It takes a lot of energy to do that self-questioning.

What were some of your favorite experiences at Ellis, and how did they help shape your own sense of self?

One of my favorite things about Ellis is that it taught me how to break the rules of life, and by that I mean how to be myself in a way that I wouldn’t get shot down for. With [my English teacher], I would write my essays in iambic pentameter. I was in a club where we’d go around town and post poems on street poles. There was a lot of room to explore and do new things, and also be in situations that were a little over my edge or uncomfortable. There are moments of trusting where your teachers just trust that you can figure it out, and that was really special to me. It wasn’t an environment where everything was kept shielded and we were given all the rules. It felt like an environment where we were given the space to figure things out. When I teach now, that has really influenced me; that way of giving students the tools and then giving them a lot of space to figure out their own way of making it happen.

What other values did you learn at Ellis that have carried into your current work?

Definitely a love for research and academia. One thing that really set me apart in my field is that I am really good at research and synthesizing data. With things like having to write a thesis in our senior year, Ellis definitely set the stage for me to be interested in research and learning and writing well, and that ended up being one of the main things that set me apart.

Another real super power of Ellis is that it taught us to think about thinking. We learned how to think kind of meta and ask, “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing it?,” “What is that going to mean in the future?” It’s really a super power.

I feel like Ellis was also really good at teaching you how to ask for help, which ended up being a huge skill. I cannot overstate that as an entrepreneur the amount of times you have to ask someone for help is unreal. I remember at Ellis, even in freshman year, I would still go back to Middle School teachers and say hi and ask them questions. There was very much an “if you ask for it, it’s there” sort of mentality, and I haven’t discovered that in many places.

Is there any advice or encouragement you’d like to share with current Ellis students?

We have a norm in my company: experiment and make mistakes. Something that can be scary in the world is that your mistakes will get held onto, or they will get recorded; however, you can’t actually learn who you are unless you test out a lot of different things. When you’re trying something new, you’re going to do it badly. It’s going to take a while of doing it badly before you figure out how you want to set boundaries and what your authenticity is. Don’t expect yourself to do things well at first. Understand that doing them badly is actually a learning process as long as you keep your eyes open and keep asking people how they’re affected by the thing you’re trying to learn. Practice. Communicate your process. Let yourself do things badly before you do them well, and let yourself experiment.

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