It’s Okay if You’re Strange, Weird, or See the World Differently
How do you want to be remembered?
Ten years ago, the elevator doors opened to a cramped Soho office where there was a reception desk but no budget for a receptionist. I shared an office with three other people including the CEO, and the only thing that felt new was the laptop on my desk. Up until that morning in November, I worked in companies you heard of — Morgan Stanley, Chase, Time Warner, HarperCollins. Companies that had lofty retirement plans and an office supply closet everyone stole from. Companies that dolled up platinum Amex cards to twenty-something kids like me because why not?
But this company was different. No one had heard of it. Payroll came courtesy of a bold-faced Canadian holding company. The HR department was comprised of a team of one, who was also the CFO, accountant, and best friend of the CEO. I was 32, one of the oldest people in the company and I took the job because I was desperate for velocity. Forget the thirty-page requisition forms and going through eight department approvals to launch a banner ad campaign. At an agency, we could move fast and wreck the joint if we wanted to. And this was what the CEO, Curtis, promised me.
Curtis was funny, deprecating, and charming. He was the kind of guy who could sell Florida timeshares to people on life support. And that charm got him entry into some of the biggest brands in the business who were willing to entrust their social media to him and a team of smart, young kids.
What I also loved about the job was this: no one in this industry knew me.
New York is small, horrifyingly so, and my world until that November was book publishing, where everyone knew everyone and pretended to like them, which I suppose is like most industries in New York. But I digress. I found publishing smothering and snobbish, and I wanted an industry so new it blinded you with its fucking sheen. But this leap was scary. I’d never managed a team of more than three people. I’d never been an agency, much less one where it was common for people to dodge daylight for months at a time. And I wondered if people in 2009 cared enough about social media to pay us to manage it for them?
Up until that morning in November, I was myself at every job. I was weird, quirky, prone to wearing socks with decorative and robust animals. I made up my own words and used them in everyday vernacular. I often told my boss I wanted a pony.
I was that kind of party.
But in this new job, in this space, I felt like I had to be an “adult.” I was 32! I had a handful of grey hair! So parked my cow and cat socks at the door because now I had a team of people looking up to me, and I thought that guarding my personality like it was the Mueller investigation was the way to earn their respect. Few people knew I published a book that had been featured in fancy magazines like Vanity Fair and Elle. Fewer people knew its dark contents. When members of my team performed an investigation on the level of CIA operatives (privately, this made me very proud) and asked about my book, my life, my responses were cold and monosyllabic. These were people who wanted to make any connection with the person with whom they spent 10, 12, 16 hours of their day and I was impenetrable.
I wish I would’ve done things differently.
I always felt like I had to keep my creative and my business life separate. I had a language and a set of friends from these two seemingly disparate worlds, and the weight of balancing the two exhausted me. It’s so much harder not being yourself than it is to be yourself, we just don’t know it. It was only when I quit working for a sociopath and ventured out on my own did I have to find a way to navigate this new terrain.
I decided to be me. A woman who could talk data segmentation and k-means cluster analysis but also post pictures of cats in spacesuits in client presentations. A woman who would never appeal to the masses. A woman who’d rather go her own way than stand alongside a safe pack.
Today, I had a call with my friend Lucia (ironically enough, she was one of the first people I worked with at the agency), and we started talking about podcasts, and it occurred to me that they’re myopic, borderline photocopies of a bland original. They’ve internalized brand consistency and continuity so much that they’ll build a whole world for themselves in their box and never have any desire to peer out and see what’s outside.
These podcasts invite guests who look and sound just like them. They regurgitate the same bullshit business advice that Seth Godin wrote a decade ago, and pithy platitudes because it got that influencer turned entrepreneur rich on Instagram, and now she sells courses for $600 a pop when she’s never done the thing she teaches for anyone other than herself. These people are so obsessed with building their brand that they forgot to be human.
They were the thirty-two-year-old newly minted executive building walls all around her because this is what you’re supposed to do.
After the call, I happened upon an old Steve Jobs video. Please watch this, even if you’re not in marketing. I’m not one to throw out Steve Jobs quotes because everyone knows that he was a visionary, a genius, etc., etc., but at that particular moment after that particular call, his words were a clarion call. He said,
“To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world. It’s a very noisy world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. And so we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us.”
I thought about this a lot today. I thought about time and the fact that we have so little of it. And I thought about how some of us will fade into obscurity with the passage of generations. Our mark quickly receding. This is the nonsense that keeps me up at night. And then I realized that since we have so little time, why not spend it being our truest selves. Why not fuse all the things that make us weird, strange, and unique, and bring them to bear on our work.
If I want a put a picture of a cat in a spacesuit in a PowerPoint, I will. I’ll have a damn good reason for it, but I’ll put in it in a deck. Or in an email.
Don’t listen to people who tell you that you should act or be a certain way. They’re telling you to behave in their way, in a way that’s safe, conforming, and possibly boring. They’re not wrecking things. They’re not thinking about the feel of every inch of our life slipping, slipping, slipping by. They clock-watch. They speak in coded jargon or vernacular. Plain English frightens them. People who are different paralyze them. And they’ll poke fun and use you as a prop for their amusement, but they’re small. And they’re not doing much with their life except for complaining about it.
Over the next year, I have BIG sweeping plans. Education, podcasts, writing. And as any smart marketer would do, I took inventory of the people in my world. Most of them are brilliant, captivating people, but many are photocopies. They’re scared to stray from the pack. They’re pedestrian, at best. I know I sound like an asshole saying this, but if you’re so tethered to the architecture of your brand at the expense of yourself, your work devolves into that same formulaic archetype.
Look at someone like Regina A. Have you seen her videos? She’s a glass of water in the Sahara. She’s unapologetically weird, awkward, introverted, but she’s incredibly gifted at what she was. She’s one of the smartest marketers and storytellers in the game, and I don’t even think she’s 30. What I admire most about her is how plainly she lays herself out to bear. There is no architecture or artifice. She’s wholly and wonderfully herself. When I think about my business and how I like a cat in a spacesuit picture, I think I’d rather build something based on me. I’d rather have a weird image on the homepage of my website because I like it and I want people to know that when you work with me, you’ll get the unexpected.
And you may not like this person. This person may annoy you or say something that offends you, but she’ll be honest. She’ll be passionate and real. She’ll share it all with you because it’s what she was born to do.
I was born to be me. Know that you can be you.