Forget about personal branding — focus on being a person first
I don’t have a personal brand. I don’t want one either.
I guess I could brand myself if I tried. I could base it on the fact that I own 0.22% of the number of items the average person does. Or that I vomit out thousands of words on a daily basis, select a coherent smatter and spruce them up for publication. I could play up my working knowledge of 5 languages, the number of books I read or not having a Facebook account.
I could select my unique selling point then begin to hustle as I Build My Personal Brand. Someone out there has written an ebook entitled ‘HUSTLE YOUR WAY TO A UNIQUE SELLING POINT FOR YOUR PERSONAL BRAND.’ Probably full of stock photos of people in suits shaking hands with too many subheadings*. I could make like one of the suited models and build my brand.
The only thing is, I am not a brand. I’m a person. A person who swears at their alarm, bites their nails, once blew their nose on a sock and has a phobia of slugs. That last one is not a joke. I recently cried because I squeezed out some hand lotion in the shape of a slug.
If you have read my site for any length of time, you also know that I have no particular niche. I jump from minimalism to books, to creativity, to philosophy, to whatever else. Even I find it annoying. I would love to find my perfect topic, then settle down and crank out posts on it. Somehow, I can’t. It’s because I happen to be a person who produces stuff, hates most of it and tries to make people feel something when they read it.
It makes me think of when I used to take selfies every day. It was a serious business. This was back in the day when I wore make-up, owned clothes which weren’t black, and did not have a figure akin to a potato. I knew that I needed to fake some things to look good. Unfortunately, as Seneca said, falsity has no point of termination. Once I began tweaking my appearance I had no idea where to stop. I felt I needed a plethora of eyeshadows, dresses and expensive beauty treatments. I took hundreds of self-portraits each day, agonised over which was best, edited and then posted far too many. Photographs taken by anyone else were avoided, lest they leaked to my adoring fans.
The problem was not the actual taking of pictures, but the attitude it led to. I began to see myself as an object. Events in my life were photo opportunities. People around me were props. It fed into a need to sustain an image of a life I wasn’t living. The falsity truly had no point of termination. My quirky image as a pretty girl was impossible to uphold. I quit the pretence and moved to focusing on my actual skills and ability to benefit the world.
It didn’t make much sense. I’m a writer. My purpose in life is to write stuff. Looking pretty is the life purpose of people who are paid to do that, like models and actresses. Do I get bitter when a woman is called an ‘inspiration’ because of her appearance? Yes. Do I get bitter when a woman can live off her looks without doing any hard work? Yes. Do I get bitter when every detail of the life of a woman becomes news because she’s pretty? Yes, that’s why I avoid magazines or newspapers/sites. Would I rather live that life? Heck no. I can’t imagine a duller existence than one spent posting bikini pictures on Instagram every half an hour to promote detox teas. I’m happier right now, sweating over my laptop at 6 am in a jumper I was given by my grandfather because it was too uncool for him.
I can’t settle on one topic or pretend to be pretty in order to create a personal brand for a simple reason.
The purpose of branding is to make something shitty appear desirable. Coco-Cola makes sugared water seem funky. Nike turns a pair of sweaty trainers made by slave labour into a status symbol. Starbucks ensures that diabetes in a cup with a full teaspoon of coffee is cool. We ignore the burping, blisters and jitters. It’s worth it for the little logos.
A personal brand reduces you down to a two-dimensional image. It removes the space for nuances, pivots and growth.
It’s draining — for the sender and the receiver. Society tries hard enough to turn each of us into a commodity to shuffle around. Facilitating that is a crazy way to encourage our collective degradation. People who are desperate to build a personal brand do so because they are sort of insecure. They are the same as those who never go outside without makeup. Or those who buy a new yacht every other week. Something within them is lacking and a fabricated persona is a band-aid solution. A well-crafted brand won’t give you the confidence, skills or allure you desire.
An example of why most people’s understanding of branding is flawed: every time I check the links which refer to my site, I notice something which is (to me) bizarre. There are always a handful of links from start-up Twitter or Facebook feeds. All are from automated link sharing software — it’s obvious from a glance. The company has brought a dumb algorithm to share links every few minutes. Anything with vague connections to their products will do. Why are they doing this? Because some ‘social media manager’ thinks more tweets = more followers = brand authority. They cannot bother to produce any content of interest, so they share what others have created. The intention is for this to be valuable to their followers, making them love the brand and buy their stuff.
Except, as Seneca wrote, nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in passing. A constant flow of posts is not valuable to anyone. It wastes time or money which the company could be using to improve their product or service. It doesn’t get the word out about them if that’s the intention. The best way to do that is to create something so valuable that people WANT to share it with everyone they know. I don’t recommend Seneca’s books to everyone I encounter because his PR tweeted links to articles on philosophy. I do so because they changed my life. Same goes for other products I urge everyone to try out — Lamy pens and Four Sigmatic coffee for example.
It does nothing for their brand because that whole concept of it is ludicrous. The same goes for people who think a professional sounding Twitter account will get them a job. You shared an article about being productive at work! You put your Twitter handle on your CV! Give this person a job at Google. I’m no expert on the current job market (heck, I was rejected by Pizza Hut), but I can’t imagine that works.
My point is, personal branding is marketing. Marketing is lying. Lying about yourself means fabricating a false image. That makes you miserable and uncomfortable in the long term. Being miserable makes your work go downhill. Then the brand you had in the first place becomes in itself a lie because you can’t even live up to it. The result is a world filled with grumpy people, failing to even be the thing they are trying to be, let alone to be themselves. People fall in love with people who don’t exist or become friends with borderline imaginary characters. Then the facade slips and everyone gets annoyed at each other, thinking they have changed.
The antidote is obvious: authenticity. Honesty. Openness. Being comfortable enough in your own skin to produce the work you need to. Not the work you want to or should do, the work you NEED to. Then go home and laugh at memes whilst eating mustard out of the jar.
I once saw a man walk into McDonald’s**, whip out a Tupperware, fill it with ketchup from the dispenser and walk out. He had thwarted the very reason they switched from sachets to a tap. That is the level of authenticity and confidence I aspire to achieve. I’m not sure if that man saw himself as having a personal brand. ‘Condiment ninja’ may have been his Twitter handle. I get the feeling he was actually a smart guy who will one day be a millionaire.
Let’s turn to Epictetus to round off this post.
“Tentative efforts lead to tentative outcomes. Therefore, give yourself fully to your endeavours. Decide to construct your character through excellent actions, and determine to pay the price for a worthy goal. The trials you encounter will introduce you to your strengths. Remain steadfast… and one day you will build something that endures, something worthy of your potential.”
*An unpopular opinion: stock photographs are ugly as hell.
** Before anyone judges me, I was in there for a coffee.
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