The problem with personal branding

One of the problems with personal branding is that we tell people that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. We scare people with stories about college students posting inappropriate pictures, employees complaining about their bosses, and search engines remembering everything. Then we tell people that they need to be on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter and their own blog if they’re going to have a chance in today’s job market.

And we wonder why people don’t make the most of these tools.

I think the cautionary tales we tell people are interesting. We tell people to remember that search engines have a long memory, so you shouldn’t post complaints about your work or drunken pictures of you at parties. I think that’s focusing on the surface and not the roots. It’s not about keeping rants offline. It’s about getting better at focusing on the good stuff and taking responsibility for shaping your life.

Here’s the difference:

Personal branding tip: Don’t gripe about your work on your blog.

Life tip: Figure out how to make your work better so that you don’t want to gripe all the time. Accept that there will be times when you want to gripe and being frustrated is part of learning. Focus on the positive.

Also:

I think people are getting stuck, not because the tools are hard to use, but because people don’t know what to share. We can talk about how personal branding and social networking are great ways to build your reputation and demonstrate your expertise, but many people don’t feel like they’re experts.

I care about this because thanks to connection and opportunity compounding, the gap between the people who get it and the people who don’t get it will get wider and wider unless we do something.

In my case, that something includes demonstrating that you don’t have to be an expert to create value. That you can admit you don’t know something and you want to learn. That you can make mistakes and deal with your weaknesses. That you can build on your strengths and interests, and that the path from mediocre to good is worthwhile. That you don’t have to have a “voice” right away and you don’t have to sound like a polished writer. That you can be human.

When we tell companies to be human, we don’t mean that companies should use toilet humor or lie. We mean the best part of being human – connecting authentically, being real. We should encourage people to be human, too. I don’t want people to think that they need to be these polished and carefully-controlled brands. (Particularly considering we’re telling companies that they don’t control their messages!) I want people to find and share their best – as well as the seeds of what could be great. I want to build a world where people don’t have to worry about the rough, unfinished parts of themselves. I want to build a world where people can learn out in the open if they want to.

I think under-sharing is more of a problem than over-sharing. Yes, it’s a good idea to think before you post, and there are plenty of examples of failure. There’s that occasional exhibitionistic streak—the rebel in us that likes to shock others—that we need to rein in. But the bigger and more interesting challenge is that people don’t know what would be good to share, what other people might find useful.

Sure, thinking about personal brands can help you figure out what you know that other people might find useful. Truth is, practically anything can help someone out there. I’m often surprised by what people pick up from what I do – even little things like the way I use [  ] and [X] and [-] in my weekly review. So there’s a ton of things you can share, and the fun challenge is prioritizing so that you can get more valuable things out first. When you think that way – starting from a position of abundance and opportunity, rather than from a position of fear and anxiety – things get much easier.

So: Stop worrying about personal branding. Focus on what matters. Share. Create value. Don’t worry about whether you’re on all the right social networks and you have a complete profile with lots of recommendations. Start figuring out who you are, what you know and do, why it matters, what you can share, and how you can share it. Don’t worry about whether you look good. Focus on how you can help others. Everything else flows from that.

Thinking about what people remember

While thinking about identities, personal brands, and what people remember, I thought it might be useful to think about what people probably remember about me:

brand

Presentations are probably the clearest time I present a “brand” or a slice of myself, because I focus on a single topic and I write a bio that highlights relevant aspects. At work, on my blog, and in life, I can bring out more complexity.

I started thinking about this when someone asked me how one makes the shift to talking about identity when people ask about their brand. When I thought about the question, I realized people don’t really ask me about my “brand”, they just figure it out.

People find happiness and energy remarkable. One of the tags people added to my profile at work is “howcomeshesalwayscheerful”. <laugh> Ditto with energy – people are surprised by that. It seems like being passionate about your work is a rare thing. I’m going to work and live as if these things aren’t rare, assuming instead that everyone can be happy and energized and passionate about what they do. =)

Happiness, energy, and passion don’t fit neatly into the idea of consciously building personal brand. Happiness doesn’t work well when you’re being happy just because you’re the happy person. You don’t say, “Hey, happiness would be a good brand for me, so I’m going to be happy.” You just are. You can focus on the bright side of life, but that’s more about you and less about what you want people to think of you. And happiness doesn’t mean that you need to hide the sad parts of your life, because those challenges help you grow too.

The cross-over between different parts of my life (such as Emacs people sharing their insights into my hobbies) is totally awesome, which is why I like sharing the complexities of who I am instead of boxing myself in with a brand.

I like working this way. I like being myself, seeing what people find valuable, and then building on those strengths so that I can use them to help more people. Instead of thinking of this as one-way, like personal branding is often seen, I think of the conversational development of identity. It doesn’t spring full-formed from my solitary thoughts, like the way someone might deliberately develop personal branding. It emerges as I interact with people and the world, and as I reflect on what I’ve learned.

Thanks to @saradelekta for prompting me to think about this, and to Bernie Michalik for the comparison between identities and personal brands!

Risks, personal brands, and findability

I started the day with an interview for a course on social media education. The team sent me a list of follow-up questions an hour and a half before the call. They were surprised when I quickly posted an entry answering their questions. I figured that if I jotted a few thoughts down, they could use that to dig deeper during the follow-up call and it could be raw material for a future blog post. From experience, I know that it can take a while to think of great follow-up questions. The more cycles we can have in an interview, the better.

I was particularly interested in the discussions around risks, personal brands, and findability. The interviewers asked me what I thought the biggest risk was given our social media guidelines. Instead of naming, say, information leakage or corporate embarrassment—although there are plenty of stories like the ill-conceived prank at Domino’s that went viral—I told them that the biggest risk I see is that people might not participate enough. I think it’s a huge risk. First, lots of people are intimidated by the idea of sharing publicly, and they don’t want to risk embarrassment. This might lead to a widening gap between the people who can take that first step to share (and who grow more comfortable and more connected by doing so), and people who don’t take that step (and who get less connected in the process).

That intimidation and fear is often because of all the emphasis we put on personal brands. People think that they need to package themselves and present a perfect face. I’d rather focus on content: exploring new experiences, deepening my understanding, and figuring out how I can help other people learn. I pay a little attention to “branding” in the sense of consciously choosing parts of my online identity – a good picture that I can reuse no matter what hairstyle I have, and no Comic Sans MS anywhere ;) – but I don’t worry about being perfect. I have typos. I’m learning. I change my mind. It’s okay. It’s much more effective to focus on learning more and helping people more than it is to focus on how I want people to remember me. My parents always say, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.”* For personal branding, it’s also like that: do good stuff, and your reputation will follow.” (* Of course, you still need common sense and good habits, like frugality.)

Besides, a brand is about a consistent, enduring experience, and you don’t have that at the beginning. You get there eventually. It’s like startups: you can come up with your positioning on day 1, but all the posturing about being the best in the world won’t do you any good until you deliver on that promise enough for people to trust you. You have to have history, and you can’t have history unless you start.

Which brings me to findability. One of the questions the team asked me was how people should tag themselves so that they’re more findable. It’s like search-engine optimization for people, I guess. It’s useful in a crowded marketplace, but you’re better off focusing on other things when you’re starting out. If you focus on doing good stuff and helping people find out how you can help them, that leads to you becoming the go-to person for all sorts of things. It’s not about you tagging yourself “web2.0 social awesome”, it’s about other people and how you help them. Don’t worry about being findable. Focus on being worth finding.

If you do want to get more networking value for your time, think about the connectors in your network. You probably have at least one. You know, the people who are always introducing people to other people? Help them get to know you and how you can help other people. This is good because connectors frequently answer requests for introductions, and if they can connect someone with you so that you can solve that someone’s problem, everyone wins.

Anyway. Social media education. Your biggest challenges are fear, apathy, and inertia. Focus on encouraging people with role models, stories, coaching. Tell people and show them by example that it’s okay to learn, to experiment, to try things out.