If you read a lot of the guidance around establishing an online presence, much of it revolves around this notion of building a personal brand. I’ve never embraced this principle because I feel it trivializes the human experience. Plus, I think the whole philosophy creates a lot of potential to confuse priorities with regard to relationships.
The best metaphor I can think of is that a personal brand should be the icing, not the cake.
Humans, Not Brands
- Brands don’t love or experience love (though some might love a brand)
- Brands don’t grieve or experience pain
- Brands aren’t creative, ambitious or innovative (though many are the result of human creativity, ambition and innovation)
- Brands don’t feel the human need for connection
Applying the rules of branding to help individuals play to their strengths and adapt an outer reflection of who they already are is a worthy exercise, but it’s not more important than developing real skill, experience and depth of character. A personal brand can’t substitute.
If what we want is fans, we have to be a fan first — not just look like one.
I know there are those who are very passionate about the importance of personal brands, but I believe that branding-applied-to-humans not only cheapens the outward expression of the human experience, it gives an inordinate amount of focus to the superficial stuff and less to the substance of what we have to offer and our impact on the world.
Having a consistent image that is aligned with our work is important, but substituting a glossy image for a lack of experience, or compensating for a narcissistic worldview won’t work well for long — online or offline.
How and Where to Make a Real Impact
Believe it or not, I was already coincidentally thinking a lot lately about how best to make an impact in my life and work before reading Jonathan Fields’ article about the question of impact earlier today.
But, I was inspired and convinced I was on the right track when I read the story he shared about meeting Srikumar Rao, author of Are You Ready to Succeed? and founder of Creativity and Personal Mastery Institute (CPMI).
This is the beauty of serendipity that an online presence filled with sincere relationships and connection has the power to bring about.
Business is still about relationships. If you don’t have relationships, meaningful relationships built on trust, you have nothing. The same thing cannot be said about a personal brand; even on the Internet.
See, what Jonathan was talking about with Srikumar Rao, was impact. Not the impact of a brand, but of his life’s work.
The opportunity to make a real impact in the level of authenticity we humans share with each other in the act of commerce — THIS is what inspired me to start learning about social media in the first place — not the supposed rules of engagement, not the opportunity to micromanage my online reputation, or tell others what they should or shouldn’t tweet about. And, it was definitely not the chance to adopt a persona that establishes who I am as a brand, but rather, the opportunity to bring more humanity to the PR work I was already doing and to share how its done. I wanted to make it safer to bring humanity to our work.
Establishing a new dogmatic approach filled with rules and guidelines on what you should say and who you should know in social networks has never appealed to me and it still doesn’t, though you’re free to try to convince me otherwise.
With this work, I was drawn to the opportunity to help businesses use social technology to connect with customers and stakeholders in a more meaningful way.
I was also drawn to the beautiful, unsettling chaos that was beginning to take root in the hearts and minds of those involved in business communication and traditional journalism. I also saw an opportunity to help this process.
I thought I could show that I could be human, share my thoughts and opinions; to grow a voice that was flawed, but getting better all the time, and uniquely my own.
I thought I could use my own life as an experiment in this manner in order to prove this theory — that I might be an example of someone who has committed to sharing their expertise, opinions and life experience online, and that I could actually benefit from it and develop real skill — so far this has been the case. I could then apply what I learned about online interactions and the technology that goes with it to benefit business.
If I had listened to the personal branding experts when I was about to start down this path, I would have never started writing on this blog to begin with. Rather than haphazardly throwing this site up in a manner of a couple hours, I would have waited until everything was perfect and perhaps eventually started to post and then wondered where everyone was.
Instead, I started posting first in order to develop my voice and to get comfortable exposing myself so much. I trusted I would figure out the rest over time, because the most important thing I could do was share my voice and learn, and I wasn’t going to learn this stuff in a book.
My plan was that if I could just share my voice — my self, people would show up eventually. And, thankfully, you did. Sometimes you even say something when you’re here and we go back and forth a bit. I love that.
Almost every time I post you teach me something, whether it’s something you say in a comment, something you share somewhere else, something you ignore or forgive. I am still surprised by you even though a lot of the time I find some of you entirely predictable — in a good way. In a way that makes me feel like I know you.
From a personal branding perspective, there’s a lot that I do wrong:
- I still don’t own name as a domain. If you visit ShannonPaul.com you will visit a site devoted to Russian tea cookies that I am totally unaffiliated with.
- My blog is hosted on WordPress.com (not self hosted, although I’m just about ready to make the move)
- I have a weird picture in my header that causes some people a lot of confusion
- My blog blatantly lacks any real user experience design
Yet, you show up; not tens of thousands of you at a time, but plenty.
I’m not telling you this because I think you should disregard all the advice, but instead to use myself as an example to tell you that doing everything “right” is only one option. There are many paths, and if you wait for everything to be perfect before you show up and participate, you will have missed thousands of opportunities to establish your voice, connect with others, and make an impact.
Lately I’ve been restless. I forgot what I started showing up to do here in the first place. Thankfully, you along with several others, whether it was intentional or not, reminded me of my mission, and for this I am grateful.
“Don‟t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one‟s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” – Viktor Frankl
The above quote is included in the curriculum document for Srikumar Rao’s course on Creativity and Personal Mastery that was only recently made available to anyone other than Columbia MBA students. Something I found as a result of investigating into the little question of impact over at Jonathan Fields’ place.
Forget About Influence
Feel free to obsess over your personal brand all day long and think about how you too might become an influential taste-maker. Let me know how that adds up.
Instead, I’m going to be working out how I can make a real and lasting impact for myself and everyone I encounter. How’s that for a personal brand?
What inspires you to move forward on your path? What is the impact you hope to make along the way?
Photo Credit: ~jjjohn~
Photo Credit: jaxxon
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