Sometimes when I see what other coaches write, it makes me want to run the other way. I’m not THAT, I tell myself, wanting nothing to do with the sort of aggressive over-the-top promises and platitudes I see some “life coaches” or “executive coaches” or business consultants using to promote themselves.
Other times, when I look back at what I’ve done all day for my job, whether it’s watching terrorism trials or Congressional hearings and fuming at the state of American politics, I want to scream. I don’t want to be THAT person either, immersed in and getting all worked up over awful things in the world I can’t control.
Of course, if I have some perspective, I can realize that these things all serve some purpose right now, whether it’s helping me find my way in a new field I enjoy, advocating for something I believe in, or just earning a living. But when I’m in the thick of whatever it is, or face embarking on a new project, those inclinations to define myself by what I’m doing at the moment can really get in my way.
Consultants are all about “branding” these days, and the importance of people creating a “personal brand” that tells the world who you are. The prevalence of social media and our “digital footprint” has intensified the pressure, but it even arises in the sort of cocktail-party conversations we have when we meet new people. Marketers will tell you to pull out your “elevator pitch” right then because it’s a perfect opportunity to try to convince someone to hire you — and you’d better not miss any opportunities. Plus there’s the general social pressure to label ourselves as something solid and impressive.
I think it’s exactly this kind of ubiquitous “branding” that leaves many people feeling stuck and hopeless. Lots of us have jobs we don’t love that pay the bills, for example, but we don’t want to “brand” ourselves by it. We’re not cattle. We have lots of other interests, and maybe we’re developing a whole new skill or talent or career on our own time. A public “brand” isn’t going to capture that. It could even limit it.
I was once told by a friend who’s a communications professional that I have a “great brand.” I was flattered – who knew I had a “brand” at all? – but it also had the effect of limiting me. Suddenly I felt like taking a different path I was considering would be foolishly wasting my “brand” – for whatever it’s worth.
The truth is, we’re not one thing, and the complex of our skills and interests and personalities don’t fit neatly into a label or a tagline. To try to cram ourselves into some set form means we’re cutting off other essential parts of ourselves. It prevents us from learning and trying new things, exploring latent talents and interests, and just generally from growing and expanding. It seems to me like a recipe for misery.
Many of my clients seem to struggle with this kind of self-branding pressure. A freelance writer, for example, has an assignment he thinks is stupid, but those assignments pay the bills so he can also do the writing he wants that, for now, at least, is not paying him. As soon as he sits down at his computer to start working on the assignment, though, he balks: I don’t want to do THIS, he thinks; I’m not THAT person, who writes this sort of idiocy. What have I done with my life? Now, he not only has an assignment to do that he doesn’t find interesting, but he’s blocked from getting started because he can’t get over the negative labels he’s slapped on himself for being the person doing it.
The other, related problem with branding is how it interacts with the human tendency, at least in Western culture, to view ourselves negatively. I make a mistake so I immediately call myself “stupid,” for example. Or I eat or drink too much and now I’m a person with no self-control. We tend to label ourselves negatively at every opportunity, and that labeling actually makes it much harder to change. Seeing ourselves as fixed and “branded” entities only digs us deeper into that hole.
Stephen Cope talks about this in his book, The Wisdom of Yoga, which I’ve written about here before. Instead of seeing human beings as fixed, solid entities, Cope explains, Yogis (much like Buddhists) discovered that we’re composed of many different “patterns of consciousness,” which may or may not fit well together. “It is partly the driven attempt to make all of the pieces fit nicely together that keeps us so often at right angles to life,” writes Cope. Yogis found that clinging to an idea of a unitary self causes suffering because it narrows our sense of who we are and makes us very small in comparison to the rest of the world. Now we have to defend “ourselves” against that world, and exert huge amounts of energy bolstering our egos in the face of it.
This can be particularly tiring when we’re dealing with parts of ourselves we don’t really like. If we see ourselves as a solid entity, then it’s extremely painful to confront our mistakes or bad habits. Because we see them as us. We take them very personally. As a result, we tend to avoid confronting those parts, and the habit continues.
If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as various and intersecting patterns of consciousness that are constantly growing and changing, then past mistakes or habits can feel a little less solid. They’re a pattern we’ve developed, not an essential part of our character. It’s not so scary now to look at them, to notice what triggers them, and to see how and where we can interrupt the chain reaction. And it’s only when you can see and accept that part of yourself without judgment, as Cope explains, that you can begin to take steps to change it.
What does this all have to do with branding? Branding seems to me to be a trend towards doing the opposite: a call to define and present ourselves as solid and unchanging entities, available on demand for perfect presentation and sale — and then to act accordingly. Just writing that makes me feel like I’m choking.
Of course, if you’re trying to start a new business or change one, developing a brand can help let people know what you offer. But personal branding is far more than that – it’s carefully crafting your own presentation to the world, which in turn can become how you lead your life. It’s turning yourself into a commodity available for sale in the marketplace, rather than acknowledging and relishing being a multi-faceted human being who has far more to offer than you probably realize.
In other words, branding is fine in its place, but it’s not you: you’re much more. As Walt Whitman put it: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”