When I was a college student, I felt free to explore different interests and groups without worrying about how that would affect my personal brand. Now, recent graduates sit through workshops like “Careers, Beers and the Brand Called You.” Although I promoted this workshop via NetSquared Boston, I didn’t attend it – for a reason.

Although I understand the value of personal branding from a business standpoint, I believe business values have infiltrated the personal and creative spheres of people who are seeking to market themselves. In some ways, this is a good thing; in other ways, it can be destructive.

Vintage mirror and jewelryYou are not your image. (Source: stock.xchng)

You Are Not Your Career

Recent evidence from the recession shows that economic downturns can lead to suicides. The people most likely to commit suicide in Europe seem to be those with strong career aspirations – the upwardly mobile and entrepreneurial people who are most likely to engage in personal branding.

Think about it. If you are your brand and you suffer economic hardship, what does that say about your worth as a human being? What does that say about your marketability? It’s not a surprise that people who overidentify with their careers become hopeless in these situations.

I’m a fan of the Seven Habits series and believe that having a strong source of internal purpose and mission is important to career survival and happiness. This means that one’s purpose is not the same as one’s brand.

One’s purpose is like a compass; one’s brand is like a vehicle that gets one to the next destination. Building a brand is useful, but it is no substitute for having a source of self-worth that is independent from how one makes a living.

You Have the Right to Experiment

I had a long e-mail conversation with Bill Lascher last year about how branding one’s writing can limit one’s creative freedom. For example, if a woman who’s been writing chick lit for 10 years decides to produce a novel about the Vietnam War, her web presence will need a makeover.

It took me a long time to develop the brand for this blog. The urban environmental version of this blog did a great job of encapsulating my journalism interests. But it didn’t convey most of what I do for a living. There are two halves to my work – the freelance journalism and the work I do for established environmental, science and/or technology organizations. I updated my website to include both of these sides of my writing.

My interests are multifaceted and do not distill down into a sound bite easily. Luckily, environmental issues and technology are such broad topics that I have no shortage of ideas to explore. I have a genre, but it’s not a very limiting genre.

Still, even with this relatively flexible definition, I still am not my brand. In my free time, I do a lot of dancing. The type of dance I do combines martial arts, yoga, jazz dance and modern dance. There are many other things I do that don’t fit into my brand neatly either.

You Don’t Owe the Internet an Explanation

If you’re trying to maintain a consistent brand, you may police your online presence. This is an overrated activity. It is not fun; also, it can limit your participation in activities you enjoy because you are too busy watching your paper trail.

Idealistically speaking, as long as whatever you are doing is legal and reasonably ethical, it shouldn’t matter if it comes up on the first page of a search. However, there may be some types of material – for example, your memoir about your years as a bartender – that fall into a gray area. Employers exclude applicants based on evidence of alcohol consumption and may not appreciate the candid nature and literary quality of your writing. Appearance discrimination is also alive and well online, so simple hairstyle changes can become stressful choices.

The advice “to thine own self be true” is difficult to follow if you are a writer engaging in personal branding. If you’re a real estate agent who has never written a controversial blog post in her life, then personal branding is easy – get a headshot and you’re done. I suspect most writers find this process difficult.

Ironically, although writers are encouraged to focus on marketing and branding, authenticity is what fuels good writing. Being able to sit with a pen or computer and face exactly what one wants to say is part of the creative process. Personal branding can short-circuit that experience, substituting image maintenance for real self-expression.

You Aren’t in Charge of Your Image

Personal branding requires writers and other creative content producers to take a hard look in the mirror. Now, more than ever, we are subjected to the whims of search engines and online conversations. Most of this is completely outside our control.

Personal brand advocates seem to downplay the following point: as marketers of our own work, we are not in charge of how other people respond to us. We are only responsible for what we say. We are not responsible for whether or not people like us. If people photograph us in an unflattering way, that is outside our control.

In the world of branding and social media, it’s important to recognize that we do not control our images. We can create them and shape them. We can alter them. But they are a collaborative creation – and some of that creation is done by our audience. Studies show that people will misread much of what we post online.

We can’t hold ourselves responsible for how people see us; we are only responsible for what we say and do. In a world where people may not judge us by our actions, we can continue to hold that standard for ourselves and others. We can keep our self-images separate from our personal brands. And we can recognize image evaluation is a weak substitute for assessment of character.

This post is inspired by Lee Worden’s article “Counterculture, Cyberculture, and the Third Culture: Reinventing Civilization, Then and Now”. Worden says the counterculture of the 1970s gave rise to the movements that have since spawned Google, WikiLeaks and Wired Magazine. Worden describes these movements as both idealist and libertarian.

What do these technology movements believe? Worden identified four central threads.

  1. Belief that access to tools is empowering on its own
  2. Rejection of bureaucratic systems in favor of new options
  3. Creation of flexible social structures to accomplish goals
  4. Idealization of individual freedom
Lava lamp
Like futuristic technology, lava lamps were also idealized in the 1970s.

Peter Taylor, a professor at University of Massachusetts-Boston, has diagrammed the trends in the article.

I’m somewhat critical of the four assumptions above, even though I can see their value.

Does Access to Technology Solve Problems?

Access to tools alone doesn’t create the social outcomes communities may desire. I’ve seen examples of this in the nonprofit world and in K-12 education. If technology isn’t seen as relevant, practical and useful, a community may not respond positively to it.

Sometimes, poorly designed or misapplied technology can be confusing or even destructive. When I was in engineering school, there was a joke circulating which said the Ph.D. exam for mechanical engineers involved being locked in a room with a saber-toothed tiger, a disassembled gun, and a user’s manual written in Swahili. Not every technological solution is a useful one.

Should Crowd-Sourcing Replace Paid Work?

Creating flexible social structures can have both advantages and disadvantages. Many of these organizations rely on volunteer labor. Their volunteers work within structured institutions during the day and then spend their free time on these other projects. One could argue that citizen journalists are not being paid adequately for their time.

To what extent should these modern, flexible technology organizations rely on crowd-sourced, unpaid or underpaid labor? As the worldwide market becomes more competitive, people in technical and creative occupations may find that volunteers are making their jobs obsolete. Fact-checking, a traditional staple of journalism, could be replaced by community-sourced editing.

Should Individual Voices Replace Experts and Organizations?

Technology projects find ways to reward and encourage problem solving and innovation. They reach beyond bureaucracies into the community. Some of these projects are housed within universities. There are many crowd-sourced projects going on today – from gathering science data to fact-checking news articles. The organizers of these projects are often enthusiastic about the value of individual voices.

The shortcomings of overvaluing individual voices already show among bloggers, where a chorus of individual voices can sometimes drown out sources that are more reliable. On the other hand, sometimes projects like Wikipedia can eclipse encyclopedias.

Despite the disadvantages of the idealized, crowd-sourced, egalitarian model of creating technology and content, this approach can be very productive if used skillfully. Google uses this model for much of its work.

What Matters More – Innovation or Community?

As Worden says, this popular online business model “blurs the line between the company and its customers, essentially encouraging customers to create the product, and then selling the customers and their work to each other and keeping the profits.” This model benefits businesses, but doesn’t necessarily support the best interests of the communities around them.

Worden worries about the potential of giving inventors infinite freedom to create products which may be dangerous or poorly designed. He believes community values should come first.

The story of the gun and the saber-toothed tiger shows that sometimes relationships should matter more than technology. If the engineering student focuses on assembling the gun, it’s too late. It’s the student’s ability to calm the tiger that may save the day.

What gets people’s engines going? What leads them to take the leap beyond the ideas they use every day?

I wasn’t surprised to read in Newsweek that leaving one’s computer is one of the best solutions. Creativity grows when people start moving; sitting still keeps both our heart rates and our creative processes slow.

If you want an idea, go out for a walk. Newsweek claims the boost in cognitive levels can last for two hours after exercise.

If your walk happens in a neighborhood where you can learn some Spanish, that could be even better. The article also says cross-cultural experiences such as immigration, living abroad and being bilingual can awaken creative abilities.

Although creative writing isn’t the main focus of this blog, I’ve collected some useful tools that I’d like to share here. They range from practical advice that I completely support to techniques that I will probably never try.

The advice in the article “How to Finish a Writing Project” is similar to my basic outlook. Concisely:

  1. Read a lot. Have adventures. Polish your writing skills. (This is an ongoing process.)
  2. Have an idea. Get excited about it. Don’t tell anyone.
  3. Find a room with a door that you can close. Start spending uninterrupted blocks of time there, developing the idea.
  4. Flesh out the basic structure for the project. Make sure the plot is well-constructed. (You don’t want the reader to get confused when a character who died in Chapter 3 reappears in Chapter 5.)
  5. Write the first draft without seeking critical input. (Avoid excessive self-editing. Being concise is good, but you can always condense the text later.)
  6. Take a break, if you need to.
  7. Network with other writers and editors, if you haven’t already done so, and start exchanging/critiquing/etc.. Keep an eye out for problems that might need repair, but don’t edit so much that you strip the meaning out of your work.
  8. Revise, revise and revise.
  9. Learn basic information about publishing and publicity. Identify your audiences, including potential agents and/or publishers. Send your work out into the world. Don’t be upset when you get rejections in the mail. Ask friends to help you stay motivated.

The next steps will depend on what type of project you are doing. But even if you land a great contract with a short deadline, remember to keep repeating step 1 throughout the process.

Two tools I have not used are Storymash, a collaborative writing site, and Write or Die, an anti-procrastination tool. Storymash looks like a good way to experiment with ideas and techniques. Write or Die looks too stressful for my taste. It might be helpful for Ph.D. dissertations or other grueling but necessary projects.