What is your personal brand?
I’ve thought a lot about that question lately.
In this fast-paced world of ours, we’ll told that our personal brand is everything. It’s how we get categorized. Selected. Hired. Promoted. Sought out for whatever-it-is that we’ve identified as our primary area of expertise.
For years, I bought into this notion and ploughed ahead bravely on my quest to define myself with a simple, clean phrase—the equivalent of a movie log line, if you will. After all, I want to deliver maximum value to the world. (Don’t we all?) In the process, I even established a personal “why” statement: “Live On Purpose.”
Live on purpose. Hmmmm.
That means knowing how to label ourselves accurately, right?
After years of chasing the personal brand phantom, I’m not so sure.
In fact, I might even be ready to throw that notion out all together and embrace my endlessly-baffling multiplicity of interests that only expands every time I try to rein them in.
Not that I haven’t tried to categorize myself. Here are just a few of my efforts: Writer. Steampunk. Brand engineer. Knitter. Chef. Information designer. Elementary school literacy coordinator. Digital marketer. Face-to-face marketer. Knitter. Transmedia creator, producer and showrunner. Medievalist. Systems specialist.
In all this, I was searching for the one thing that would define my brand. The “one ring” to rule my personal Middle Earth, as it were.
But every time I thought I’d settled into a category, that category would shift or (more often) multiply into a new subset of interests that hopelessly evaded my attempts at definition.
Today, I’m tossing my ring into Mordor.
The slippery slope
My suspicion that “personal branding” was unsatisfactory (for me, at least) started out small. It began last year when I read an article about “generalists” and saw myself in the definition of the insatiably curious person whose interests are wide and ever-increasing. Generalists thrive on new situations, rarely remaining in one career path or hobby for a long period of time—or if they do, they supplement it heavily with many other activities.
(The good folks at my current day job even recognized this when they hired me. I asked them why they had head-hunted me on LinkedIn. Their answer? “We saw that you’ve done a lot of different things. People with the most widely-varied backgrounds often do the best in this position.”)
Around that same time I also began seriously to shift my conception of my writing work from pure “writing” to the newer concept of “making.” Makers share the generalist’s insatiable curiosity, only for them, this curiosity translates into the irresistible urge to do something (or rather, create something) new based on what they discover.
Many makers gather yearly in Maker Faires around the country and create smaller local co-working spaces where they can share more expensive equipment and precious expertise across many disciplines. While I don’t know many writers who would term themselves “makers,” the switch appealed to me because I had begun to trend away from composing stories purely words, to see how I could mix images, digital experiences, and even crowdsourced talent into the storytelling process.
However, at this point, I was still seeking a single-source self-definition.
The next step in my cast-off of the singular personal brand was my discovery (through the fantastic Gallup Strengths Finder test) that my primary strength is learning. Which means that, if I’m not learning something new in a given situation—professional or recreational—I’m likely to seek out a new or altered situation where I do.
Given my traits as a generalist and a maker, it’s not surprising that learning would net out at the very top of the 100-some possible personal strengths the test assesses.
Point of No Return
The nails in my coffin of non-conformism were mostly in place at this point. The last one, however, was struck through this LinkedIn article, “20 Careers That Didn’t Work Out for Me” by entrepreneur and writer James Altucher. (If that name sounds familiar, he’s the author most recently of the popular productivity book The Power of No.)
In the article, Altucher lists various jobs he wanted to have, which he either held (but could not turn into a long-term career) or wanted to hold (but never has). A few are humorous; some are heart-wrenching.
On both ends of the spectrum, I saw myself.
“What I want to do for the rest of my life is always going to change . . .” Altucher concludes. “And whatever it is I want to do today, I’m just going to go ahead and do it.”
What I want to do . . . is always going to change . . .
As I said these words out loud, they felt like my own. They are my own.
I realized that Altucher’s conclusion is how I have always lived my life, this crazy ride of a writer-knitter-transmedia producer-entrepreneur-face to face marketer-systems designer-steampunk-cook-cat lover-medievalist-learner. (Leaving a few spaces open, of course, for whatever next piques my interest, and whatever has come before that I’m currently forgetting!)
I dare you to write a log line for that personal brand. Although it turns out someone has come up with a term for it — generalist or “multipotentialite.” (The article I’ve linked here is better than the term, in my opinion!)
At the end of the day, it’s not the depth of one passion, but the breadth of many, that makes me who I am.
After years of chasing a definition, maybe I ought to defy definition instead. Not purely for the sake of obstinacy, of course, but as a matter of survival.
Because wherever there are no definitions – wherever exploring, learning and making is crucial to success – wherever I am not my label – is where I thrive. And, in the process, deliver value.
For me, that is living on purpose.
How about you?
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In the next post, we’ll explore the implications of refusing to specialize or create a narrow personal brand. In the mean time, what do you think? Are you a specialist or a generalist? Why do you think so?