Baker or Lawyer?

Professional woman showing concern at work using her laptop
Professional woman showing concern at work using her laptop

Two weeks ago I attended a two-day seminar on all sorts of relevant and meaningful topics, a surprise since many conferences can be a bunch of babble with only a handful of epiphanic moments. I don't say this lightly, but given the particular cocktail of recent events in my life, this conference felt akin to drinking a double-shot of scotch on an empty stomach.

One of the speakers -- an expert in personal branding -- led with the example of coming into a law firm to ask employees what they are known for, what is the shiniest part of their brand. Naturally, most people typically have a legal response à la "I won a big case" or "I write excellent briefs," but there is always that one deviant who says something akin to "I make the best brownies on Thursdays." And thus, we arrive at a series of logical questions: if you are known for brownies, why aren't you a baker? If you are a lawyer, why are you known for your brownies? isn't being known for something that is completely tangential to what you are getting paid for a liability?

*cue my panic*

Suddenly, I had the sinking sensation that I have always been that brownie dilettante, the multitasker with too many interests who spends time and energy on projects and goals that do not relate to her actual career trajectory. And it felt like a giant, incorrigible mistake.

I have always found there to be a fine line between simplicity and mediocrity; fearful of one, my solution was to avoid both and lunge headfirst to the opposite extreme, seeking complexity and diversity. And for a while, I would venture to say that this was an excellent plan. It led to exploration, built a personal brand that is diverse instead of pigeonholed, taught me to welcome more calculated risk, and not to belittle this, made me happy.

But at a certain point, the diversification started to crack and reveal an uglier truth: misalignment. Let's pause for a colorful example. About a year ago, taking my design thinking lessons to heart, I decided to undertake an (almost laughingly) informal poll about the product I had been piloting and iterating all along: me. I asked a range of people who know me to answer a handful of questions about me, the primary one being "if you had to introduce Natalia to someone she has never met, how would you describe what she does?"

The result of this minor professional and self-development exercise? My major "aw, shit" moment of the year. The good news were that every single person described me as an incredible, go-getting, glowing problem solver who seeks out challenges, loves building bridges and chasing awesome projects, and ultimately "gets stuff done." The bad news? The vast majority of people could not adequately describe what I actually did for a living, or which of my projects were work vs. extracurricular endeavors, or whether the academic topics I studied and loved related in the least to what I devoted my time and energy doing day-to-day. The general sentiment was, "I'm not sure what Natalia does, but I know she does it impeccably well."

Ironically, what this faulty logic reveals is a kind of mediocrity, the very thing I was seeking to avoid. I had created the kind of diversity that actually belies dilettantism, and which, while a beneficial asset in many ways, can also turn into a liability. I had breadth, but apparently little depth, and I had not managed to communicate to the outside world what my goals were, even if my skills were evident.

This has been a difficult thing to recognize, but last week's conference continued to drive the point home. Ultimately, I have realized a handful of disorienting but important factoids. First, the purpose of a personal brand is to position you mindfully in a context that is relevant for your vision, not just differentiate you and go on a lunch break. Differentiation can sometimes be easy, but marrying differentiation and positioning takes a lot of conscious and strategic effort over time.

Secondly, focus and alignment are not synonymous. Ultimately, both are desirable, but if you have trouble focusing, at the very least you should be aligned behind a single vision. Aligned and consistent.

Lastly, what got me "here" won't necessarily get me "there." My previous approaches may have worked, but if they have outgrown their effectiveness, I should be bold enough to full stop and throw them out, as disorienting as that may be. Because who doesn't love a good inspirational quote at the end of a post, "The important thing is this: to be ready a any moment to sacrifice what you are for what you could become." (Charles Dickens)

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