The Personal Branding Paradox: Being Nobody

It is likely that what we take for granted as a "self" does not exist. And since your brand is intertwined with other people's perception, there is no one perception that defines you.
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Personal branding is a hot topic these days. Perhaps it all began with the article "The Brand Called You," by Tom Peters, published in Fast Company Magazine back in August 1997. And there have been numerous other articles on this topic, before and after this one. Peters wrote:

Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.

I agree with Peters. We ignore our brand at our own peril, whether we are in business, a non-profit, or working as a teacher or therapist. Our brand is how we are perceived by others. How we are perceived determines whether others believe that what we do meets their needs or wants, whether we can help them develop or find solutions, or whether others trust and respect us. In business -- in a way we are all in business -- it is important to pay attention to your brand.

We all have a brand, whether wanted or not, consciously constructed or not. Even Buddha has a brand, as well as the Dalai Lama, President Obama, and even those claiming to not have a brand -- no brand is also a brand. When used with integrity, a brand can be a way to express who we are and what we stand for as a person, or whatever our particular product, service, or offering may be. A brand can express our values and what we stand for.

Like anything, a brand can be misused. The word itself conjures images of fraud, sham artists, and charlatans. In some sense, perhaps we are all frauds. There is always a gap between our values, intentions, actions, and how we are perceived. We cannot control how others perceive us. Our brand with one person or one set of people can be completely different with another. Many people in the west think of the Dalai Lama as a representation of wisdom and humility. The Chinese government has a different perception.

What is President Obama's brand? It depends on whom you ask, when you ask, and how you ask. Perhaps the issue isn't the brand but how people relate to the brand, or both? We humans are complicated.

You Don't Exist -- Now What?

It is likely that what we take for granted as a "self" does not exist. And since your brand is intertwined with other people's perception, there is no one perception that defines you. It may be difficult to fathom that you don't exist in the way you think you do, but this is good news! How freeing. Your effort to create a solid, clearly identifiable self and a solid unchanging brand may be a worthy effort, but is essentially impossible. Even if you do establish a clear brand, you will change, others will change -- your brand will change.

So what do you do?

  • Be as clear as possible as to what your values are and create a brand that is as closely aligned with your values as possible.

  • Communicate your brand, your authentic offering, the best you can. Listen for feedback. Ask for feedback. Be open to listening beyond your own limited views, ideas, and perceptions. Be open to change your brand in response to your own changes and the changes around you.
  • Notice and be honest about gaps in your brand and in how others see you and your brand.
  • At the same time, understand that we live on multiple tracks. On one track, we need to pay attention to our brand. At the same time it is important to develop your life outside of the realm of brands -- Practice the art of "being nobody." This is a terrific practice. What it means is to let go of trying to be anyone special, of trying to control, of trying to hold onto anything solid, especially yourself. Let yourself just be yourself, brand-less, a happy, compassionate nobody. A paradox: The more you can let yourself be nobody, the more resilient and skillful you may be in developing your brand.

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