Each year of high school I was privileged to participate in a "Career Day" in which various professional people were invited to come and talk with classrooms of teenagers about the work they did. I always looked forward to those days, as I was curious as to how the working world functioned and how people became successful.
The professions represented in the career days were the common variety such as firemen, policemen and policewomen, a dentist, a nurse, a computer programmer, an accountant and so on. Not one entrepreneur. Not one creative professional. No tradesmen or tradeswomen.
Then I recall being handed a one-page list of professions, with professions listed in one column and the average annual salary in the other. The document was sorted by income level with the highest income professions at the top of the list. The mere exclusion of relevant data other than income, and the sorting from highest income to lowest seemed to indicate to me (at a very early age) that work is all about how much money you make.
So naturally when I saw that the highest paid profession on the list was "computer scientist," that's what I wanted to be. Even though I didn't know the first thing about computers or whether I would actually enjoy working as a computer scientist. Moreover, I didn't yet have a clue as to what my natural talents were.
College wasn't much better. I thumbed through the academic calendars, read through the list of majors and what classes were required for each major, and still didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. At one point I read about how much money actuaries can potentially make, and so I thought I wanted to be an actuary. Knowing what I know about myself now I can say, with great confidence, that had I taken that career track it would have been a disaster.
The confusion of my high school career days and the absence of college courses that invite and challenge young people to discover who they are and what their unique talents are, speaks to a great void in our modern culture--a void formed by the absence of a focus on developing our personal brand.
Not the kind of brand in which we come up with a slick and sexy way of selling ourselves, but rather a brand that speaks authentically to the essence of who we are, what we stand for, and what unique talents we bring to the world.
To articulate my life's purpose in relation to my work, it is to kindle significant change through disruptive thinking and radical pursuit of values that spread harmony and balance in the world. What I bring to the table is a depth of insight, empathy and emotional intelligence, a love for clear and thoughtful communication, respect for and celebration of diversity, and a genuine desire to help people realize their dreams.
It's taken me nearly five decades to come to a place in which I can articulate my personal brand in this way, and to quote the Beatles, it's been "a long and winding road." It's taken such a long time precisely because, as a society, we do not value purpose. We don't focus on it and we lack the vocabulary for it.
To ask about the life styles associated with a profession, or the personality types that excel the most in a given vocation, the challenges and pitfalls, and the triumphs and joys, seems almost out of the boundaries of what has been considered relevant. As a result, college students change majors an average of three times, millennials are the "least engaged generation in the workplace," according to Gallup, and they have a reputation for job-hopping. Many gen Xers and Baby Boomers are also feeling as though something is missing.
The inner soul of personal branding begins with an internal exploration of what matters most to us, what brings us joy, what gets us excited and what doesn't. If we drive ourselves to like a profession merely because of its financial reward, we may find ourselves living in an upside down life--feeling trapped and unfulfilled.
Developing a personal brand is partly about searching for and discovering those things that bring us joy and fulfillment, and then envisioning how those things (or that single thing) translates into a meaningful career.
You will naturally be good at doing what brings you joy, because in your joy and enthusiasm you will go so deep with your work that you will imprint it with your own truly unique approach and talents. You will bring something to your work that only you can, because there is only one YOU.
And then here's the really big challenge to doing personal branding work; once we discover and articulate our personal brand, we have to own it. Which means we can't crawl into a hole and pretend that we're not here to do something meaningful and important. Once we know who we are we can't pretend we're not that person, and then shuffle through life gradually working our way up a proverbial ladder for some eventual goal of a comfortable retirement.
As Carl Yung once wrote, "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." Kindling a light of meaning is precisely the work of personal branding. Who am I? Why am I here? And, what do I have to offer that only I can do in the unique way in which I do?
This work is challenging . . . and it's also immensely satisfying.
Glenn Geffcken is the co-founder of Balanced Is, a company with a focus on culture and identity, working at the intersection of purpose, connection and innovation, to help companies and individuals realize their greatest potential. Glenn is the author of Shift: Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change and writes a bi-weekly blog, Heart & Mind about bridging the gap between the heart and the mind in work and life.