The Surprising Truth About Self-Branding

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This week, on #HowToLikeBeingAlive…

Un-brand yourself.

No, this isn’t about the clothes you wear, shampoo you use, or the stuff you buy. Brands aren’t the problem; self-branding is. We’re defining who we are with an audience in mind—and it turns out that’s very bad for our health.


>> “Wait, what do you mean?”


First off, let’s define the term “brand.”

A brand is an image; a floaty cloud of qualities that identify and differentiate a product or company based on the public’s shared perception of its reputation.

Companies try to control their brand-messaging, but ultimately we decide the brand’s worth on the market. This means businesses are constantly tweaking their products and branding to appeal to our changing tastes, to try to stay in our favor and sell more stuff.


>> “But what is self-branding, exactly?”


Self-branding is treating yourself as if you are “the product” to be marketed, copying the branding techniques of major corporations, in an effort to increase your capital (both financially, by being paid better for your work or landing better jobs—and socially, by improving your reputation and status).

This is actual career advice that is actually trending—but most of us are already doing this without being told to.

Being a “living brand” means we automatically tweak, edit, and censor ourselves in order to be better received by our “audience,” both online and IRL.

“They say it’s like ‘the me’ generation. It’s not. The arrogance is taught, or it was cultivated. It’s...self-conscious. That’s what it is: It’s conscious of self. Social media...it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘Here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason.’ It’s prison; it’s horrific. It is performer and audience melded together. What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member?”   

(Comedian, singer-songwriter, and director Bo Burnham gets it.)

Social media is the most obvious example of self-branding, but we’re doing this in real life, too.


>> “I think I need some examples, here…”


Raise your hand if you’ve ever done anything along these lines:

  • Tried to take a selfie; ended up taking a dozen slightly different photos (because none of them were good enough); finally chose one, used an editing app to tweak the brightness, clarity, and saturation of the thing. By the time you shared the selfie online, you kind of hated it.

  • Branded yourself a “no strings attached” kind of person, so when you accidentally fall in love, your once-casual-hookup doesn’t know how to take you seriously (or handle this news).

  • Used $500 on-the-SAT-test kind of words to brighten up your resume, because your real-life doesn’t seem “good enough.” For ex: Instead of listing that you were a “cashier,” you felt pressure to fluff it into something fancy, like a “cash reconciliation specialist.”

  • Filtered yourself on a dating app, leaving out the details about what you really want in a partner in favor of being a little “mysterious.” Also literally filtered your profile photo.

  • Branded yourself an “anything for the job” person, except now you’re burnt out and anxious over your work. If you slow down your breakneck pace, you’re afraid you could lose your boss’ and coworkers’ respect—or worse, your job.

  • Considered dropping everything and pivoting careers—but thought better of it, because who would trust someone who changes their mind so suddenly? And how will you explain the weird gap on your resume? And how will you build credibility? NM, you’ll just make the most of where you’re at now.

Yeah, I thought so. Zero judgments; we’re all doing some version of this. Myself included.

The Problem

Our brains can’t tell the difference between our value as human beings and our “worth” on the market.

There’s nothing wrong with curating the information we share online—and wanting to identify or differentiate ourselves from our peers is not a problem.

But commodifying ourselves is.

A “brand” is an image that identifies and differentiates something for sale.

Sure, our labor is for sale (that’s how we get paychecks)—but we’re censoring who we are in order to cater to an “audience,” and it’s f***ing us up.

Allow me to explain…

Brand is Applauded = Bad News

If we present a censored version of ourselves to the world and it’s well received—if our “brand” is rewarded with attention or money—there are two major side-effects:

  1. We internalize a belief that people only want the censored version of us, so we think we need to “keep up appearances” in order to remain relevant or accepted. This is exhausting.

  2. Because we know the people who just celebrated our “brand” were applauding a fake version of who we are, a subconscious distrust creeps in to our minds. This puts a mental distance between us and our family, friends, communities, and clients, which sabotages the quality of work we create and the intimacy of relationships we have.

Brand is Rejected = Bad News

If our “brand” is poorly received, we shame ourselves, which can trigger all kinds of mental stressors, including anxiety or depression. We then attempt to tweak our “brand” to be better accepted, distancing ourselves from who we really are—and from being happy + comfortable in our own skin.

HOW THE HELL THIS HAPPENED, ACCORDING TO SCIENCE

This one’s a doozy, but if you can get through the next few paragraphs—you’ll never be able to unsee what self-branding is doing to your brain.

Here’s why self-branding is so ubiquitous: The abstraction of work means our value is all mixed up with our worth.


>> “Back up. What’s ‘abstraction?’”


Let’s start by talking about money.

Like, why is it okay for me to make a trashcan fire out of my book reports, but not okay for me to use cash as kindling? What makes this kind of paper so important? I mean, has anyone ever thrown squares of toilet paper on the stage of a strip club?

The only thing separating a twenty dollar bill from a Kleenex is its abstract meaning.

Money is an abstraction of work.

Money represents useful work, effort, or productivity that I can trade for things I want—but it doesn’t necessarily have to be my effort. I could inherit, win, or steal money, and it still holds its power-paper meaning. And because it means “effort you can trade for stuff” (whether it’s your effort or not), we can assign all kinds of “worth” things that wouldn’t normally have that “worth.” In other words,


Abstraction is when what something represents, or what it “means”  is equal to—maybe even more important than—what it actually is.


Need a clearer example? You got it.

In our society, the fact that I went to college is more important than what I actually did at college.

I could have spent four years of my life screwing around, partying, barely showing up to class—but none of that matters, because my prize is my degree, and that’s what society values. What this piece of paper (the degree) represents—my class status, assumed work ethic, assumed intelligence—is more important than whatever I did to get it. Think about it: On the job market, will I be held accountable to my behavior while earning that degree? Nope. I’ll be held accountable to proving that I possess the piece of paper, the degree.


Abstraction means I care more about the results than the process, because I’ve been taught only the results matter.

It means appearances are prioritized over action, and reputation is more important than character.


Let’s Do Some Abstraction Algebra

If “work” represents effort (i.e. something of value to society), and “money” is exchangeable for, or equal to, work, then...we have some algebra to do.

If: Work = Effort (aka productive value contributed to society)

And: Money = Work

Then: Money I Produce = My Value to Society.

You know how you can look at an orange on the kitchen counter and immediately label it in your mind? “That’s an orange.” Language lets your brain assign meaning to objects using sounds, and it happens instantly. That’s how fast abstraction happens in your mind: instantaneously. This = that.

Instant Abstractions

College degree = Elevated Class Status, Work Ethic, High Income

Number of Social Media “Likes” = Well-Liked, Admired Person

Online Slacktivism = Real-Life Activism

Designer Label = High income

Social Media Followers = Proof of Popularity, Status

Work = Money

More Work = More Money

Meaningful Work = Admirable Money

Hireable, Payable  = Valuable, Admirable

Arbitrary “Worth” of Work + Reputation on the Market  = Value as a Human Being

EXCEPT NONE OF THESE THINGS ARE TRUE. They’re abstractions. Runaway symbolism. Oversimplification by the human brain.

Because abstraction runs deep, being a living brand seems like a good idea.


Self-branding means we struggle to project a likeable, hireable, dateable, friendable, payable, respectable, acceptable image of ourselves into the world—because we believe that How People Perceive Us = Our Value to Society.

It’s not.


The Wrong Answer Key

Let’s time travel back to high school.

You just took a history test, and submitted your multiple-choice Scantron (digitally graded) sheet to the teacher. Except instead of using the history test answer key, your teacher uses a Geometry answer key to grade your exam.

These grading rubrics are multiple choice, so it’s possible that some of your history test answers will be the same as the geometry test. But it would be a fluke. Most of your answers will be marked as incorrect—and because the digital grading system is typically reliable, you find it hard to challenge your bad grade. Because your teacher graded your multiple choice history exam with the wrong answer key, it looks like you’ve failed. Miserably.

Except you haven’t.

Measuring your value as a human by how much money you produce, how productive you are, how “visible” you are, or how popular you are—are not accurate tools for measuring your value. They measure something else, entirely.

Being a brand is grading yourself by the wrong answer key: Even if some of your answers are marked “correct” (i.e. if some of your choices are rewarded, socially or financially), it's a confusing fluke. Ultimately, most of your choices will be marked “incorrect” and being a living brand will leave you feeling like a failure.

SCIENCE, TRANSLATED FOR HUMANS:

You have innate value, usefulness, and beauty—and it has nothing to do with how much you “produce” for society or how much “visibility” you have as a persona, online or off.

Grade yourself by the human rubric, not the commodity one—because you’re a person, not a brand.

We’re so busy trying to package ourselves up nicely for the rest of the world that we don’t realize something important: Uncensoring who we actually are could reveal what we actually want out of being alive.

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TRY THIS

Wanna like being alive? Give yourself permission to do something “off-brand” this week—both online, and off.

Wondering how? Start by making this subconscious self-branding habit conscious. How have you been branding yourself, creating accidental toxicity in your life? Who do you have to be? Who are you not allowed to be?

This can be hard to uncover, let alone change—so I’ve created a free resource for you, below.👇 (Why? Because I lerrrv ewe.)

Need some help to un-brand yourself?

Download // The “Am I Self-Branding?” Audit. Shocking news! *sarcasm* Nobody is talking about the dangers of self-branding yet, so the resources out there were slim. I wasn’t just going to leave you hanging, so I created something ridiculously helpful for you—for free-dollars and nothing-cents.  

"Am I Self-Branding?" — an audit for modern humans.

Download your free, three-page digital + printable PDF now—because we could all use some help untangling our brains.

    I don't believe in spam (unless we're talking about musubi)—and you're free to unsubscribe at any time!

    Download these worksheets to figure out if you’ve been grading your life by the wrong answer key—and most importantly, how to reverse the damage in practical ways.

    Follow // Kristen Kalp’s podcast, That’s What She Said. Especially THIS episode on work, worth, value, and your voice. Kristen is a business coach, writer and breathwork teacher whose work prioritizes authenticity and learning how to use your intuition while running an epic business. I am forever inspired by Kristen! Find her on IG: @kkalp

    Follow // @jameelajamilofficial. Jameela Jamil is best known as an actor (The Good Place) and a former VJ in the UK; but she’s notably the founder of the online community @i_weigh, a movement to combat body shaming, encouraging us to share what we “weigh” (read: value) in our lives, rather than prioritizing fat-phobic and eurocentric standards of beauty.

    Her Instagram feed is a great example of someone who has an audience (very literally) but refuses “be a brand,” or to censor who she is to appeal to more people. She shares both glamorous and vulnerable details of her life—and has a good sense of humor about her life as a “public figure.”  

    Join // The #HowToLikeBeingAlive Fam. Once a week, you’ll get (1) easy piece of advice, in your inbox—backed up by scientific research, of course. The best part? I do monthly email-list-only giveaways (yes, GIVEAWAYS) and exclusive free resources. So nbd, but hurry up and join the party!

    Follow // @alexisrockley. (a.k.a. Yours truly) for Instagram-only giveaways (!!!), #HowToLikeBeingAlive vidoes, IG stories about your happiness, my house plants, etc—and all kinds of other excellent, relatable content (translation: memes). Let’s be friends.

    Resources (aka the science)

    Burnham, Bo. (Writer + Director) and Storer, C. Netflix [comedy special], In Bo Burnham: Make Happy. Port Chester, NY: Netflix, 2016.

    BusinessDictionary.com. “Brand.” (n.d.) Retrieved Mar 29 2018.

    Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. Greenwich: Fawcett Publications, 1955.

    McLaughlin, Jerry. “What is a Brand, Anyway?” Forbes, 2011.

    Smith, Kit. “Marketing: The Importance of Brand Perception.” Brandwatch, 2015 Nov 25.