Beyond Personal Brand: Why You Need To Pursue Originality

iStock_000067954529_XXXLargeThese days, it’s almost a sacrilege not to have a personal brand. After all, if you want to be successful, you need to stand out! Yet, if you think about it, making sure you have a personal brand could be just one more conformist thing you do in pursuit of success.

The Content of Your Character

Still, as a personal brand strategist, I can tell you that the process of personal branding can bring amazing personal clarity and confidence. Not only is that an asset in your career, but also in your life generally. So, from my vantage point, there is a huge benefit in doing the deep work of uncovering the story, attributes, strengths, beliefs, and external perceptions that make you who you are.

Yet, I continue to believe personal branding – at least as most people approach it—needs to be re-imagined. It’s a conclusion, I came to after being inspired by Harvard Business School professor, Youngme Moon, in her remarkable book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. And based on her analysis, I’ve offered several ideas for developing a truly differentiated personal brand grounded in who you are and what you bring to the people you serve. As I see it, while professional competence matters, the essence of your personal brand is found primarily in the content of your character.

Being Different. Doing Different.

Essentially, though, establishing a personal brand is an activity in being. Clearly conveying who you are helps you build relationships inside of the community you serve. The more your qualities resonate with your audiences, the more likely they’ll want to work with you. Fundamentally, however, your core service may actually be the same as what’s provided by other people in your industry. For example, even as an accountant who’s closely aligned with small business owners who, like you, see themselves as corporate refugees seeking more freedom and fun in their work life, you are still delivering accounting services.

In many respects, personal branding, for many people, has meant delivering commodity services inside of a uniquely personalized package. Actually, it’s a model that has proven stable and sustainable over time. Provided your client base remains fairly stable, and happy with how you work with them, they’ll likely remain loyal well into the future. Unfortunately, things change. People change. Tools change. So, to stick with the accountant example, clients may buy and learn the latest Quick Books and Turbo Tax versions, and soon have less need for what you once provided.

Let’s face it. Whatever your personal attributes, your reputation is grounded in the outputs you produce. In a stable world, your biggest risk is the other people who package the same outputs in an attractive set of personal attributes.

But we don’t live in a stable world.

Pursuing Originality

Saying we live in an age of disruption seems almost cliché. Sure we all know that there are people out there who aim to become successful by uberizing their industry. Yet, for most of us, that’s not a realistic aim. More likely, to the extent we crave change at all, it’s probably about reinventing our careers. And the degree to which we seek out personal transformation is usually related to the extent of dissatisfaction we feel.

Yet, I’d argue that even those of us who are reasonably satisfied in our careers and lives are at risk of being blindsided by change if we don’t actively embrace it. But how do we actively pursue constructive and meaningful change?

In his remarkable new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines what drives originality and what it takes to develop, voice, and champion new ideas. It’s an amazing and well-researched book rich in storytelling and surprising insights. While Grant provides a complete and detailed treatment of what it takes to produce creative and original ideas, here are six ways to get started on making changes in your work and life:

Question the default. Don’t take the status quo for granted. Consider why it exists in the first place, and how it can be changed or improved.

Young beautiful business lady is thinking about new business ideas. Business icons and a rocket are drawn on the concrete wall.

Generate more ideas. Studies have found that masters, such as great composers and artists, produce a great volume of work, with their best work being only a small part of what they create. You boost your originality when you increase your output.

Immerse yourself in a new domain. Expand your frame of reference by diversifying your experience with creative activities such as photography, learning about new cultures, or even by starting a new job or project.

Procrastinate strategically. Take breaks from creating or brainstorming so that your ideas have time to incubate.

Seek feedback from peers. Because you may be too emotionally invested in your idea, it’s hard to see its viability. Your peers, however, often have the objectivity to give you valuable assessments.

Balance your risks. When you’re going to take a risk in one part of you life, offset it by being extra cautious in other areas of living.

Ultimately, you may choose to continue conforming to the standards that brought you success in the first place. Or you could engage in a kind of “creative destruction” that can shift work and life advantages in your favor. In deciding, consider the words of George Bernard Shaw:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

What do you think?

Forget Goals: Create A Story You Can Live Into

“A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” ~ Lao Tzu

DSC01756Not sure about you, but I’m not a big fan of goals. There. I said it. And I’ve said it before.

Truth is, I’m more of a “journey not the destination” kind of person. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to get to Rome, but I know that many roads will get me there. Besides, I think it’s kind of boring to lock into a pre-determined route proceed full speed ahead. That could mean missing so much of what the journey has to offer!

If you’ve ever seen a road trip movie – and who hasn’t? – you know the real adventure is in the unanticipated problems that arise along the way. I think it’s the same with life. It’s an adventure with new challenges; and if you pay attention, new opportunities!

Realize Goals Are Limiting

Over the course of my life, I’ve set plenty of goals, and then proceeded to not enjoy reaching them. Why? Like Leo Babauta, as he described in his wonderful blog post, I found the process of setting, implementing, and tracking goals to be frustrating. And frankly, I’m not keen on living a project-managed life.

Even before seeing Leo’s post, I had already adopted the view that goals keep us so future focused that they diminish our ability to live in the current moment. Put another way, I began to discern that striving for a future that is better and happier than today, is a kind of trap. In fact, according to Peter Bregman, there is good evidence of harm caused when goals lead to unintended consequences. Better, he says, is to translate goal areas of focus; that is, focus on activities you want to spend your time on.

Makes sense to me.

Yet, even better is to take the more open-ended approach proposed by Stephen Shapiro in his book Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW! In it, he provides eight secrets for living goal free, including using a compass versus a map, trusting you’re never lost, remaining open to opportunities, and seeking out adventure.

Totally works for me.

Make Your Plans Expansive

Given how I feel about goals, I found myself amazed that I enjoyed getting and reading an early copy of Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy. Essentially, the authors lay out a framework for a designed life leading to specific ends, and a known path for getting there. So, here, in what can only seem like a direct challenge to my way of thinking, is a book promoting a planned life!

Yet, having worked with mid-career professionals and executives on the non-financial elements of preparing for retirement, I was curious to see what these authors had to say.

Happily, I think the approach they outline is very solid, and a great start for people who want to be more intentional about living happier and more fulfilling lives – starting now! In particular, I like how they established the foundation for a meaningful life in terms of what matters most and personal legacy. I also loved the way they framed the nine basic “life accounts” in terms of being, relating, and doing. As well, I loved their four-quadrant life assessment profile based on passion and progress.

Perhaps the one thing that I had mixed feelings about was the authors’ use of a GPS metaphor. Unlike a compass, which tells you the general directions and leaves the choice of path flexible, a GPS seems too locked in to a predetermined path or some recalculated variation thereof. The risk is a GPS can be “set and forget,” thereby limiting opportunities to go off the beaten path.

Envision A Story To Live Into

One of the things that I especially loved about Living Forward, is that rather than recommending goals for each of one’s life accounts, they recommended taking an “envisioned future” approach to creating a life plan. To do this, they recommend using your imagination and fives senses to see yourself living as if what you want to achieve is already a reality.

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How? Well, here’s the magic: Use the present tense to describe what you envision; that is, say “I am” as opposed to “I want.”

For example, instead of saying “I want to be lean and strong, with vibrant health and energy,” say: “I am lean and strong, with vibrant health and energy.”

This is no small thing.

Why? Because in creating a detailed picture of a positive end-state, we give your brains a story to live into. I know it seems kind of woo woo, but research on anticipatory joy tends to support this.

As I see it, creating a story I can live into establishes a quest. And that’s much more appealing than project management.

What do you think?

12 Thoughts On How To Stand Out

HiResRecently, I was approached by a colleague on LinkedIn who asked if I had any specific “do and don’t” personal branding advice for the UK College grads he works with. My first impulse was to refer him to several of the past posts I’ve written, and invite him to share those.

Yet, it occurred to me he was providing a fresh opportunity to revisit my thinking, and share my perspectives. After all, my views and work as a “personal brand” strategist tend to be different than those of the many other people who advise on personal branding. And the key difference is this: While I value the discovery process  I use, I think it’s an error to conceive of oneself as a brand or to go down the road of creating a personal brand.

Why?

Fundamentally, a brand is a reputation, and as such is made up of the shared opinions and beliefs about you. While you can influence your reputation, you cannot create it. Rather, you earn it by virtue of what you become known for. For example, Apple founders did not set out to brand the company as innovative; they simply innovated with a commitment to great design and user friendliness.

Lesson: Determine what you’re committed to, and then pursue it. Your reputation, or brand, will emerge over time.

Start with figuring out who you are, including your own unique set of attributes, beliefs, talents, story, and purpose. Then determine how to show up for the people you aim to serve. Put another way, to stand out in a way that matters, you need to develop your credibility and visibility.

Here, then, are two sets of ideas for establishing credibility and for achieving visibility. In each set, there is some overlap, and the ideas are presented in no particular order. In fact, the process is not so much linear as it is recursive. Still, it generally makes sense to start with becoming credible, and then move on to becoming visible.

Credibility: Being Who You Are

Be Clear About What You Stand For. Your actions and words are what define you in the eyes of others. How you behave is influenced by your own deeply held values and beliefs. Unfortunately, we aren’t always directly in touch with what those are. Without critical self-examination, you risk getting caught up in the beliefs and behaviors of others. Yet, true power over your destiny is rooted in personal clarity. Let’s face it, the ancient Greeks admonished “Know Thyself” for a reason.

Question Everything You Know. Whether you’re a recent college grad or not, you’re likely to have a head full of knowledge that will include what other people think you should know and believe. The problem is, some of those ideas could be wrong. Wrong in the most general sense of verifiable accuracy, or wrong as guidelines for living your life. So, challenge what you think you know, and keep only the ideas that resonate for you. After all, the hallmark of a great education is defined not by how much you know but by the questions you ask.

Calibrate Your Moral Compass. Living in a society generally requires knowing what’s right and wrong, and acting accordingly. Unfortunately, today, we seem to live with considerable moral flexibility. So, right and wrong seem to be moving targets. But by defining your personal code of conduct, they don’t have to be. A good start is to think in terms of personal morality (what’s right and wrong for you) and interpersonal morality (what’s right and wrong between people), and then set your compass accordingly. Just make sure that the values that populate your compass have clear definitions that guide your behavior.

Determine Your Current Reputation. As already noted, your reputation is made up of the shared opinions and beliefs about you. It is held in the hearts and minds of others, and very likely has both positive and negative elements. You probably already have some idea of how you’re seen, but it’s worth getting some fresh feedback. Simply paying closer attention helps, but you can get deeper and richer feedback by asking for it, either directly or by using a formal 360 instrument.

Identify Your Talents. HiResLike most people, you’re really good at some things, but not so good at others. Generally, what you do well is what allows you to produce results that will be valued by others. Typically, the more value you produce, the more successful you become, both at work and in other parts of your life. So, take some time to identify your talents and how you can put them in service of others. To this end, it helps to analyze your accomplishments in terms of the challenge you faced, the actions you took, the results you achieved, and how that made you feel. You may also want to take a StrengthsFinder assessment to identify innate themes for you.

Uncover Your Story. Frankly, there is nothing that sets you apart from others as much as your story. Even if you have beliefs, interests, and abilities in common with others, chances are you arrived at them by a different path. It’s worth tracing that path. You life is continuous ebb and flow that includes failures and turning points as well as triumphs and achievements. What’s more, by uncovering your story, you can identify the themes that give you a sense of purpose and direction. Knowing and being ready to share your story will help you truly stand out.

Visibility: Showing Up

Figure Out For Whom You Need To Show Up. Generally, the main people you need to show up for are the people who benefit from the value you provide. Most often this will be employers and clients, but can also include other organizations or groups who seek our service. Yet, beyond these is an array of people who matter to your success, including other members of your profession and various project partners. Taken together they may be referred to as your community of practice, brand community, or simply community. So, make sure to identify who they are.

Cultivate Relationships Within Your Community. Spending time with people, at work and in other settings, implies you have a relationship. Yet, your goal needs to be developing the kind of depth that makes those relationships professionally, and even personally, meaningful. While you won’t necessarily have deep relationships with everyone in your community, it is the foundation of your professional network. So, take time to connect both broadly and deeply, both in personal and via social media.

Get To Know the Interests and Concerns of Others. Ultimately, your goal in showing up is to become a relevant resource to your community. Yet, to achieve that, you need to know and what their interests and needs are, so you’ll be able to address those. The best way gain that perspective is to listen. Listen during real time conversations, and listen on social media. As well, newsletters and other professional publications can deepen your understanding.

Establish Your Professional Presence. HiResAs you gain a firm grasp on who you are, whom you serve, and what makes you relevant, you need to build your presence both online and in person. This means creating a personal communication set that includes your bio/profile, photos, video, and other media that help your community get to know you online, and especially on a professional platform like LinkedIn. It also means pursuing activities, such as volunteering, speaking, or meetups, where you can bring your professional presence to life by engaging others “live” and in person.

Share Valuable Content. Increasingly, standing out requires sharing your perspectives on matters of interest to your community. While blogging has been, and continues to be, a primary vehicle of many people, it’s not the only approach. Today, commenting on and sharing relevant content, has increasingly become a preferred strategy for gaining visibility. While there are many sources of great content, you can also benefit by finding and sharing the content created by leaders in your community of practice. Not only does this enhance your value, but can also help you develop relationships with those thought leaders.

Don’t Hesitate to Shake Up the Status Quo. Within your community, you’ll usually have one or more group memberships. Part of what establishes your belonging is a set of shared values, views, and beliefs. Mostly, this is fine; however, too much deference to a group eventually blocks your ability to differentiate yourself in terms of your views and approaches. To stand out, you need to express your contrarian positions when they arise. Sure, you expose yourself to challenge and maybe some ridicule. Yet, to the extent that the positions you take provide value to others, you can earn the kind of resect that enhances your reputation.

Why Seeing For Yourself Is Key To Your Success

iStock_000059073016LargeHave you ever asked yourself why there are so many food shots on Instagram? How about selfies? Why do people use LinkedIn? Or Facebook? And why are some people proud they don’t use social media at all?

But questions aren’t limited to social media.

Why do so many introverts believe they’re restricted in their social contact? What makes some people build and promote a personal brand? How come others think self-promotion is narcissistic? What drives people to identify with particular political parties? What keeps others independent?

We could go on. Or we could just say different strokes for different folks.

Yet, I think there’s something more fundamental that we need to consider if we truly want to have meaningful and fulfilling lives. Lives in which we’re able to entertain challenging ideas, see with our own eyes, and act in ways that allow us to make a difference. In other words, we need to pay attention if we want to avoid drifting through life only to end up with regrets. [Tweet this]

Culture: Powerful and Pervasive

While it’s not something we generally notice, the cultural contexts we operate in shape our beliefs, choices, relationships, and the overall quality of our careers and lives. As well, culture drives the direction of technology, economics, organizations, entertainment, politics, and other influences in our lives. We’re immersed it, but don’t generally recognize it.

In short, we can be as blind to culture as fish are to water. [Tweet this]

Yet, cultural blindness can be dangerous. It’s especially risky if it traps us in a self-absorbed belief system that leaves little room for critical thinking about the world around us. Put differently, that blindness can contribute to a sense of rightness that leads to a delusional arrogance. A point made by David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:

“Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”

He goes on to say:

“Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”

I would add to this your social circles. Because what you believe is heavily influenced by the beliefs of those you identify with. To some extent, this is a good thing, since shared interests and beliefs provide the social glue of relationships. Yet, at some point, there’s a risk of subscribing, without testing, to the ideas of the people you most like and most emulate. Without critical thinking, you put on a pair of cultural lenses that can keep you from seeing clearly. [Tweet this]

Believe Your Own Lying Eyes

When you do think and act according to your own values and talents, you’re most likely to achieve perspectives or model behaviors that can benefit others. In fact, most of us are comfortable sharing our original thinking and actions, especially if we believe others will accept what we have to offer. And our creativity often enriches our relationships.

Yet, we also tend to develop a sense of social taboos on specific kinds of speech and behaviors. There are many instances where you just know that having a different opinion or taking a different course of action puts you at odds with others. Wanting to be liked, as most of us do, can lead to fear of stepping outside the norm. So, we simply keep our mouth shut or curb our behavior.

Fear becomes even more intense when we face situations, ideas, or issues that may be emotionally charged. For example:

  • Becoming uncomfortable leaving the office on time when others put in extra hours of face time.
  • Saying we favor a particular candidate when we fear stating our reservations.
  • Conforming to standards of political correctness no matter how contrived they seem.
  • Accepting analysis from people who make claims to moral authority or truth, even as we force ourselves to ignore the inconsistencies in their arguments.

We have likely witnessed the discomfort people are subjected to when others act to shut them down. And so, we may decide that, in the long run, it’s better to go along to get along. Besides, who wants to go up against the delusional arrogance of others? [Tweet this]

Left unchecked, we can come to internalize a set of restraints that may have us questioning ourselves when we see through pretense. So, we come to admire the emperor’s new clothes. When we don’t, we develop a free-floating anxiety, and the feeling we’ve been betrayed by our own cheating heart. Worse, we may surrender to the harsh internal censor who asks, “Who are you gonna believe? Me or your own lying eyes?”

Eventually, failure to see and think for yourself can become your default setting. So, stop it! [Tweet this]

Freedom To Make A Difference

Okay, stopping it can be hard to do. Really hard. After all, it’s how the real world operates. Or so you think. As Wallace pointed out:

“…the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.”

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The problem, of course, is you remain trapped. You give up your freedom. You give up the capacity to make a difference. You sacrifice meaning, fulfillment, and true happiness. You eventually sleepwalk through life without being fully charged.

Better, Wallace says, is to pay attention:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

In other words, meaning, fulfillment, and your ultimate happiness and success are grounded in clarity of purpose and service. But you need to see that for yourself.