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What’s so good about personal branding?

November 4, 2009

Nearly all of the trendy career, networking, interviewing, and job seeking websites will talk about the need to establish a personal brand. It is essential for a candidate to put his or her best foot forward.

Some of the ways to improve or establish a personal brand are intuitive, but at some point…I have to ask, what is the point?

When I was preparing to network and interview for internships with my school’s professional program last spring, my professors taught all of us the basic “rules.” These rules aren’t rocket science; I think everyone knows some of the basic rules for what to put vs. what to leave off on the resume. What to discuss vs. what to avoid. And so on. For example, religion is off limits. It’s a liability; it exposes you to possible discrimination or, at the very least, some kind of change in perception. Why expose yourself to that? The simple answer is don’t. In most cases, it is not important to your brand, so don’t bring it up and they won’t ask about it. Something like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell…

The basic concept was no problem for me. I had no problem leaving stuff like that off and not discussing it. Heck, I have little problem leaving stuff out of my daily life, with the people I deal with every day (which will soon include coworkers who once were the interviewers). Because I do realize I have to put my best foot forward.

Yet, I come to realize something. It seems my best foot isn’t even my foot. My best foot is my foot obscured by and covered in a dress sock, covered again with a dress shoe, and covered again with parade gloss that makes that shoe blinding in sheen. Personal branding isn’t about me or you or anyone else…It isn’t about people. It is about a shell of a shell of a shell with a person somewhere inside.

And I wonder…

Another aspect that most career-y people will emphasize is the online brand. The basic pieces of advice are truly simple and intuitive: don’t even put up any evidence of yourself in compromising situations — such as being at some wild bacchanalia, completely drunk. Obviously, illegal situations are worse to put up.

I don’t think I have a problem with those “obvious” things. I don’t have any photos of myself at wild bacchanalias because I don’t go to any wild bacchanalias.

But how far does this policy of expunging or obscuring information go? Is religion — the thing that we already know is toxic for resumes — also off limits from an online brand?

If so, I think I have a problem. Because I know better than to talk about these issues offline (quite simply, I know that most of the people I deal with on a day-to-day basis would not care, would not understand, or would not agree…so no need to rabble-rouse), that is precisely why I blog. I don’t want to “expunge” and “obscure” my culture, my heritage from everyone and everything, so even though I  concede that it has no place with my offline family, friends, associates, co-workers, and so forth, I am loathe to concede that I cannot discuss with like-minded individuals because of the abilitity for the former group to connect this information back to me. And I am loathe to “ambiguate” all the things I talk about here by resorting to a code name.

Automotive company family tree

Who owns who?

Think about a conventional brand. Sometimes, companies want to maintain brand image so much that, even though they want to expand to another market segment, they know it would weaken the brand. So, they actually spin-off or split-off with the hopes that the ‘new’ brand will not taint the old. I mean, look at the automotive family tree!

In the end, I feel that life highlights the utter disconnect. Because in fact, it actually is not true that religion is always off-limits. For example, in an area where, say, Baptists…or say, Catholics, are well-respected…then these are less likely to be liabilities. And this is obvious, right? Any of us can recall people talking about church with each other.

The issue is that this isn’t universal. Things change based on the religion in question and the perception of that religion. For example, it’s publicly riskier to be a Mormon. And it’s even more risky to be ex-Mormon. Because while the Mormons have each other (which, in areas with large concentrations of Mormons, turns out to be a strength after all), the ex-Mormon must add many of the Mormons in the category of people who either don’t care, don’t understand, or don’t agree.

In fact, this is what it means to be a minority. As such, I’ve just focused on religion, but this post could’ve been written in many other different aspects: race, sexuality, politics, and so on. (So, actually, I think it is surprising when we forget our own struggles as minorities when relating to other minorities.)

…In fact, that I talk from one vantage point (religion) and avoid other vantage points (for example, race) highlights my point. I know that my audience is more likely to care, to understand me, and to be sympathetic to me if I write from a religious framework, but I can’t guarantee the same for the other vantage points. So instead of talking about myself — a whole person composed of an aggregate of all of these smaller points and perspectives — my “brand” is always rather lopsided and isolated.


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  1. Career branding is a big reason that I ended up getting a career where I only “network” with others via my computer. Its also one reason I have steered clear of the business field. Its far too stressful for me to “pretend” to be someone I am not in order to “get the job”. That said, I have tended to do pretty well in job interviews, I think because I am so “refreshingly” transparent with myself. It would NOT work well in business-related careers, where image is God, but in my industry (engineering and science writing), it has been fine.

    In terms of where you live determining whether or not you brand yourself a certain way, I think that there is a lot of truth in that statement, Andrew. Its the old “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” adage. Protestant children at a Catholic school don’t rock the boat by asking lots of questions about why Catholics pray to Mary or the Saints. If you want to fit in and get along, you don’t highlight your differences. Where you currently live, I suspect you see a lot of Baptists and a lot fewer atheists. If you ever move from the Bible Belt, I suspect you would be much more comfortable someplace more secular, like the East.

  2. Haha, since I’m entering the business field, I am definitely right in the cross roads of everything you say…but I pretty much know there’s no chance of me going to engineering/science…on the other hand, I could see myself going into social science or something like that (where I could EASILY merge my interests…social science research about religion? I wouldn’t have to hide much.)

    I agree with your second paragraph; that’s the point I was trying to get at in the second part. But I’d point out that the issue is even more complex…not only do I not see so many atheists in my area, the atheists I would meet are not ex-Mormon atheists. So, even with some other atheists, things are still weird, because the other atheists would say, “Why continue to talk about Mormonism? It doesn’t even matter any more.” They wouldn’t understand — unless they too had once been Mormon — that things are more complex.

    Of course, I don’t want to go to some place like Utah just to meet a group of ex-Mo atheists…because then I would have to deal with the Mormon majority.

  3. Perhaps that explains something that has baffled me recently – that is, why an “Ex-Mormon Conference”. I have frequently wondered why Ex-Mormon organizations exist, and what individuals get out of meeting based on their non-belief in a particular faith tradition. But what you say here could well explain what individuals get from it – a sense of self-identity, of seeing that there are others in your shoes.

  4. I think that is right. It’s because an ex-Mormons non-belief in the LDS faith tradition is entirely different than a never-Mormon’s non-belief in the LDS faith tradition. One has stories…baggage…history…the other has never even scratched the surface.

    The interesting thing is though that sometimes, Ex-Mormon organizations and conferences don’t work out as well as hoped. I knew another blogger who talked about how some ex-Mormons — who converted to other denominations in Christianity — lambasted him for his atheism. So, while I would like to think ex-Mormon atheism fits like a glove, I have to realize that even from being an ex-Mormon, I may have very different theological views than ex-Mormons who are still theists.

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