I’m not a fan of ‘personal branding.’ To me brands are always works of fiction. Sure, Nike or McDonalds make actual things in the world and have a history, but the brands are real only in the same sense that Batman or Sherlock Holmes are real.
At its extreme, personal branding feels like vanity to the point of deceit. A few heavily photoshopped profile pictures, an exaggerated and overly flattering ‘about me’ text, all contributing to a carefully curated version of ourselves aimed at impressing an online audience.
And yet, so many smart creatives I speak to still talk about personal branding, that it makes me wonder what the phrase might mean in its best sense and how, if at all, it can be redeemed.
Personal Work – In An Artistic Sense
In most creative fields, personal work refers to those passion projects we do that don’t have a direct client or any immediate commercial value. So, for instance, a photographer might have a good business selling portraits, but their personal work might be something different, like working in an old medium (say, film or plate) or photographing other kinds of subjects, like landscapes or architecture.
We learn in school that the way to present ourselves to the world is through our CV, or a Resume–style listing of our achievements and work experience, in the hope that people will hire us to do more of the same. But, what if we don’t want to be defined just by what we have been paid to do in the past?
Personal work can often be powerful because it taps deeply into our motivations as the most authentic expression of our creativity. In this sense, personal branding makes some sense as an attempt to preset this aspect of our work to the world, trying to lead not just with what we’ve done, but with what we believe is the most unique and special contribution we can offer.
Personal Work – In A Psychological Sense
Another sense in which personal work is used describes a commitment to self–improvement. This might mean learning to better manage one’s emotions, commitments, or relationships, or trying to overcome something like addiction or grief. None of this, if done properly, is easy.
While writing my book, I had plenty of moments that made me reflect on my life, especially my early creative experiences. This was often a deeply emotional experience. It’s common for a major creative project that taps into our biography, our life–story, to have the potential to move us and to be able to change the way we understand our own work and true mission.
This kind of personal work really should change how we present ourselves to the world; in fact, it can help us to be more honest and authentic in doing so.
Personal Branding Should Point To Actual Work
What both these notions of personal work have in common is that they point to actual work. The personal branding they make possible is simply an exercise in trying to explain and articulate how that work looks to people we might meet, or who might encounter our work online. But, the substance is not the branding, it’s the work itself.
To be honest, I’m not sure quite how well we can reclaim a phrase like personal branding; it feels so hopelessly tarnished.
Maybe a better goal is to look instead at the things we’ve made, the work we’ve done that explains who we understand ourselves to be, and where we hope to go, and just point to that instead.