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Dive 52: You’re a Human, not a brand.
Hey, it’s Alvin!
Next week will be the one-year anniversary of this newsletter, Below the Surface. I hope you’ll join me for a super special edition. I’m super stoked to share it with you.
If you’re like me and you’re trying to start a business or grow a presence online, one of the most common pieces of advice you’ll get is to create a personal brand. What few people talk about, though, is that a personal brand can also be detrimental to your mental health if done wrong.
For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, a personal brand is a lot like a corporate brand. A corporate brand is the way a company presents its identity and image to its customers. But it’s said that customers don’t like corporate brands because they represent soulless corporations.
So, some marketers say you should create a personal brand to attract a loyal following on the internet. All that means is that your name becomes the brand’s name. And you (as a person) become the brand. It also means everything you say and do represents your brand. This is what one Twitter user (who I will call “Pam”) is trying to convey:
A personal brand can make you miserable.
I agree that everything you say and do says something about you. But being intentional in aligning every single word you say and every action you take with your personal brand is impractical, stressful, and outright backwards.
For one, being intentional means questioning your actions. It’s fine to question your ideas occasionally. Doing so can open your mind to new perspectives. But questioning yourself too much increases imposter syndrome and destroys confidence. It’s the very definition of self-doubt.
Also, if you need to portray yourself in a certain way for your personal brand, some ways are better for you than others.
Pam suggests you manage your words and actions. But what you say and do is often just an expression of how you feel in the moment. Just changing your superficial expression rarely changes how you feel deep down inside. It’s just a cover-up. That’s why some people get upset when they’re told to “smile more.”
Our emotions aren’t just signals to others; they’re signals to ourselves. We don’t get “cranky” for no reason. Our emotions tell us when something is wrong and needs to be addressed.
By presenting yourself in a way that’s inconsistent with how you really feel, you risk suppressing and ignoring those emotional signals. Then, the underlying issue that caused the emotion stays unaddressed. Building up unaddressed problems over time is how you develop depression.
The point is: just being intentional with words and actions doesn’t change how you feel on the inside. It’s like trying to kill a weed by cutting off the flower. It might feel easier, but the weed will grow back. You’ll be cutting the same weed forever.
If someone is a regular “cranky complainer,” it would be mentally healthier for them to address the source of the crankiness. Then maybe they’ll never have to be intentional with their words and actions because they won’t be cranky anymore. Dig deep to pull out the whole weed, roots and all, then it will never grow back.
If your attitude is negatively affecting your personal brand, you have two options:
Present a fake positive attitude to cover it up, or
Remove the source of the negative attitude.
The latter is healthy and sustainable. The former is not. Take your pick.
A personal brand can make you fake.
The whole point of a personal brand is to make your company seem more personal. How? With a brand that blends your personal identity with your corporate identity.
A brand must be memorable, which means it must be simple and focused.
A human being is… not. We have a variety of interests, emotions, and values that may conflict with one another. Human beings are complex and diverse.
Trying to blend the two creates problems for you as a human being.
For example, suppose you have a personal brand that’s all about positivity, like Pam suggested. You’re online all the time to market your brand. Well, you’re going to have bad days. What Pam is suggesting is that if you have a bad day, and you feel cranky, angry, and frustrated, too bad! You’ll just have to keep those emotions bottled up inside because they’re “off brand.” What else can you do?
Some might suggest venting offline. That might work in private. But as long as you’re in public, you can’t do that because EVERY action you make in public could affect your personal brand. And who knows? An offline public outburst might end up being filmed by someone with a smartphone and circulated online.
Imagine an influencer having to fake positivity all day for their personal brand while raging inside until they can go offline to vent in private. I’d hate to be in that household.
Besides, I thought keeping your feelings bottled up inside is supposed to be toxic? Are we to believe now that keeping your emotions tucked away is good for your well-being as long as you’re “on brand”?
A personal brand can make you lie.
Brands are extrinsic.
The popular advice is to build a personal brand by thinking about how others might perceive you. That makes sense on the surface.
But as I mentioned in Dive 37, you have far less control over others’ opinions of you than you might think. Let’s set that aside for a moment and pretend you have lots of control over how others see you.
To be “on brand,” you might have to say something you don’t believe in, just because it’s good for the brand.
You might have to lie.
I’m not kidding. There’s a reply to the original tweet that encourages virtue signalling, and Pam affirms the reply:
The problem is that there are too many people who signal their virtues on the internet who are only doing it for likes. They’re people-pleasers. They say what they need to say to get as many likes as they can, even though they don’t believe in what they say.
And Pam encourages lying by saying, “when you signal consistently then it lands as more genuine…”. Here, Pam is encouraging people to signal consistently to APPEAR more genuine. Except, a genuine person doesn’t need to signal they’re genuine. They just are. You only need to work to appear genuine if you’re fake. So, the irony is that these people are signalling they are fake—probably not what they want.
So much for being intentional with words.
It’s doubly ironic because the whole point of personal branding is to BE more genuine. You shouldn’t have to fake it. Because if you’re going to fake it anyway, you may as well go with corporate branding. At least then, it’s the reputation of the corporate brand that goes up in flames from all the lies, separate from your personal identity.
What this shows is that personal branding doesn’t work in the long run if you try to craft it as something separate from who you are.
What’s the alternative?
As I continue my journey with my newsletter and other projects, I may very well need a personal brand to help others find my stories. But unlike Pam, who took an extrinsic approach, my approach is intrinsic. I call it:
A Values-based Personal Brand (VPB).
Building a VPB starts from the INSIDE. It’s based on what you value and believe in most. For example, I value slowing down and reflecting deeply about everyday events and interactions. That’s how I started this newsletter.
From there, it’s about being the best version of you without betraying your core values. The focus is on LIVING the best life rather than presenting the best life.
And how do you align your actions with your values? You don’t have to.
If you take this values-based approach, you won’t have to think whether your actions align with your brand at all. They just will. Because our actions are automatically driven by our core values and beliefs. A person who values kindness doesn’t need to ask themselves whether they should hold the door open for someone. They just do it.
So, a person should NEVER have to be intentional about their words and actions. Because that’s backwards. And if they do, it means their personal values conflict with their personal brand. It means their personal brand is a lie.
Besides, analyzing and tweaking everything you say and do to be consistent with your brand is a ton more work, inefficient, and a perpetual losing battle. It doesn’t work. Pam’s reply is a perfect example of this. Pam’s words reveal she values faking the appearance of being genuine, even though she probably didn’t intend to.
You can try to hide who you are behind a fake “personal brand”. But most people are terrible at hiding their intentions. Because your true values eventually reveal themselves from between the lines and below the surface.
But you don’t even have to fake anything.
Just make a Values-based Personal Brand.
Start with your values. Then, your words and actions will align themselves with your values automatically.
Remember: a healthy personal brand is built from the inside out.
Because you’re a human, not a brand.
And you’re just being you.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of personal brands. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. If you have a personal brand, let me know how you manage it. I’d love to hear from you.
Just a reminder: next week will be the one-year anniversary of Below the Surface. I hope you’ll join me for a super special edition. Thank you so much for reading and following along. I truly appreciate it.
And I’ll see you in the next one.