Be a Person, Not a Brand

As a freelance writer, a lot of the advice I’ve come across for building a blog, a client base, and social media following all boils down to one mantra, humming over and over and over:

Build your brand.

It’s the mantra of many a millennial. In the internet age, the dream is that we can all achieve success with our passions. We just have to market ourselves enough, post on social media enough, add a healthy dose of capitalism, and boom. The career of our dreams.

The phrase means that if you want to be an entrepreneur or creative, if you want to have a nontraditional career where you work from home or build a business, you must market yourself, sell yourself like a product. You must create an empire of one: you.

Every time I hear that phrase, build your brand, my soul shrinks back and grits its teeth, as if my entire being has just bitten into a metaphysical lemon. The mantra sounds good, and it’s worked, really well, for a lot of people. And I’m happy for them; I really am. But the idea at the root of branding yourself is one that absolutely terrifies me, because I think the implications of it go farther than we’re willing to consider.

A brand is a created entity. A brand is something a corporation makes to sell another thing. A brand is a surface-level household name constructed to be consumed. Oreos: you eat them. Nikes: you wear them. Sharpies: you bleed them dry. (I think I have a future in slogan writing, by the way.)

The truth is, human beings are so much more valuable than that. Humans are fragile and strong. We are terrifying and beautiful. We fly high and sink low. We are perfect and flawed, and the work we create is the same. There is so much more to us than the selling of a product or service.

Maybe you insist that I’m misunderstanding this phrase. Maybe it doesn’t mean what I’m taking it to mean. But then I have to ask: why are we using words like “brand” to describe people? People, with minds and souls that are somehow, magically, blessedly able to transcend the physical and inject everyday life with resilience and beauty and hope. The term “brand” to describe personhood is not just inappropriate; it’s insulting. Perhaps by using such paltry words to describe something so inherently magnificent, we are unconsciously saying what we tend to believe. Perhaps we are falling into the universal human trap: to take something valuable and trash it.

I’ve tried, as a writer, to build my brand, to treat my craft like a business and my self like a product. I’ve tried to blog in a way that sells, with flashy catchphrases and trendy buzzwords. I’ve tried to use social media to optimize my followers, with perfectly-curated pictures and relatable captions. I’ve tried to make flimsy business connections that are no more than a click on a web platform.

And all due respect to those who’ve achieved great success this way, but it’s not for me. When I write, I want it to be what I was born to say. When I post photos and say things online, I want it to be sharing something beautiful and making someone laugh. When I meet people, I want it to be in person, and I want it to be a real relationship.

The build-your-brand mentality may seem innocuous, but the problem is that this mentality doesn’t stay in the business world; it seeps into our mental states and social lives and personal development. I see a generation just a little younger than me growing up thinking that it’s normal to always be building yourself as a marketable image, never getting the chance to close the blinds, loosen up, have fun, and just be a person. I see us unable to accept each other as complex, three-dimensional people, instead choosing to commodify each other, to buy each other and throw each other away. I see us compromising the purity of our passions, crafts, and trades in the name of what seems like an easy ticket to a career. The internet may allow us to pursue our vocations like never before, but it has the danger of making our vocations the only thing people see in us. And this is a tragic, tragic thing.

So please: don’t be a brand. Be a person. It’s awkward and painful and vulnerable, but it’s also wild and beautiful and unique. You can create and accomplish far more meaningful things, a far more meaningful life, by just being a person. Because you already have, and you already are.

Weekend Pith: Life Rules

One of the newer features of my repainted blog is the little page at the top of the screen, which I call “My Life Rules.” It has pithy little one-liners that describe or sum up life, or at least the kind of person I want to be.

This idea was inspired by a book my best friend gifted to me, The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. The book is full of practical ways to simply be happier, but it goes deeper than that. Happiness occurs when we have meaningful relationships, discipline, and joy in day to day life, and there are simple, down-to-earth steps to make that happen. It was the practicality of it that really spoke to me; we often talk about being happier or having more joy, but these are usually abstract concepts we don’t back up with a plan. You can’t arrive at a goal without a plan.

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Rubin starts the book by listing what she calls her “rules of adulthood.” They are little principles she’s found to be true in her life, and so they help her remain true to herself while becoming better. And in the end, that’s what the point of her book is: we must always be working towards better versions of ourselves, and that in turn will give us greater satisfaction in life.
This inspired me to look for my own “rules of adulthood,” the little principles I live by even when I don’t realize it. Every so often they cross my mind, and now I catch them and tag them before letting them fly away again. In this way I become a lot more mindful and aware of the unwritten rules we all govern ourselves by, and as a bonus they sound pretty cool in a blog post.

Here’s a little look at some of my life rules. The list is ongoing, and I’m adding to it daily. 

 

It’s not a contest.

We get pretty competitive with the other people in our lives. Someone else’s successes, joys, and blessings become like vinegar in our mouths. I’ve noticed myself often envying friends my age as their lives start to become more settled, more sure, with stable careers and permanent homes and (even more permanent) children. It’s often hard to be okay with the fact that my life is rather tumultuous right now, and that’s okay. It’s not a contest.

Choose to be friends.

I’ve always had this fatalistic view of friendship, where I just hope someone likes me enough to stick around. I’ve had some friendships, ones I really liked, dissolve, leaving me to want to dissolve along with them. Then I had a realization: I can be friends with anyone I damn well please. Sometimes relationships do run their natural course, but sometimes you get to just decide: you’re one of my peeps now. Let’s be friends. Always. M’kay?

Always be more loving than you feel.

This one is so hard. I once had a boss tell me that one of my strengths was my ability to leave my life at home and focus on the task at hand, to keep my emotions under wraps and set aside a bad day without letting my frustrations shine forth.

To which I looked at her and said “Really?”

I don’t know what she saw in me, but I’m terrible at concealing my emotions. If I’m upset, I will cry. If I’m angry, I won’t look you in the eye (this could also happen if I’m especially shy, so don’t panic). If I’m happy, I can’t wipe the silly grin off my face.

So this is why, when I’m not feeling very loving, I… won’t be very loving. 

This quality is especially unfortunate in married life, when acting exactly how you feel all the time doesn’t help anybody. Especially if you’re an emotional person who could feel ten different things in the space of an hour. It’s confusing for a spouse to keep up with. 

(Not that I’m speaking from first-hand experience, or anything…)

I’ve often found a tense situation to be greatly improved by just acting even a little more loving than I feel. Because it makes him feel better, and soon I feel better too. Love is like gravy on a Thanksgiving plate. It gets in and around everything and makes it taste better. Just as we can never have too much gravy, we should never be sparing with love. Even if we’re not always feeling it. Because the monumentous effort it may take to be loving returns even more monumentous results. You literally cannot lose by showing love, just as you cannot lose by passing the gravy. 

(You’re welcome for the gravy analogy.)

Beware of fads.

This is one you see a lot on the internet. Everyone look over here! This person did that! Everyone talk about this! It’s trending now! Everyone buy this! It’s in style!

This might be my hipster streak showing, and as I type this I realize being hipster is somewhat of a fad as well. Dammit. At any rate, I try to be aware of what new thing I genuinely love or appreciate and what is just a fad. Sometimes our brains ping pong from one thing to another, and we lose our mental autonomy. We lose the energy to recognize what to purge from our lives and what we’d really like to keep. We become dependent on fads for mental stimulation. And it leaves us even more exhausted, more cluttered. It’s a terrible cycle, and not worth it.

Sometimes, however, the fad of the day is fun, and sometimes you like it. And that’s when you should ask your doctor if this fad is right for you.

 

So there’s a little look at my life rules. Hopefully they inspire you to recognize your own unwritten life principles. I’ve found writing a few down where I’ll see them daily, or making a note on my phone, helps me revisit and recommit whenever I forget. It’s way to be more mindful and evermore myself.

What unwritten rules will you write down?

 

Curating Empty Museums

My best friend and I are fond of “curating.”

It started when she was decorating her room and wanted to arrange her framed photos like those artsy gallery walls you see on Pinterest. It felt as if the description of every pin we found had some derivative of the word “curate” in it. So “curated” became our term for good decorating skills.

“Those succulents are so curated.”

“I love those curated quotes.”

“Look at my vase of flowers! I’m curating!”

Eventually, our definition of the word got a little out of hand. Like all overly-beloved words and phrases, “curating” and its various forms has become a general term for anything nominally attractive.

“This coffee is so curated.”

“I love your curated outfit.”

“Look at our beautiful breakfast! We’re curating!”

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A still life-style food spread, coffee, quotes on a napkin, and all the Starbucks advertising I can muster. A classic example of millennial “curating.”

Hopelessly millennial as it seems, I think our throwing around of the word “curating” is rather harmless. For my part at least, I find it helps me find beauty in ordinary things (how’s that for hopelessly millennial). Also, it’s a fun inside joke.

But it’s interesting, because the traditional sense of the verb “to curate” creates connotations of being selective and intentional, of prize and value. We picture stuffy professor types showing grubby kids around a museum.

These days, we’re all encouraged to be curators of our own lives. There’s so much mental noise we come across day to day, from the myriad voices on social media platforms, to email, to texts, to phone calls, to ignored phone calls, to voice messages we keep putting off listening to. We are encouraged to manage all this noise, to intentionally choose what we see and do not see.

You hate the political tirades your one Facebook friend keeps posting? Unfollow him. Spotify is playing a song you dislike? Skip it. You keep seeing ads for ___ and you hate ___? Tell the internet you hate ___ and the internet will show you ads for stuff you don’t hate.

We only hear from the Facebook friends we agree with. We only listen to the songs we like. We only see (and most likely buy from) the ads we’re interested in. Slowly, our lives are becoming curated to our own interests.

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I realized this most jarringly when driving home from work this week. The radio was playing one of my favorite songs, and so of course I sang along and bobbed my head and generally looked dumb while driving home. Then as the end of the song approached, I found myself reaching for the radio’s nonexistent “skip” button.

Usually, when I play the song on my phone, I skip the end, because I know what the end sounds like and I want to go on to the high of a new song. Skip skip skip. Curate curate curate.

Unfortunately, the sheer amount of mental noise makes some amount of curating absolutely necessary. I’ve personally found it very easy to become emotionally over-invested in all the stuff out there that I have to mute or block or unfollow certain people so I can maintain my sanity.

Perhaps the danger is not in curating, but in being so used to curating that we forget we’re even curating in the first place. Instead of being intentional about what we allow into our sphere, we become used to a life that is user-friendly. And then, when life doesn’t meet our expectations, we become frustrated.

But the reality is, you can’t unlisten to a friend who’s talking about politics right in front of you. You can’t skip a song on the radio. You can’t tear down billboards on the side of the highway just because you don’t like seeing ads for funeral homes. In real life, you deal with these little foils to your curating. You learn from them. You learn how to get over them. You might even learn that you like them.

Sometimes listening to a friend you disagree with makes you smarter. Sometimes listening to an entire song makes you enjoy it more. Sometimes an advertisement… okay, advertisements are trash. But sometimes you have to deal with trash.

If we’re so used to curating our life experiences we can’t function without that high level of control, I’m afraid of where it might lead us. I wonder if in the end we’ll each find ourselves alone, curators of our own empty, sterilized museums.