I have regularly felt compelled, nay, coerced, to create a “Personal Brand”. A Personal Brand as I understand it is a set of labels that I might want to attach to myself such that I can signal my value to the world.
I can see why a Personal Brand is valuable. It communicates to the world a concise summary of something I believe is important about myself, something which I can do well or I stand for. It can maybe get me to the front of a queue or in the limelight. Despite this, I have pushed back.
I have never wanted to be defined by anything. I feel uncomfortable at the very thought of it.
I don’t want to be known for my career. I don’t see myself as a “social innovation specialist” or a “strategy expert” or a “social impact leader” (all real life examples of LinkedIn professional brands for people who do similar things to me).
I don’t want a twitter bio that reads like a list of things that make me. I (hope I) am more than “Mother of two. Owner of @bluebagsco. Love cookies!!” or “Breakdance king. Marketing @applepear. Monkeys are the best!” (all fake but plausible examples).
I love taking photographs, but I’m not, nor do I want to be, known as a photographer.
I love writing, but I’m not, nor do I want to be, known as a writer.
I am South Asian by background but I don’t want this to define my attitudes to the world, nor the world’s attitude to me.
I don’t want a label, any label, to shape my identity.
Yes, I know the challenges that this stance holds.
The world does not have the requisite tools to be able to figure out who I am. It needs me to tell it. In three lines. The world cannot cope with a desire for ambiguity and multimodal existence. The world is forged into a series of pigeonholes so it needs us to be pigeons.
It means that I probably will never reach the top. To summit you need to specialise. You need to be known for something — a skill, a body of knowledge, a passion — that you can use to justify your ascent.
Identifying with a social group makes you part of a trusted circle. The more I reject labels and groups, the more I will find myself alone and surrounded by a world that hates me.
A lack of identity means I will be waging a war within myself. Identity brings comfort, direction, social groups, purpose. Rejecting identity brings turmoil, confusion, isolation, nihilism.
So here I am all ambiguous and ill-defined, knowing it is not doing me any favours and tearing me up inside. Here I am, pushing back. Why? Why am I so uncomfortable with labels, groups and identity? Why do I not want to be boxed in?
Identity choices are a lens which can distort your perspective as you scan the horizon. If you are a VEGAN you might define anyone who indulges in even a small amount of animal product consumption as “other” and someone to fight, losing sight of the bigger goal of reduced animal product consumption. If you are a FOOD TRADITIONALIST you can end up not wanting parsnips, chestnuts and thyme in your burrito or Thai curry as it lacks authenticity and forget that food is an ever-evolving concept where chillis only got to India and Thailand in the 16th century.
I have made huge mistakes throughout my life and some of those mistakes have been due to attachment to labels of identity distorting my world view. Two examples:
Early on in high school, I attached my identity to a certain type of music. I was the kind of person that listens to hip hop and RnB and I was friends with people listening to the same songs as me. What does music have to do with what people I am friends with? Nothing, of course. I limited myself for no reason other than some semblance of identity.
Around the same age I experienced a little overt racism (the only instance that I can I recall in my life). Whilst it was classroom shenanigans as much as anything else, it compromised my trust of people outside my set of experiences and that did not look like me. These run-ins made me generalise. I ended up creating a caricature of white people in my head that shaped how I looked at them in real life. It also influenced my identity — it made me more “brown” and changed the spaces in which I felt comfortable for a number of years. It took me time, and a sea of contrary experiences to erode this aspect of my identity and again realise how I was limiting myself for no reason.
In both of these cases, I realised how one factor I used to define my identity was arbitrary and limiting. I realised I was defining my identity based on things I did not really believe in.
Simon Sinek once posited an idea in his TED talk. I’m not going to get into the detail of his idea (watch his talk) but, applied to myself, it goes something like this: I should figure out who I am and what I really care about carefully before I choose the things that define my identity. When we choose our points of identity, we must make sure that they do not clash with the fundamental heart that we want to stand for, or we must be happy with a boatload of cognitive dissonance.
What these examples show is that by picking points of identity you necessarily define an “outgroup” that you inevitably have to stereotype. You end up characterising the outgroup as different from yourself and, at the extreme, something to fight against. You forget the things you have in common and, at the extreme, dehumanise. FUNDAMENTALIST RELIGIOUS or NATIONALIST identities often get to this point.
My fear is that when I am part of a group I am consumed by groupthink. My fear is that I lose my nuance and lose my desire to learn about the other. I end up scrambled, with an even more myopic version of reality than I already have.
My LinkedIn profile tagline currently reads “Impact | Systems | Ideas,” whatever that means. I think I like it for its ambiguity and lack of anything that means anything, and perhaps this is where my existence lives too.
Part 2 to follow…