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Me, Inc.

The paradoxical, pressure-filled quest to build a “personal brand.”

Illustration by Eric Petersen

In 2013, I traveled to Alaska to give a talk to a group of local reporters. The conference organizers had asked me to speak about how journalists can create a “personal brand,” and tantalized by a subsidized vacation in the Alaskan wilderness, I quickly agreed. On the flight to Anchorage, I perused the local headlines. The Pirates of Penzance was opening at the opera. Free TV access in rural parts of the state was under threat. A respected rescue pilot had died in a helicopter crash. Reading these articles, I knew I was in trouble.

“Thanks for coming to the smarmy marketing panel!” I joked awkwardly, before attempting to sell the assembled journalists on the virtues of having a personal web site and using Twitter. There were more than a few blank stares—and why not? These were people who wanted to report from government meetings and write about local businesses, not land a job at a glossy New York magazine. Most of their readers already knew them personally, because they were neighbors. Despite what the event’s planners believed, why would they need a “brand”?

And yet everyone seems to think they need a personal brand these days. I know because a lot of people ask me about it. I’m a self-employed freelance writer who makes a good living for someone with no dependents. Although it’s more of a tax designation, I am technically the CEO of my own corporation. I have a decent Twitter following, a popular podcast, and an email newsletter that strangers subscribe to. I tell people all the time that, given the turmoil in the media industry, I have more job security now that I work for a dozen media companies at any given time than I did back when I was a full-time staff member at one.

But branding yourself has become a professional goal for more than just journalists. Today, Fortune 500 companies hold seminars to train their employees in the art of personal branding, and an entire industry of coaches is flourishing to teach nonprofit managers and small-business owners how to get a leg up on the competition. By the year 2020, according to software company Intuit, 40 percent of the workforce will consist of freelancers and independent contractors. Whether you’re a financial planner or a fashion blogger, a personal brand has come to seem like a professional requirement—the key to success and fulfillment in an increasingly cutthroat and unstable economy. “Every person is a media company,” said Dan Schawbel, 32, a brand consultant in New York and one of the leading figures in the personal branding industry. “Anyone can have a platform now, whether you’re a janitor or a CEO.”

What is a personal brand, though? The truth is, I’m not quite sure. I can’t even tell you what my brand is, exactly. Sure, there are topics like gender and technology to which I return again and again as a writer, but I’m just pursuing things that interest me, or that editors approach me to write about. No real strategy to see here! For anyone trying to figure out how to make it in media—or any other industry, really—that’s hardly a recipe for success.

Exploiting your unique personality to get ahead professionally is as old as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The term “personal brand,” though, dates to 1997, when the cover of Fast Company announced the arrival of “The Brand Called YOU!” The article was written by management guru Tom Peters, whom The Economist once called “the first (and most outstanding) exponent of the late twentieth-century phenomenon of the management lecture.” The article sounds much like dozens of “thinkfluencer” posts on LinkedIn today: “Forget your job title. Ask yourself: What do I do that adds remarkable, measurable, distinguished, distinctive value? … What do I want to be famous for? That’s right—famous for!” The mix of rhetorical questions and upbeat aphorisms has become so familiar that if it were published in 2015, it would immediately be lost in the cheerful cacophony of business advice offered online.

Though this was still the dark ages before Twitter and Facebook, Peters presciently identified how the digital wave would overwhelm us. “Anyone can have a web site,” he wrote. “And today, because anyone can ... anyone does!” He also explained that, with the shift to a service economy and increased mobility enabled by digital connections, no one would be putting in several decades at the same company, the way previous generations had. We’d all be jumping from one job to the next for the duration of our careers. In order to do that successfully, we had to be known to people who aren’t our direct colleagues or friends. We had better have a brand.

“You, everything you do—and everything you choose not to do—communicates the value and character of the brand,” he wrote. The article is broken up with full-page illustrations that seem designed to be torn out of the magazine and posted on cubicle walls as inspiration. “There is a You™ in Team,” one exhorts. The only thing you shouldn’t do, Peters warned, was become a manager. “It’s practically synonymous with ‘dead end job,’” he wrote. This was coming from a management consultant.

Peters has remained a go-to management guru, speaking and writing books with titles like Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution and The Pursuit of WOW! Every Person’s Guide to Topsy-Turvy Times. In 1999, he expanded his Fast Company cover story into a series of volumes that outlined how to take advantage of the changing nature of work by putting your best brand forward. Still, Peters never turned personal branding into his primary business. Many others did, though.

“Essentially, I read the article and said, ‘I’m going to start a personal branding company,’” said William Arruda, who worked in corporate branding when Peters’s Fast Company story was published. He called his new firm Reach, and it certainly was a stretch. “In 2001, there were already four people doing it,” he told me. “Four years later, those other three people were gone, because there was absolutely no business in personal branding.” Indeed, in 2005, Fast Company took a look back at Peters’s cover story and decided that it was a prediction that never came true. “The personal-branding revolution didn’t happen,” one consultant told the magazine.

Arruda, who is now 54 and lives in New York, maxed out his credit cards and relied on his remaining corporate clients to make ends meet. Then social media came into widespread use, and things turned around quickly. Today his LinkedIn bio reads, “Motivational Speaker, Personal Branding Pioneer, Social Branding Consultant, Eternal Optimist.”

“What I saw, frankly, is it had almost moved down the chain hierarchically,” Arruda said. First it was something companies paid for in order to raise the profiles of their highest executives. Now companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and American Express offer their employees “personal brand training”—and they call consultants like Arruda to do it. People do business with other people, the adage goes, so having well-known employees will be good for the bottom line. Companies want to be seen as employing the best people, Arruda said, and the best people have strong personal brands that run parallel to the corporate one but don’t compete with it. He recently spoke to 800 new hires at a large accounting firm about the three tenets of a good personal brand: authenticity, differentiation, and relevance.

Although they might be phrased slightly differently, this is what you’re most likely to get when you go about the difficult business of trying to figure out what a personal brand actually is. “Be authentic,” “Be personal,” “Be consistent,” “Be visible,” “Avoid clichés,” chirps a LinkedIn-branded document on the topic. But what does that actually look like in practice?

Despite the fact that people in Alaska seem to think I have a solid personal brand, I struggle to answer Arruda’s questions about myself: What makes you different? Well, there are a lot of opinionated white women on the internet. And there are plenty of people who call themselves writers. What is your most authentic self? On most days, my authentic self is probably drinking wine on the couch. What do I want to be known for? Ugh, I’m not really sure.

Most people are as confused about themselves as I am. We form the potential client base for the many self-styled experts who take a one-on-one approach to branding human beings. I decided to ask one of these coaches to audit the brand called ME™.

Fifteen years ago, before ‘personal brand’ was in the vernacular, I called it ‘reputation,’ ‘executive presence,’ or ‘leadership presence,’” said Karen Leland, president of the Sterling Marketing Group, when I called her up to ask about her business. “But as the world started to change, and people’s reputations started to get more online, people started to get more concerned with intentionally creating their reputation.” And making sure even strangers knew about it. That, Leland told me, is a personal brand. And defining it is where she comes in. Her LinkedIn headline reads, “Marketing/Branding Strategist | CEO & Personal Branding | Fortune 500 Exec Development | 9x Bestselling Author.” In her photo, she is wearing a brown leather jacket and appears to be running one hand through her chestnut-brown hair. After Leland accepted my connection request, I noticed a targeted ad on LinkedIn asking me, “Are You an Executive?”

We struck a deal: Leland, who is based in San Francisco, would walk me through a truncated version of her personal branding services—which she’s been offering for 20 years and normally cost between $25,000 and $75,000 for anywhere from three months to six months or longer—for the small price of mentioning here that she’s the author of a forthcoming book, The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build, and Accelerate Your Brand. She started with some questions: What do you do? What are the qualities with which you do it? And what is the result or impact? She stayed on the phone while I wrote some answers in my journal.

When I read my responses to Leland, she told me I slip into “cocktail party talk.” Whenever I meet someone and they ask, “What do you do?” I say I’m a writer. (In Los Angeles, land of aspiring screenwriters, I usually clarify by adding, “a journalist.”) Then I just sort of … list things. I tell them I write a column for New York magazine, that I freelance for magazines like this one, that I write book reviews for The New York Times, that I make hand-drawn pie charts, that I have a podcast with my friend. I do not offer a clear statement of what I’m all about professionally. Leland told me I am giving people the spokes, not the hub. She crafted a one-sentence “anchor statement” of my career: I am “a freelance writer with a focus on how modern cultural issues related to women, politics, and technology affect us in ways seen and unseen.” This isn’t wrong. But it also seems too broad and too simple to be accurate. My assignment is to practice saying this sentence until it feels true.

In his 1997 article, Peters suggested building your brand by doing things like signing up for extra projects, teaching a class at a community college, writing newspaper op-eds, and getting yourself on a conference panel. Today the personal brand universe revolves around your web presence—especially LinkedIn. Leland also wanted to talk to me about this, despite my protestations that LinkedIn is not the primary social network for those of us in media. (That would be Twitter.) She asked to see my LinkedIn profile anyway. “You may not think it’s going to help you,” she said of the facelift she was going to give it, “but it’s certainly not going to hurt you.” Once we were confirmed as connections, she opened my profile, and gasped in horror.

“Oh, Ann,” she said. “We have so much work to do.” I had only one recommendation, from a former co-worker who, I can only assume, was using LinkedIn ironically. My connections were a teeming pit of public-relations people and random folks who have read my work—the most important people in my professional life were not there. In case it wasn’t already clear, my summary statement at the top said, “I rarely use LinkedIn. Please see my web site or email me instead of sending a LinkedIn message.”

Leland didn’t like my web site much better. “I feel like there’s not really any branding going on,” she said. “It’s a collection of stuff you do. ... You’re this really powerful, articulate, super successful writer. But you look like any other writer from this. … It’s not reflecting who you are.” She was disappointed I don’t have social-media buttons in a visible place on my homepage. When I told her I’d like my brand to be more Tumblr-creative than LinkedIn-corporate, she pointed out that 21-year-olds on Tumblr probably aren’t looking to hire me for well-paid speaking gigs. I should want to appeal to everyone.

Her pep talk gets to the heart of my existential conflict about the personal branding process. I don’t think it’s possible to appeal to everyone and still be authentic, let alone unique. When Leland declared my web-site font “almost hippie-dippy,” I couldn’t help but get a bit defensive. So what if it is? My truest self does not use “impact” as a verb. My truest self likes to be catty about former employers that have done me wrong, not write pleasant summaries of what I was able to achieve while working there. My truest self is sending GIFs to my friends, not cheerfully influencing strangers’ thoughts.

Despite Leland’s kind words about my accomplishments, I’ve noticed a paradox: The more time I spend defining my personal brand, the more contrived it feels when I talk about myself. I may no longer engage in cocktail party talk, simply listing my accomplishments, but in other ways I’m more confused about why I do what I do. And I’ve also learned an important branding lesson: Don’t confuse “authentic” with “effortless.”

A personal brand, Leland cautioned me, is “something that you actively have to manage online, offline, in your organization, in your industry, and on social media.” Which means there are dozens of opportunities every day to question whether you’re doing it right. Is this crop top on-brand for a networking happy hour? Is this joke tweet-worthy or something I should merely text to a friend? Is this stupid assignment I accepted in order to make rent detracting from my reputation too much? Life is not always on-brand.

In the best-case scenario, a brand keeps you focused in a world of unlimited options. In reality, though, it’s yet another source of professional pressure. Earlier this year, a personal-brand coach named Amanda Miller Littlejohn was booked solid with speaking engagements and busy tending to her clients, many of whom are professionals in Washington, D.C. She was posting to her blog and social media accounts every day, sharing relentlessly positive updates“motivating people, because I’m trying to keep them excited about their goals,” she told me.

Then her dad died. She didn’t want to keep posting happily as if nothing had happened. But it also felt wrong to talk openly with her clients about a personal tragedy. In the end, she wrote a tribute to her father on her Facebook page, and was comforted by the reaction from her professional community. But, she said, it was still a “really, really strange” decision to have to make.

Miller Littlejohn was the rare branding expert—and I asked many—to admit to having struggled to figure out where the personal ends and the brand begins. Most coaches insist that choosing to leave out a few behind-the-scenes details is not a betrayal of your brand, it’s just strategic. “Authentic personal branding is about understanding the contribution you want to make and designing the way that you are with other people,” Leland assured me. Yet this way of thinking exposes a central flaw in the personal brand idea. How can you truly be “authentic” if you’re forced to censor yourself for the sake of brand identity? And how can any real human be on at all times, constantly posting to social media, with a consistent message day-in and day-out?

As the idea that everyone should have a personal brand goes mainstream, it’s also not clear whether pitching ourselves this way is even effective anymore. “If you put up a blog post or video or podcast in the past, people would actually find it,” said Schawbel, whose LinkedIn bio reads, “New York Times Bestselling Author, Forbes & Inc. 30 Under 30, Founder of and Millennial Branding.” It’s different today, though. “Now we’re in a world where it’s extremely competitive,” he said. “It’s a lot more work to stand out.”

In her eight years as a personal-brand coach in New York, Pamela Weinberg has noticed the same sense of saturation. “I just know from my own personal experience with Facebook specifically that it’s much harder to get your posts noticed,” she said. “They have all these crazy algorithms. As more and more people are on social media, you have so many more competing voices.”

This is why I believe that a big part of my professional success has been luck and privilege. I entered the workforce in 2004, at almost the exact time the internet changed everything. I was an early user of most social networks and a blogger before every magazine had a blog. And so I was, by default, in a better position to establish a brand than both older journalists who had to adapt and younger journalists who are starting at zero in an already saturated digital world. No amount of coaching can buy advantages like that. I’ve also been free to take risks and pursue passion projects in a way that government employees and lawyers and consultants who work under nondisclosure agreements are not. Most of the work I do is pretty public, making it easier for me to garner attention—an advantage that seems difficult, if not impossible, to recreate in every career.

But even for me, it’s clear that I’ve got to hustle to stay ahead. At the end of my series of phone sessions with Leland, she recommended I get to work on a book proposal, start using Pinterest, and revamp my web site. I’m reconsidering some assignments and have found myself checking LinkedIn more often, despite my belief that it isn’t very important for me. I will probably follow through on that web site redesign. A brander’s work is never done.

Peters, in his 1997 manifesto, believed the era of the personal brand held limitless opportunities for motivated individuals. If you’re the brand, you are in control. You can make a name for yourself in this world if you just put your mind to it. Thinking of yourself as a brand was the key to transforming yourself from an anonymous office worker into a superstar, unlocking fame, fortune, independence, and job security along the way.

He was right, in a way: With the rise of social media, more than ever the brand really is YOU. And a lucky few have seen their careers advance along with their personal profiles. But in the long term, he may be wrong about the advantage a brand provides. Blogging, tweeting, posting to Facebook and Instagram, optimizing your personal web site and LinkedIn profile to explain what makes you unique—none of this is enough to distinguish you from anyone else, because everyone else is also doing all of these things. Branding yourself might be easier than ever, but it’s getting harder and harder to stand out.

Even Schawbel, the inexhaustible millennial brand cheerleader, has felt this. “I absolutely got burned out,” he said. “I stopped my podcast. I can’t do everything anymore.” He’s well known now, with enough high-paying clients, that he can afford to ignore social media. These days, he told me, he sticks to more traditional outlets like writing articles for newspapers and magazines and doing interviews like this one. In personal-brand world, this is downright luxurious.

I’m getting more comfortable with the one-sentence brand statement Leland crafted for me. It can be healthy to think about why you do your job, why you’re good at it, and what you’d like to do in the future. And the tips from the personal-brand experts—updating your LinkedIn page and web site—certainly won’t hurt your career prospects.

In the end, though, I don’t want to live in a world in which everyone must be able to summarize and publicize their work in order to be professionally successful. I think those journalists in Alaska should have decent salaries and job security just because they report the news well, not because they have a lot of Twitter followers and a flashy personal web site. The same goes for janitors and call-center employees and anyone else who doesn’t have a branding-friendly job. It’s ridiculous to think that, even in the age of widespread access to social media, everyone has the freedom and time to brand themselves. Peters saw personal branding as a way for average workers to become something more than corporate drones. But in reality, that’s still a luxury reserved for the privileged.

There’s also something inherently fake about having a carefully constructed identity. The more we think of ourselves as brands, the less personal everything becomes. Instead of the real you, with all your quirks and shortcomings, we get a polished YOU™, the version that is marketed to the world. Maybe, if you’re making a CEO-level salary, the trade-off is worth it. Maybe, if you’re naturally outgoing and find yourself in the right industry, it doesn’t feel like a trade-off at all. But it seems wrong to extol the virtues of personal branding without at least acknowledging this disconnect. Anything less would be inauthentic.