Personal branding was a topic Hana Jackson and I spoke about a few weeks back. It struck a chord with me on a multitude of levels as it is a current cultural trend that I have mixed feelings about. The concept of personal branding begins with the individual as a packaged item, to me this implies that the individual has come to some ‘completion’. Self-growth, in contrast, is a never-ending process. I have found a lot of freedom in my evolution as a person, enjoying and observing how I adapt within different locations and social contexts. I have grown to find comfort in the fact that everything passes and life reliably cycles through seasons.
Personal Branding As Stifling
For myself, I found personal branding to be a stifling experience— on a micro-level, I used my Instagram account to showcase my horseback riding career as a teenager. While I was a rider, this was a none-issue as the image I crafted online was in accordance to who I was. However, as my life passed and I realized that a riding career was not for me, I found this Instagram account to be a burden. Sharing the ‘new content’ of my life–different interests with less of a ‘horse focus’– was less well received by the people that followed me. And I noticed this took an effect on me. Without realizing it, I had evolved into a person aware of the number of likes an image received, caught up in the positive and negative feedback loops of online approval.
This realization–that social opinions influenced me– was a new discovery about myself. I was a child utterly unconcerned with how I was viewed and thought of by others. Somewhere between childhood and age 20, social influence had taken a grip on me. This Instagram account, trivial as it may seem, was an anchor to this social world, a place where I easily, though perhaps incorrectly, gauged if others approved my actions.
Living in the Past
I made the decision to stop riding while returning to university for my sophomore year. Yet I found myself promoting a life still semi-centered on riding, posting old images of career highlights and horse photos. In reality, I was struggling to find myself outside of this lifelong passion. I started to recognize how pigeon-holed I felt by my contrived obligation to social media. It grew into a constant reminder of a past that I was turning away from, a passion I was ignoring. In my mind, I could not break free from the image I had painted of who I was. Like the continuous picking of a scab, I could not heal and move on to a new season of life.
Freedom from the Past
After some thought, I recognized that this was a feeling of my own creation. But its power over me was real, none-the-less. My solution was to take away the images that were constricting me. So, I deleted my social media accounts and simply focused on each present day. I wanted to rebuild myself, start from ground zero and challenge the assumptions I had about myself and the world. Additionally, I saw this as my way to develop into something beyond ‘the horseback rider’. Through recognizing how easily caught in the rat-race of self-image I had become, I was able to recognize that I was not superhuman. It was my responsibility to take a giant step back from the ties that bound me to a former shape, thus allowing a new form to be molded.
Away from the images, I let go of my old successes and focused on new achievements. I discovered a love for philosophy, journaling, and community. My friend circles were widespread and possessed different flavors. Likewise, my days had a new flow, with less structure than my previous routines. Over the course of three years, I allowed myself to create new memories and habits that were not built upon past preferences but on present feelings and intuitions. I am now reconnecting with old friends and communities in California, dealing with the re-integration of who I was with who I am. Yet I feel lucky to have this challenge— cringing to think what would have happened if I never allowed myself space to change.
The space I took led me towards new interests that are better fits for myself, personally and professionally. And it allowed my mind to evolve and develop—most notably my attention span, critical thinking, and patience. But a funny thing happened as I looked for writing jobs post-graduation, I got asked (often) about my personal branding. ‘How was my Instagram following?’ and ‘How was I marketing myself?’. I felt a bit confused; is a 23-year-old expected to have a personal brand? A few people referenced my old social media accounts, how I had done a good job at branding myself in the past and that I should tap into that audience to grow my writing base.
Between a Rock + a Hard Place
On one hand, this is sound advice—practical and realistic to the current professional environment. But on the opposite spectrum, after experiencing how stifling personal branding can be, I was unsure I wanted to put myself through this again. Experience has taught me that no one is outside the power of social influence. And while social influence is not necessarily negative, social media easily becomes a performative act curated towards a ghost audience. It takes on a life of its own and can have serious implications in the minds of its users.
None of this should come as a surprise, countless studies warn of the dangers of social media and the drug-like effects of an instant feedback loop. And the people most susceptible are teenagers and young adults— those deepest in the journey of self-discovery while managing various insecurities and life uncertainties. Yet the jobs I have considered, from publishing to marketing to creative pursuits, expect a developed personal brand from this age bracket. It is assumed that we should have been working on this ‘portfolio of me’ for some time now, because that is what everyone is doing, right?
If I want to be involved in publishing and writing, I need social media. In contrast, if I had clung to my social media account for the sake of having an audience (a strange phrase to type out), I do not think I would have developed into a person willing and able to share my thoughts in any meaningful capacity. It is a catch-22 in the most absurd sense.
Absurd because I am a person with the liberty and right to make decisions best suited for my well-being. But I feel like I live in a world that is at odds with such decisions. It is additionally absurd because a social media following or an audience does not validate a person’s creations. Public opinion is not the end-all judgement of ability, nor is it a lasting pursuit to center your days around. Yet that seems to be the exact goal of social media: to harness public opinion in one’s favor and curate content focused on this product that is ‘I’.
An Ideal Scenario
Social media catalogues life as though it is a thought-out story-line. To say that someone has a personal brand is to imply that they wholly know their value and are sharing this through a curated narrative. Yet our messages evolve, our ‘I’ changes with the tide. If we are too caught up in this concept of branding, then the space for growth shrinks in importance and focus.
In the best of scenarios, someone is not curating and altering their world, sharing something that is in the moment rather than a product. This person is secure and mature enough to avoid the powers of ‘likes’ and comments, able to stay on a path that is genuine to them while drowning out the voices of the people they are sharing their path with. That would be an authentic sharing experience. However, social media world is often contrived, persuading whatever the current trend is through the vehicle of real human beings. This fake-ness takes a toll on a person over time, easily deterring (consciously or unconsciously) someone from striving towards something different and new. It is easy to fall into living contrived life rather than our own lives.
I say all of this now with full awareness that I have a Facebook, two Instagram’s, a Twitter, and a blog. After six months of fighting this branding advice, I conceded that it was necessary to share my writing and grow as a writer. Internally, I am still at odds with how long I will continue with these accounts. Already, I notice myself losing time to these apps. It takes continuous effort to remove myself from the world of social media, putting up blockades and limits to ensure that I stay present in my life. Social media is giving me the freedom to share my writing and thoughts. I am recognizing it as a tool, something that I can use to my benefit if I yield it with care and precision. But like a sharp knife, I must proceed with caution– fully aware of its potential for harm.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”