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Integrity & the Existential Angst of Creating a Personal Brand

If you’re anything like me, personal branding is a topic you love to hate. We’re frequently told how important it is to define and market our differentiating personal attributes when looking for a new job, aiming for a promotion, or establishing credibility within an industry. Personal brands encompass everything we do, from how we interact in meetings or at cocktail hours to our resumes and LinkedIn profiles. Though occasionally fun and creative, most of the time, keeping tabs on our personal brands is just exhausting.

As a communications consultant, I write social media and other branding content for companies and CEOs every single day. Yet I feel a lot of “existential angst” when it comes to focusing on my own brand, in particular my online persona. I just don’t want to do it.

When I started thinking about why, I realized that it’s fundamentally an issue of integrity. Constructing a calculated version of myself to achieve career success feels forced and fake. Yet I’m always telling my clients that the best brands are the most authentic ones. Being authentically myself in the public space of social media is scary as hell. There are so many opportunities to be misunderstood or even harshly criticized for something that is deeply personal and important to me. Because lacking integrity is revolting, and having true integrity is terrifying, sometimes I opt to avoid thinking about my online persona altogether.

What do I mean by “integrity”? Not to be a total nerd, but I find it interesting that “integrity,” “integer,” and “integral” all share the same Latin root, meaning whole or untouched. Integrity means living all aspects of your life from a common core set of principles. Regardless of circumstances or social settings, everything a person of integrity says or does will come from that core. There can be no fragmentation in which, for example, she pretends to have one opinion when speaking with one person and an opposing viewpoint when speaking with someone else. Although some settings, groups of people, and online channels are more conducive to certain topics or styles of communication than others, there should be no contradiction. A personal brand built on integrity will be an expression, both through language and through action, of those core principles.

I’m not suggesting that living as a “whole” person means sharing every aspect of yourself on social media. Oversharing is a real thing, and some thoughts and feelings are only meant to be shared with those closest to you. So how do you make those decisions? How do you create, build, and establish a personal brand with integrity?

1. Start with why.

To apply my favorite TED Talk, don’t start by asking how to create a personal brand; ask why you’re doing so. What is your goal in creating a platform for yourself? What are you contributing to the world through this endeavor? Are you writing a blog to start conversations on a topic that matters to you (and, perhaps, to the world)? Do you have some expertise or tips that will help others? Are you trying to put a personal face on an otherwise anonymous issue?

You’re going to need a better reason than getting a dream job, bringing in new business, selling more products, or establishing yourself as a thought leader. Those may be results you’re hoping for, but they’re not enough of a reason to form the foundation of your platform. In fact, if those are the only reasons, they’ll likely lead to a stale brand that feels manufactured and dull.

But if you build your brand with integrity, if it genuinely flows out of the core of who you are, it will constantly be re-invigorated with new life and energy.

2. Articulate your core principles.

As already established, you are a “whole” person; this means you’re complex and multi-faceted. But trying to share too many messages will muddy the waters of a personal brand. In order to create a persona you feel comfortable with, start with your core principles of integrity. Do some soul-searching to figure out what they really are, and then figure out how to articulate them clearly.

3. Remember that your personal brand is not about you.

All good communications, like all good relationships, are focused on the other person. Who are you trying to connect with? What are you trying to convey to them? What do you need to hear from them? A personal brand is no different. How you express your core principles and the central messages of your personal brand will be influenced by your audience. The core remains the same no matter who you’re interacting with, but kindness, consideration, and empathy should lead you to take into account who the other person is and what his communication style is.

My Personal Brand

As you have likely guessed by now, I’m once again attempting to put some effort into my neglected online channels, specifically this blog and my Twitter account. I am doing this because I believe in the power of “the new era” of digital communications, in which it’s so easy for anyone to become a content creator. Compared with eras past, everyday people have access to more platforms to get their thoughts out there and can:

  • Shape perception
  • Inspire action
  • Build relationships and communities

I feel a sense of responsibility to contribute more to public discourse in this way, in part because writing, communicating, and thinking through ideas are activities that flow out of the core of who I am. Not that I think I’m going to change the world by becoming more active on Twitter, but I think it’s important that I contribute what I can. To quote myself from a recent journal entry:

“Ten years ago, I still believed in changing the world by doing something big. I hadn’t yet learned that big things are just a series of small things – choices to love and be courageous and work hard and persevere despite 1,001 setbacks and naysayers and mistakes.”

My tagline on this blog and Twitter is: “In pursuit of meaning, ideas, and good conversation.” I truly believe in the value of respectful, insightful conversations – and you can’t have these meaningful conversations unless you’re willing to be a little vulnerable, share your thoughts, and listen to others’ stories even (especially) if they challenge your paradigms. So, my goal is to participate in the conversation.

I tell clients to do this all the time. One of my colleagues pointed out, “If we’re going to tell others to do this, maybe we should start walking the talk.”

It’s an issue of integrity.

Featured image from iStockphoto and Nature Blog.