Take This Personal Brand and Shove It

by Robert Moorehead

Two messages came across my inbox recently, and I’ve been thinking about how they’re related. The first is a brilliant animated film that captures the rigors of the job hunting process, or shūkatsu, in Japan. (You can find some insightful analysis of the film here.) In their final year of studies at the university, students dye their hair black, get more formal business haircuts, put on matching black suits, and go out to try to show how well they can toe the company line and become good corporate drones. In the process, students can lose themselves and become a person they no longer recognize.

Failing in this process also stings, as applicants can feel that their personal worth is wrapped up in the outcome. You’re reducing yourself to a commodity and peddling it to companies, and finding yourself dehumanized in the process.

The second message came from a workshop on “The Power of Brand ‘You’: Personal Branding for Career and Life Success.” The workshop is led by Peter Sterlacci, who, according to his own ad, is “known as ‘Japan’s Personal Branding Pioneer’ and is one of 15 Master level Certified Personal Branding Strategists in the world.” (Let’s set aside grammar issues with the excessive use of capital letters, and the questions about who, exactly, knows Mr. Sterlacci in this manner. Maybe it’s just him. Let’s also set aside questions about just what a personal branding strategist is, who certifies such a person, and how many levels there are.)

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In the messages on Sterlacci’s website, we can find a few kernels of truth. For example, the Japanese workplace places a high value on workers fitting into the existing hierarchy of the company. In a changing, 21st-century economy, workers need to look for jobs in a more global marketplace—and that marketplace can include settings in which workers need to promote themselves less as workers who can fit in, and more as workers who bring something unique to the company.

So far, so good. But the messages go further, to encourage workers to become their own “personal brand.” You are to be the brand, believe in the brand, and live the brand. But beyond Ophrah-esque messages of believing in yourself, listening to your heart, following your dreams, and opening yourself up to wealth, what does this mean? Am I a brand? (And if I am, are my children my “product line,” like from the iPad comes the iPad mini?)

In my introduction to sociology classes, I discuss Karl Marx’s notion of species being, which we can also think of as human nature. Marx states that humans are unique in our creative ability to produce things. Some animals can build bridges, and a few gorillas have learned sign language, but that doesn’t compare with humans’ ability to create things, from food to clothing, to buildings, to the global computer network on which you’re reading this.

In this sense, this ability is part of what defines us as humans, and we have an intimate connection with the things we create. We become alienated if the products of our labor are taken from us, or if we become little more than appendages to the machines in the factory. Think of the the satisfaction we feel when we make ourselves a nice dinner, compared to the disdain we felt toward the burgers many of us flipped in minimum-wage service jobs. (And if you ate any of the food I prepared at the Solano Drive-In in the 1980s, I apologize.)

In recent decades, our experiences at work have changed dramatically. Once-solid factory jobs in countries like the US and Japan have moved elsewhere, and workers find themselves struggling to find jobs that pay enough to support themselves and their families. Commitments from companies to long-term employment have practically vanished, replaced by temporary or contract work. We’re all free agents now, freed from being trapped in the same job and also free to go hungry while we search for work.

In this environment, it makes sense for workers to retool themselves for the changing dynamics of the workplace. Keep your resume up-to-date, and always be on the lookout for the next opportunity. Believe in yourself, market yourself, take charge of your destiny—think Stuart Smalley meets Gordon Gecko—become the product others want to buy.

And there’s the catch: are you a product? or a brand? or a commodity? or whatever synonym you prefer? What is your value in the marketplace? If you are your brand, and you live that brand all the time, 24 hours a day, are you really living up to your full human potential? Are you reducing yourself to your exchange value? What is your brand worth?

As I kid I remember my brother and I arguing with our dad about what something was worth. We loved some of our stuff so much that we imagined someone would pay us a fortune for it. Then we’d make all sorts of plans to sell our things and reap our rewards. Our father would then tell us that the things were only worth what someone would pay us for them, and that was probably a lot less than we imagined. Not yet schooled in the economics of capitalism, my brother and I confused use value and exchange value. The joy we got from playing with something (it’s utility, or use value) didn’t match the value of that thing in the marketplace (it’s exchange value).

So what happens when the thing we’re trying to sell is ourselves? And what if we buy so deeply into the process that we literally become the product, that we live the brand? Becoming and living your personal brand would involve not only matching the marketing of yourself with your skills and interests, but also shaping your daily life to fit the brand you’ve become. With the brand and the person one and the same, and the brand also a product that is marketed and sold at its exchange value, how in the world can we do this without reducing our humanity down to a tag line, a logo, and a website?

“What makes you unique, makes you successful,” says Sterlacci’s ad in bold print. But what if you’re not successful? Not everyone gets the job of their dreams, since capitalism requires there to be a sufficiently large population of people to be out there, looking for work. And if you don’t succeed, do you blame it on your brand? Do you reincarnate yourself as version 2.0? 3.0? 4.0?

While mired in this process and focusing on your personal brand, how can you engage your sociological imagination, to connect your personal experiences to the bigger picture? How can we find a middle ground, in which people can pursue work that rewards them without selling out and becoming tools. Or brands.

Got answers? Share your thoughts.

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