If you’re a professional, your service is a product. Go ahead and sell that. You need to, in order to stay alive. But if you have ever looked at yourself in the mirror and asked, without irony, “What’s my personal brand?” then stop—you’re at the edge of a cliff.
The cliff is too high for you to see the bottom. There are scrubby plants clinging to the edge, trailing over the side. A little sand shifts beneath the sole of your shoe and falls a measured eternity to the ground invisible somewhere below. You feel wind trying to tip and pull you off the edge.
Vertigo. Are you sure you’re standing upright? The cliff edge seems to tip sideways ever so slightly, or is that you? You start to lean, and then quickly take four steps back, heart thrashing in your neck with a profound instinct to survive.
You’re not a product.
We have grown up with advertising surrounding us—a strange garden of a thousand flowers, each one crying out for admiration. We’ve learned, without even realizing it, how things are sold. What makes the product stand out? Why do you want the product? Why is the product valuable? How much is the product worth? Did the product make the sale?
At some point, we stopped asking these questions about Play-Doh and Polly Pocket, about TI-84 calculators and hit albums, about our first cars and apartments, and started asking them about ourselves.
What makes me stand out? We branded ourselves with distinctive elements of style, personality, speech, effort, to separate ourselves from the pack of competing people and win success, love, satisfaction. We made our differences our virtues.
Why do you want me? We offered services of humor, athletic talent, academic excellence, street smarts, or loyal friendship to demonstrate our worth. We offered more of ourselves than anyone else, to secure that small share of market attention from our parents and peers.
Why am I valuable? We set up codes of self-esteem and self-love, and practiced telling ourselves (and requiring others to tell us) again and again about our worth and worthiness. Since we couldn’t always count on external reinforcement of our value, we listened to ourselves as we talked in the mirrors about our virtues, trying to weigh our pros and cons and sell ourselves not only to others, but also to ourselves.
How much am I worth? We measured our success by status, comparison, possessions. We needed a benchmark for whether we were making it, so we estimated our merits by the car we drove, the music we listened to, the connections we made. We measured our success, and always found someone else selling better than we were.
Did I make the sale? We looked to close the transaction with love, with getting the corner office, with sticking it to the man in that final, dramatic way. We raced from moment to moment trying to get to the end result, finally achieving that feeling of “making it.”
But you’re not a product.
This is what we lost sight of: the difference between the marketplace in which we live and the people in that marketplace.
Products need to be sold. People, in fact, do not.
You’re a person. You are an incredible mixture of body and soul, who has the capacity for wonder and, more incredibly, the capacity for love. Why would you want to separate yourself from others when your most meaningful moments have been those in which you connected with others?
You’re a person. It’s not your talents or abilities that make you worth loving. You’re worth loving because your heart beats and you breathe. Each human being is incredibly priceless. You don’t have to prove that to anyone—it’s a simple truth that is only ignored by those who have forgotten what it means to sit beside one who loves them in a quiet room and watch the light fade without saying anything.
You’re a person. To try and reason yourself into your own value is to think that being a human being is not, in and of itself, an incredibly dignified and meaningful thing. Maybe you had others who didn’t know this truth, who told you that you had to find your value outside of your ten fingers and the breath that catches in your throat when you run too fast. Maybe they told you that there is some inconceivably large number of people on the planet, and that you have to prove you were better than the others. But do you prove your own value by devaluing another woman’s baby? Does making another human—with dreams and fears and a story of suffering and joy all their own—does making them feel small increase your stature? It can’t. You have the value you have, which is incredibly immense, by virtue of the fact that you’re a person, and you’re alive.
You’re a person. There is no sale to be made on your soul. Love is not a validation, it’s the underlying and compelling reason for everything we do as people. Your possessions are things that surround you, and are utterly incapable of altering your fundamental state as a human being.
If you and I were on a walk this evening, down a green-brown road in a small park, with the breeze knocking dust around our feet and making the long grass sigh, I would want to tell you this: branding, marketing, messaging, and all the rest are fine for their purpose, which is to make money. They’re useful, and there’s nothing wrong at all with using the avenues you have to promote your skills and services. But all of that is a tool. It’s not who you are. The internet, our phones, our online accounts and networks—all of these have surprisingly little to do with the feeling of the summer sun warming the back of our necks, or the moment when you’re surprised by the temperature of your loved one’s hand in yours, or the moment on a long car trip when you can first smell the sea, or the half-questions-half-memories that drift unformed through your mind when you stop and really look at the night sky.
I would want to tell you, as we walked along and picked leaves off overhanging branches, to not be afraid. Don’t be afraid to disconnect, to leave your phone, your connections behind. They don’t define you. Don’t be afraid to leave an email unanswered. Don’t worry about taking pictures of your trip. You’re not a company that has to maintain customer service … you’re a pair of hands and eyes, and a memory, and a heart, and a soul that’s capable of asking the question “Why?”
Don’t be afraid to look others in the eye. Each one of them is a person, just as utterly beyond price as you yourself are. The social scale may be useful for earning and keeping money, but isn’t money supposed to simply enable us to live? So if you’re going to live, then live as a human being, rich in the five senses and the awareness of the memories and hopes that wrap themselves around you.
You’re not a product. People aren’t products. They’re people.