“What do you call one’s self? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us — and then flows back again. (…) One’s self — for other people — is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s clothes, the books one reads, the company one keeps — these things are all expressive.” — Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
An editor sent me an email over the weekend asking me to submit a bio to accompany an article. “Just nothing more than 10-15 words please,” it read. Sounds innocuous enough, but what that basically translates to is “summarize your entire life in ten words please.”
I think a lot of us feel like we are more multifaceted than social media or résumés or article bios* allow us to express. The problem though is that there are a lot of people who are pretty good at a lot of things, but not so many people who are really good at one thing. And in the “real” world — that nebulous destination of business and bills that parents the world over warn their children about — one must be very good at one thing. And showing, proving, persuading someone or some entity that you are very good at said thing… well, that’s the essence of self-branding.
In writing, self-branding generally comes down to claiming expertise in a certain writing subject. The most recent advice I got about becoming a writer was from a former teacher: “Find a category you like and start writing exclusively about that.” It’s tried-and-true advice. A.O. Scott at The New York Times is obviously a film expert. Nathan Heller at The New Yorker seems to be their resident “young guy writing about twentysomething things.” Malcolm Gladwell (and for a short while at least, Jonah Lehrer) is the popular behavioral scientist. And while there are some writers like Casey Cep who jump across topics and publications smoothly in light of the fact that they’re nothing short of genius (Ms. Cep is a recent Rhodes Scholar), even she seems to most often get assignments related to faith and theology.
Self-branding, of course, does not just apply to writing either. If you’re interviewing for a position at a law firm, it doesn’t really matter if you have a penchant for painting or are well-read in pre-Augustine theological texts. In fact, this can almost work to detract from your professional appeal. People say that you should “follow your passions,” but they should really say, “follow your passion” in the singular. Branding is about narrowing your focus so that you become the shiniest cog possible, ready to improve whichever machine you become a part of.
Now, nobody wants to be a cog in a machine. But, in practice, self-branding isn’t much different from Adam Smith’s comparative advantage theory. Smith’s theory, which states that countries should produce only what they’re best at and then import everything else, is meant to boost efficiency and profitability. Thus, if you brand yourself as a specialist in a particular field or subject, producing similar goods over and over again, you will become more efficient; and, as a result, you will be more desired by companies who need to fill a niche with your exact expertise.
Yet, not only is this boring, it also unnecessarily boils a person down to one ability or skill. We are so much more than our branded selves, and yet we continually inflict it upon ourselves, hoping that it will help us get a job or a book deal or whatever professional goal we might have. Each of us is an interesting, distinctive person with different experiences and skillsets. We’ve traveled and loved different places and people, we have disparate hobbies, and we read different books that shape us in different ways.
So what have we decided to do to show our uniqueness? We’ve incorporated our “quirks” into our personal branding as best we can. Twitter bios read: “lover of English tea,” “surfer guy,” “leadership guru,” “waffle aficionado,” “fluent in sarcasm,” “future cat lady,” “obsessed with books,” “world traveler,” and on and on.
This self-branding of “interestingness” or “uniqueness” smacks of fabrication. It seems there is no escaping this fact: when you are forced to describe yourself in a ten-word article bio, a one-hundred-and-forty-character Twitter bio, a one-page résumé, a two-inch-by-two-inch Facebook “about” box, a page-long about.me page, or whatever other method you use to disseminate carefully curated information about yourself as a means to a job and social prestige, you will find that it does not even come close to describing who you really are.
Now I’m not calling for an end to self-branding. It is the best method we have for quickly describing who we are. And, besides, the damage has already been done. We are constantly giving our elevator pitch in every corner of the Internet, and, of course, in real life as well. But the worst thing self-branding has done is it has killed the polymath.
A multidisciplinary approach was once renowned. The quintessential Renaissance man is Leonardo da Vinci, who worked variously as a painter, a sculptor, an architect, a musician, a mathematician, an engineer, an inventor, an anatomist, a geologist, a cartographer, a botanist, and a writer, conceptualizing flying machines, studying hydrodynamics and civil engineering, and painting the ever-wry Mona Lisa. Naturally, someone who is exceptional in reading, writing, arithmetic, (and art and science and all the rest) deserves respect. Yet now, “polymath” or “Renaissance man” is a term that has been relegated to undergraduate college applications, where schools like Columbia and Harvard boast of their “holistic approach to learning” (only to later cajole you into a specific major, or “concentration” if you bleed crimson).
The polymath simply cannot keep up with modern times. He would never be able to self-brand. He is someone who pursues what interests him, not what will necessarily put him in the best position for a job. He wants to not just be a specific cog, but the entire machine. His desire to live free of labels, free of “specific expertise,” free of being niched or pigeonholed is entirely antithetical to self-branding. After all, self-branding is centered on business, careers and fame. And while these things certainly fuel us, they are not the only things worth paying attention to.
So we must ask ourselves, What is more important: a well-honed single skill or great competency in many fields, where critical thinking across disparate disciplines coalesce to a form a truly fascinating person? Business sapience would tell us that we should funnel our sprawling personalities into a few key points, ready to pitch at a moment’s notice.
Yet, perhaps it is best to live against the grain. If we let our various skills and hobbies and experiences overflow into something that’s impossible to categorize, we can escape the simulacrum of self-branding. When self-branding gives way to attacking any project we want, writing any article that interests us, pursuing any subject that stands out to us, what we are left with is something entirely individual. And, although it cannot be pitched, like the varied genius of a polymath, this escape from self-branding is the only way to stay entirely unique.