Personal branding is a common concern amongst artists and creatives. Is the idea even useful? Could it be that the work is our brand instead?
I’ve been wondering about ‘personal branding.’ To me brands are often works of fiction. Sure, Nike or McDonalds make actual things in the world and have a history, but the brands are real only in the same sense that Batman or Sherlock Holmes are real.
At the extreme personal branding feels vain. A few heavily photoshopped profile pictures, an exaggerated and overly flattering ‘about me’ text, all contributing to a carefully curated version of ourselves aimed at impressing an online audience.
And yet, so many smart creatives I speak to talk about personal branding. It makes me wonder what the phrase might mean in its best sense and how, if at all, it can be redeemed.
Personal Work – In An Artistic Sense
In most creative fields, personal work refers to those passion projects that don’t have a direct client or any immediate commercial value. A photographer might have a good business selling portraits, but their personal work might be something different, like working in an old medium (say, film or plate) or photographing other kinds of subjects, like landscapes or architecture.
We learn in school that the way to present ourselves to the world is through our CV, or a resume, listing our achievements and work experience, in the hope that people will hire us to do more of the same. But, what if we don’t want to be defined only by what we have been paid to do in the past?
Personal work can be powerful because it’s a way to showcase the most authentic expression of our creativity. In this sense, personal branding makes some sense as an attempt to present this aspect of our work to the world. It’s a way to say something more than just look at what I’m already known for and take a look at what I’m capable of doing, if given a little more freedom, a little more creative scope.
Personal Work – In A Psychological Sense
Another way we use the phrase personal work is to describe self–improvement. This might mean learning to better manage one’s emotions, commitments, or relationships, or trying to overcome something like addiction or grief. None of this, if done properly, is easy.
While writing No Missing Tools, I had plenty of moments that made me reflect on my life, especially my early creative experiences. This was often deeply emotional. Any major creative project that taps into our biography, our life–story, has the potential to challenge our sense of self and make us wonder about the work we do and our true mission in life.
This kind of personal work really should change how we present ourselves to the world; in fact, it can help us to be more honest and authentic in doing so.
Personal Branding Should Point To Actual Work
What both these notions of personal work have in common is that they point to actual work. Building your personal brand from them would be an exercise in trying to explain and articulate that work to the people we might meet, or encounter online. But, the substance is not the branding, it’s the work itself.
To be honest, I’m not sure quite how well we can reclaim a phrase like personal branding; it feels tarnished.
Maybe a better goal is to look instead at the things you’ve made, the work you’ve done. Let the work explain who you are, who you want to be, and where you hope to go. Let the work be your brand.