Advice & News

November 16, 2021

Should You Limit Your Personal Branding?


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Unless you are a job applicant communicating directly with a potential employer, sharing your career accomplishments is a matter of personal preference and a practice of personal branding. Especially with access to social media, people have infinite opportunities to tell the world -- or at least their supportive followers -- what they've achieved in their careers and tell a story to shape their professional reputation.

But how much is too much? When does your self-advocacy become self-absorption?

What you consider egocentric behavior might be different from others. And who's to tell anyone that they shouldn't boast about their career accomplishments? Whether you overcame tremendous socioeconomic barriers to earn your Ph.D. or you received a certificate for attending an online seminar, go ahead and post that selfie on LinkedIn. Bask in the congratulatory comments, "likes," and other digital tokens of social approval. You earned it!

The above questions are not intended to ego-shame and promote self-deprecation as career advancement. As a communication specialist at my university, I wish more faculty would share their accomplishments. It benefits the reputation of the individual and the institution. Also, when professors share their service or research with a wider audience, it expands their network and reaches potential collaborators, from what would otherwise be confined to an academic journal or a promotion and tenure packet.

It's important, however, to set boundaries to the way you share career achievements or at least acknowledge the adverse effects of having to maintain a personal brand.

In his book "Ego is the Enemy," author Ryan Holiday refers to ego as the need "to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility."

"Especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a 'personal brand,'" Holiday wrote, "we're required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, (we) forget where the line is that separates our fictions from reality."

The danger here is obsessing over one's career story where it becomes performative, not reflective of the actual experience.

"Almost universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive," Holiday wrote. "It's more 'Let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.' It's rarely the truth: 'I'm scared. I'm struggling. I don't know.'"

Now, you would never utter this "truth" in a job interview. Your goal in an interview is to deliberately explain your value proposition to an institution in a compelling (and, yes, truthful) story. But with the ubiquity of social media, you represent more than a professional commodity -- peddling your wares in an online marketplace -- you are curating stories that comprise your entire personhood.

Erich Fromm, the neo-Freudian psychoanalyst, identified in the 1940s the emergence of the "personality market," in which success in particular fields depends on the ability to "put across" one's personality in competition with many others, which shapes the attitude toward oneself. This has become what we've known as personal branding. Social media has blurred the lines between work and private life, making personal branding exhausting.

"If you are treating yourself as in a marketplace of personality or having a brand, then technically everything becomes work (and you feel busy)," said author/executive coach Brad Stulberg as a guest on the Deep Questions podcast with Cal Newport. "It's not just the cultural pressure of work, but 'My brand is being responsive' and 'I need to pose for the perfect picture on Instagram because, to have capital in my friend group, I need to look really pretty for this picture' … that's work."

Another problem about sharing your accomplishments is the danger of giving yourself a false sense that you've "arrived." Social scientists have called this the Intention Behavior Gap, in which people share their identity-related goals publicly, only to develop a premature sense of possessing the aspired identity.

The advice here is not just skipping the post telling everyone you've been accepted into a doctoral program until you've defended your dissertation, but also to raise your standards for what is an accomplishment. Too often people think they are building social capital and affirmation online for having eaten at a restaurant instead of, say, finishing a novel.

Here are a few more tips for sharing your career accomplishments:

Let others do it for you. Share your achievements with your university's public relations office, dean's office, or department chair for them to spread the word.

Include and credit others. This is a type of humble brag, but next time you share something you did, make it about something "we" did as an institution or department. Thank those who served alongside you on your accreditation committee, brag about your student research assistants, or just say what an honor it is to work at your university to be able to achieve X, Y, or Z.

Keep a private journal. Write down your successes and failures each day in a journal that you don't intend to share with the world. This will help you correct for the performative bias and see your accomplishments as reality.

Don't mix business with pleasure. Stulberg keeps certain areas of his life private so they don't feel like work. Try only tweeting or posting updates about career-related activities and moderate your time on social media so you aren't constantly maintaining your personal brand.

You do you. This is rather trite advice to end on, but if you read this article and you still don't care about seeming egocentric, or if any of the other risks seem worth the reward of possibly getting the job you want, that's perfectly fine. Be yourself. But don't expect others to always be focused on you. Brand fatigue exists for the business and the person.

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