One of the most important pillars of the integral worldview is its understanding that there is not simply one self, but a myriad of constructed selves operating in highly complex contexts which are themselves manifestations of an ultimate reality.
So the self is personal and transpersonal; either way, the self does not exist independently from the language used to communicate its nature. The self is always communicated; that is to say, from a perspective which emphasizes certain values, the self is always branded.
One contrarian, Olivier Blanchard, hates putting the word personal next to the word brand. On The BrandBuilder Blog, he writes:
Here’s the thing: People are people. They aren’t brands. When people become “brands,” they stop being people and become one of three things: vessels for cultural archetypes, characters in a narrative, or products. (Most of the time, becoming a brand means they become all three.) Unlike people, brands have attributes and trade dress, slogans and tag lines which can all be trademarked, because unlike people, brands exist to ultimately sell something.
That core need to build a brand to ultimately sell something is at the very crux of the problem with “personal branding.” Can you realistically remain “authentic” and real once you have surrendered yourself to a process whose ultimate aim is to drive a business agenda?
Perhaps more to the point – and this is especially relevant in the era of social communications and the scaling of social networks – is there really any value to turning yourself into a character or a product instead of just being… well, who you are? And I am not talking about iconic celebrities, here. I am talking about people like you and me.
Think about it. Those of us who truly value attributes like transparency and authenticity (and that would be the vast majority of people) don’t want to sit in a room with a guy playing a part. If I am interviewing an applicant for a job, the less layers between who he is and who he wants me to think he is, the better. Those extra layers of personal branding, they’re artifice. They’re disingenuous. They’re bullshit. I am going to sense that and the next thought that will pop up in my head is “what’s this guy really hiding?”
Leaving aside whether Blanchard has accurately described any actually existing school of personal branding thought, he does have a perfectly legitimate view of the self from a perspective which sees business values (reputation, image, profit, etc.) as anathema to personal values (namely transparency and authenticity).
His view resonates with postmodernism’s obsession with transparency at the expense of all other values, and its de-coupling of authenticity with achievement (“Tell me how you really feel, not what you want to achieve.”) Blanchard can hardly imagine that achievement and its necessary components (e.g., slogans, tag lines, resumes, etc.) can actually be authentic to a self, apparently because they are foreign to his self-sense (they look like artifices to him).
Blanchard’s post earned a strong and lengthy rebuke at the Personal Branding Blog, where Oscar Del Santo replies, in part:
His tirade begins with a statement that sadly lacks philosophical or sociological sophistication and can therefore be easily dismantled: “People are people,” he tells us, “they aren’t brands. When people become brands they stop being people.” Not quite, I’m afraid. By the same token and under the same faulty premises we could fallaciously argue that people are not consumers, clients, voters, patients, citizens or biological entities. Yet people are of course all of those things and many more depending on the specific context and focus under consideration. And there is no question in my mind that in our digital 2.0 world people are (perhaps for the first time) also brands and have brand-like attributes they can use for their benefit without in any way, shape or form forsaking their humanity or their identity as people.
From the ulterior development of his argument, we learn that the animosity Mr Blanchard feels towards brands and personal branding stems from his negative associations with selling and the misconception that we can only sell by becoming “a character or a product”. “That core need to build a brand to ultimately sell something”, he states, “is at the very crux of the problem with ‘personal branding’. Can you realistically remain authentic and real once you have surrendered yourself to a process whose ultimate aim is to drive a business agenda?”. The answer to his question is obviously a resounding ‘yes’: I have not surrendered myself to any evil process or become inauthentic to create a successful personal brand and sell my services any more than I believe he has done so in order to become a social media author and sell his books. To claim otherwise without proof is intellectually arrogant and plainly misguided. And of course, both he and I – along with everyone else with a career – have “a business agenda to drive” (even if it is is just to remain in business!) and need to sell a product, service or idea: and we are none the worse for that.
I am glad to find in his post the words transparency and authenticity and once again sad that he should need to retort to expletives and offensive accusations to put forward his case (“those extra layers of personal branding are artifice… They’re bulls**t… Don’t be a fake. Drop the personal branding BS”). On at least one account I can most certainly put his mind to rest: nobody here is trying to be a fake or condone such behavior. In fact, our personal branding philosophy goes well beyond his own premises and not only has transparency and authenticity at its core, but is emphatically built on the primacy of values, can be profoundly spiritual, and is open to people from all walks of life including minorities….
Del Santo correctly realizes that Blanchard is attacking a straw man, not personal branding as it is actually described by its proponents. He and Blanchard seem unable to recognize whether “selling” can be part of the “authentic” self or not. Drawing on his personal experience (and that of others, I’m sure), he disagrees.
But is it really necessary to say that one or the other must be correct? When human development is understood as a continuum, and the self is understood as a developmental line, then actually both views can be viewed as correct from a certain point of view.
Let us loosely apply the labels modern, postmodern, and integral to describe the different philososphical points of view, each arising in a developmental sequence.
- The modern self is seen as divided between personal and business, and the latter is often taken as a roadmap for personal development. You are what you earn. Your business is like your family. You are the CEO of your own life. Your life has a bottom line. Achievement is everything. You work with brands, but you are likely to think of those brands as external to yourself. Your work life and personal life are highly differentiated and possibly segregated, and it is common to want to “leave work at the office.”
- The postmodern self is seen as authentic. You are more than the sum of your achievements. You are what you feel, think, and do. You are so inherently complex and nuanced that no social structure, no business, can fit you without alienating who you really are. Being real is everything. You know what’s real because it’s what you are developmentally moving away from: it’s everything that a business is not. The postmodern self sees its own stage of development as the end-point of self-actualization and does not recognize the difference between the modern self and the integral self.
- The integral self is seen as both authentic and an achievement. You don’t just be yourself, you become yourself; thus, selfhood is finally recognized as an achievement. Excessive attention to the interior life and its dramas fades away. Excesssively anti-business views and anti-achievement attitudes fade away. What remains is an achieving, evolving self. The new self must find ways of communicating itself and connecting with others who recognize its value. The new self reaches for a (trans)personal brand, a (trans)personal image, a (trans)personal worldview, etc., which allows it to integrate the stages of its previous development and interrelate with others.
So when looking at the debate between personal branding and its critics, it’s important to ask yourself: what is the self that is being branded? There is not just one self, and people often talk past each other when they fail to recognize this philosophical point.