As a career marketing, communications, and design professional, branding is one of my super powers. I can pinpoint a company’s voice, develop its messaging, bring it to life visually, and send it out into the world cohesively and strategically across all global communication realms. I have 5D vision: I know exactly what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to. And I seriously love it…it’s an adrenaline rush without the danger of crashing or breaking something (most days). Personal Branding though, is a struggle. Honestly, I’ve come to loathe it, and I’m not a hater.
I know who I am, I know what I want, and I know what I’m good at, so branding myself should be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. But it’s not. It’s maddening to be able to do something so well for others and feel frustrated and lost when it comes to doing it for myself. Especially with how crucial it is to my career. Like, I gotta eat (and travel), therefore I must work. As someone who’s been contracting, consulting, and/or working on a project -by-project basis for the last couple of years while keeping an eye out for the right full-time position, being able to accurately convey who I am and all of the things that I do matters.
This dilemma has kept me awake nights, along with illegal street racers crashing into trees at 1 AM, but you’ll have to stay tuned for that episode of Life in the Bethiverse. Seriously though, I’ve tossed and turned and stressed and swore for many pre-dawn hours trying to identify what my big roadblock around personal branding is. Yesterday morning, I finally did. It’s so brilliantly simple that it made me laugh, but also a catch-22 that made me want to cry.
What is it, you (hopefully) ask? You guys. Me. Us. Them. All of the things that we/I either can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t talk about or say in the professional realm. All of the “rules” that everyone looking for new projects or their next job is supposed to abide by. Like, not going back more than 10 years on a resume or LinkedIn profile (even if you have plenty of room on the page), or divulging anything that will even remotely give away your age or marital status or whether you have kids, toning down what you’ve done professionally so that you fit the status quo better, and not using potentially insensitive language or big words, even if they’re the right ones.
Socially, I am who I am, and I have a strong moral compass, as well as a twisted sense of humor, but with the exception of my small tribe, I don’t care if people like me or not because there are 7 billion of y’all in the world and that would be freaking exhausting. Plus, I’m an INTJ, and that just isn’t how we roll…it’s flat-out not in our DNA. So I’m just me, and my friends (who are amazing, btw), know I’m not perfect (oh, how they know) and they don’t care. They like and accept me for who I am and I don’t have to explain or filter myself (much).
Expecting that level of openness or familiarity professionally is unrealistic, but I’ve felt for a long time like I had to hide the unique things that make me “me,” the result of which has been an inauthentic and incomplete story and an underlying sense of shame or something resembling it about how I came to be where I am. As of now, I’m not playing that game anymore. I worked my ass of to get where I am, and it doesn’t matter where anyone else is or thinks I should be. I’m here.
So “here” is the truth: I’m a 49-year old woman with three sons who are 23, 26, and 30 that live on their own. I don’t look old enough for that to be possible, which has caused some weirdness when I travel with my boys, but I assure you, it is. It took me 8 years to get my BA because, as you may have surmised, I had my first child before university, then married and had two more babies that I took time off from school to care for, because priorities.
I graduated in 1997 and divorced the next year, making me a single mom of three in conservative Boise, Idaho…population ±150,000 at the time. I made career choices that maximized my ability to be a parent first, forgoing more prestigious but demanding or travel-intensive positions because I didn’t have the backup that made that an option. My resume does not travel in a straight line, and it contains things that probably seem odd to someone who doesn’t know my story. It does, however, do a pretty good job of showing that I’ve worked hard. My biggest strength is grit, followed by humor and adaptability. I can, in fact, think my way out of a paper bag, make it look pretty while I’m at it, and turn it into something else when I’m done. Because recycling.
I was told once during an interview that I “didn’t have the commitment required” because 45 was the maximum number of hours I was willing to work weekly. So I did the math for them: 45 hours + 5 hours of showering and dressing + 5 hours of commuting + 10 hours of getting kids to different schools in the morning + 15 hours of getting kids to and from baseball, basketball, football, climbing, soccer, tennis, track, orchestra, Boy Scouts, and choir + 10 hours of homework + 10 hours of dinner, laundry, and chaos control = 100 hours. 24 hours in a day minus 8 for sleep (!) leaves 16, times 5 days = 80 hours. 80 available hours minus 100+ hours of mandatory activities = – 20. Negative 20.
Even if they overlapped, which they didn’t, that left me 4 hours to sleep on average. So, 45 hours was actually pretty fucking committed. The truth was that they were looking for someone who was “unencumbered,” which isn’t viewed as a huge advantage anymore now that I am, because irony.
I’ve done some impressive things professionally but raising three amazing and decent humans that I’m infinitely proud of will always be my biggest accomplishment and I have zero regrets about forgoing a swank portfolio so that I could watch their school programs and games. Also, the absence of flashy or big-name companies on a resume does NOT equate to less work experience or being a “bottom-feeder.” In fact, smaller companies often require wearing more hats, so the scope of experience gained by working for them can be wider.
Another truth I’ve felt pressured to mask is that I’m single. Apparently, that’s an anomaly among women my age. I’ve never taken a poll. Some of my friends are married; some aren’t. Honestly, I had to stop and think about it since it’s not how I categorize people. (In my world, you’re either an Asshole or a Cool Kid.) “Marriage, The Sequel,” hasn’t been ruled out, but my last relationship choice sucked and had adverse financial consequences, so it’ll be a minute.
We all know it’s illegal for companies to discriminate based on age, marital status, race, etc.…but it happens. Consciously or not, the humans doing the interviewing are assessing where you fit into the overall puzzle based on what they can ask, but it’s challenging to express who you are if you’re afraid of “leaking” something that might clue them in to your age, family, or other personal details. Even if they can’t ask you about certain things, they can and do still judge you, so with only a partial picture, it can be easier to just decide that you don’t fit than figuring out where or how you might.
Twice, I’ve been told I wasn’t “a good fit culturally” for a company I pursued precisely because the culture was a good fit. I do my homework before applying, so I knew that in both cases, 1) I was close to the CEO in age; and 2) >80% of my would-be coworkers were married Millennials with an average of 1.5 children under age 5 and a rescue dog. Which I loved since the companies touted engaging in extracurricular activities together, like volunteering, bowling, or hiking. In spite of telling me how qualified I was and impressed they were, they didn’t love me back.
Maybe if I’d been more relaxed instead of feeling like I was playing cat and mouse with my words, they would have hired me. Who knows? What I do know is that being rejected because I’d be the odd one out on family bowling night or because someone didn’t want to feel like they worked with their mom was a bummer. But feeling like I’m hiding something by making sure I don’t accidentally slip about the ten years of experience that isn’t on my resume is worse and I don’t want to experience either anymore. (FYI, I have my son’s rescue dog, so that’s not a dis.)
So, I’m obviously not a Millennial. But I spent what would have been my Millennial years raising kids while my friends did all of the 20-and-30-something things, which has now flipped 180°, making these my de facto Millennial years. I’m not saying I want to be one, but they are currently the cool kids, and deservedly so. As the parent of three, I see up close and personal how their social consciousness, tech-savviness, need for meaning, and willingness to work hard for their avocado toast is changing the world. (A fave, by the way, so props to them/you for making it a thing.)
Which brings me to Generation X. We created Millennials. Literally. Right, wrong, or indifferent, we set the stage, made the humans, and ignited the spark. They’ve invented, discovered, and evolved, but so did we. We’re still doing those things with and alongside them. I speak for most Gen Xers when I say, “Dude, we’re just hitting stride…don’t you dare write us off yet.” (P.S. Baby Boomers are still kicking too.) Some of us, me included, have a Millennial mindset with a bazillion miles left in the tank and a couple decades of work and life experience to moderate it. Know what happens when you put all the above in the same workplace? BALANCE. Collaboration. Learning. Creativity. A whole new collection of Star Wars puns.
Finally, I’ll probably start screaming this from the rooftops now that I’m free to be me: I love to travel. Everywhere. Along with the sense of accomplishment I get from doing my job well or pride I feel when a project I worked on improves someone’s quality of life, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. Especially Italy. Standing in front of my favorite Botticelli painting and looking at it from 8” away fuels my soul. Which I’m pretty sure is Italian.
The ability and opportunity to travel is why I work, so it has to be central to my personal branding, and my goal is to find a job that either incorporates domestic and international travel as part of what I do or work that I can do from anywhere. Or both. The only stipulation is that the company I work for has to somehow make the world a better place.
I don’t have it all figured out, but I’ve spent a year and a half teaching myself Italian (grazie, Rosetta Stone and Duolingo), and I’ll spend the next two getting my MBA from WSU (which I can do from anywhere), plus whatever else it takes to make that a reality, because grit. I’m going to be brave and be myself, so you be you and tell your story. Own it. Brand the shit out of yourself. You got this.
If anyone actually reads this and it resonates, feel free to say so, because personal branding aside, writing this kind of stuff is mildly terrifying for me, cross-posting the shit out of it even more so. And if you’re someone whose company might be looking for or have a place for me, definitely connect with or message me and let’s talk.
For more about me (and what the hell The Bethiverse is), go here: http://thebethiverse.com/about-me/
For the slightly more professional (and F-word free) version of this article and more about my professional world, go here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ciaobethclark/