Lighting mediocrity’s darkness with personal branding

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Much has been said about personal branding, about establishing an unmistakeable identity in the online and offline worlds. Some judge it to be essential, while others call it the height of narcissism. That said, there’s an overwhelming tide racing to the shore now that only things like personal branding can endure: a tide of enforced mediocrity.

Take a read of this article about West Potomac High School all but removing failing grades as part of the educational process. By effectively removing the ability to fail, the school blurs the line between those students who are capable of doing good work in a timely fashion and those students who do mediocre work whenever they feel like it.

Fire in the fireplace

Here’s the problem: under this system, there’s no way to tell a B or C level student who works hard from a B or C level student who has no discipline. Changes such as this effectively make things like GPA (which were already fairly skewed and not terribly useful measures) and academic records useless measures of quality. As trends like this spread (and they invariably do), we remove more and more ways to judge a person’s capabilities.

Who would you rather hire? A hard worker or a lazy, undisciplined worker? Under models like West Potomac’s, you can’t tell the difference from academic track record. The diploma looks the same.

This is where personal branding comes in. This is where personal branding transcends being an exercise in self-congratulation and becomes a useful tool. As we continue to enforce mediocrity throughout our society in the name of self-esteem, those people who invest the time and effort to build credible personal brands will have the advantage when it comes to being hired, being promoted, and being valued. This is especially true for new college graduates, since they typically don’t have a track record of achievement and experience to point to, making one bachelor’s degree as good as the next.

So what should you do to build a personal brand? What should you advise your kids, your coworkers, your friends to do? Start obviously by stacking up achievements and doing great work. If you have no latitude to do interesting things in your current workplace, volunteer somewhere to put your talents to use in unconventional ways. Reinforce your great work by building out a strong content presence, blogging about what you’re doing, connecting and building a strong network as quickly as possible, and finding more opportunities to add to your track record of achievement.

Who would you rather hire? A B or C level student with a diploma and nothing else, or a B or C level student with a diploma, blog about your industry or vertical, well connected network, maybe even a magazine article or two, and a pile of LinkedIn recommendations praising them for their hard work as a volunteer? It’s a no-brainer if you’re looking to hire talented people.

No matter how much we neuter academic achievement or homogenize education for a consistently mediocre result, there is no way to disguise hard work, dedication, focus, and achievement in real world results. Your personal brand is your single best method for communicating that to the world, and as more and more signals of quality get diluted for the sake of poor achievers’ self-esteem, building a credible personal brand should become higher and higher priority for you.

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8 responses to “Lighting mediocrity’s darkness with personal branding”

  1. Great article!

    It’s a shame that we encourage mediocrity…it stifles innovation and encourages laziness.

    We put so much focus on being “fair” with the definition: everyone is on an equal footing, when fairness should be about giving the guy or girl who is most able to complete the task at hand.

    Even deeper into the rabbit hole, we’re taught, as fact, throughout our learning years through the school system that ‘survival of the fittest’ is an absolute truth, yet we try to artificially set everyone on a path to success.

    A degree isn’t enough. Building a network, blogging about what’s important to you and pursuing something your passionate about is a great stepping stone into a career worth waking up for.

  2. It would have been slightly unseemly for you to end this post the way it should have, so I’ll do it for you… “CAN I GET AN AMEN?!?”

    Couldn’t agree more, which is why I purchased domain names for all four of my daughters and will be teaching them how to blog and start building their personal brands in high school and college. I’m still amazed at how many high profile professionals I know don’t have any recognizable online presence.

    1. Jon, I do believe that you must be a brother from another mother 🙂 Are you talking about this quest with your daughters anywhere else online?

      1. Dave – I checked out your Facebook page and like what you’re doing. I’m not talking openly about this online yet, but will be launching a new website soon that is dedicated to this topic (and an e-book I’m writing). I just liked your page so that we can keep in contact as things progress.

  3. Few executives use a structured approach for personal branding. For good reason: By definition the vast majority of executives are mediocre (or worse). Highly competitive people always stray from the median. I think it is somewhat absurd to think that structural changes to education or workplace culture will do much to change what is statistically inevitable. Shifting the entire curve is really hard.

    Rather, the approach that is advocated by JonDiPiertro is the right one: Empower people (kids especially) to become exception at a personal level. Don’t ask the “system” to do a “personal” job.

    Great article Chris. I’d be surprised if many of the overwhelmingly mediocre HR executives will take notice. But I hope that VC’s, entrepreneurs and people looking to make a difference in the world will.

  4. ShermanRockwell Avatar

    Fantastic article, Chris! I’m wondering how we went from The Pursuit of Excellence to the age of acceptance.

    1. At the risk of sounding tin foil hat-ish, I think we’re encouraged to do that by many forces in our society. Companies have an active interest in encouraging mediocrity because it reduces quality control costs. Schools have an active interest in encouraging mediocrity because it’s less work. Government has an active interest in encouraging mediocrity and complacency because no one will dig deeper into what they’re doing.

  5. Your viewpoint here Christopher is SO right on! So far, I find that talking with students about personal branding is most difficult. Actually, I don’t even mention the term personal branding. While I love the concept and I love Tom Peters’ original intent, I think the term has gotten a bad rap from some online slick willies. At this point, with students, I am more concerned with them doing the great work first.

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