How to Update Your Personal Brand Without Losing Your Mind

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala

We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.
— Tom Peters, “The Brand Called You"

This post is about personal branding, but I take a different route to get there: from the academic’s perspective on publishing. Publishing is part of our job, and we’re expected to do it. And publishing is like sending out into the world a 30-page article or 300-page book full of SEO keywords—through the sources we use, the stories we tell, the analysis we do. Everything we publish essentially becomes a SEO list of who we are as researchers, teachers, and citizens. Our personal brands helps get us jobs, grants, speaking engagements, consulting gigs, and the like. 

So what happens when an academic (ahem, me) realizes that s/he has to re-evaluate her/his brand? And what happens when that realization is painful because maybe, just maybe, s/he doesn’t want to change? Well, that’s my story.

Early in the month of May, I met with a colleague, who I greatly respect and admire, to talk about my academic identity and career trajectory. After a long and productive conversation, he asked me if I wanted the truth. Of course I did. (Maybe?) Then I learned that, somehow, my publications and conference presentations might be marketing me as not-as-hip. From his perspective, if I wanted more career movement, I needed to explore the hot stuff. The popular stuff. 

Hip: technology, design, networks, systems, robots, ecosystems, objects (which I wasn’t excited about).

Not-as-hip: discourse communities, literacy, discourse analysis, genre theory (what I was excited about).

I won’t deny it: a part of me crumbled when I heard I wasn’t hip. I didn’t not want to be hip. It stung. But it stung me into action. 

As an early career Assistant Professor, I know that I have to shape my brand. And I also know that the personal brand that I have also impacts the job opportunities I’ll have. Sure, I am getting articles published that didn’t incorporate the hip theories—which means that people don’t necessarily have to be using hip theory to get published—but getting my colleague’s perspective gave me pause. It gave me another perspective of how I was viewed in academia. And that is really useful information.

Yes, I could have taken my colleague’s perspective with a grain of salt. And, yes, I could have written him off. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to let his perspective inspire me to grow as a thinker, teacher, researcher, and writer. I used his perspective to pivot.

sometimes the greatest moments of insight happen when other people tell us what we don’t want to hear about ourselves. And it might sting. 

we shouldn't get defensive and retreat.

Instead, we need to use that insight to move us into deeper inquiry and exploration.

So here’s what I like to call the “Genesea 3.0” upgrade, which happened over the course of a few months:

Embrace Feeling Stuck
Yes, I shed a few tears of frustration. Yes, I felt stuck and overwhelmed. Yes, I felt conflicted about whether or not I should take my colleague’s advice. So I sat with those feelings and let them be. 

Explore the Hip Stuff
After I stopped feeling so sensitive, I read as many books and articles on the hip topics—postcomposition, post humanism, systems theory, Actor-Network Theory—to get a baseline understanding of what the excitement was all about. Sure, it was challenging. I was learning new content that had been off my radar completely. And it was mentally exhausting, illustrated in this Facebook update I made when I was in the thick of it: “I read three words by Bruno Latour and promptly had to take a nap.” (Which is true.)

Talk it out with People Who Know   
When I attended a Computers and Writing conference the end of May, I knew many of the attendees would be be able to fill the theoretical gaps for me. So during social events I mustered the gumption to ask fellow attendees (and mostly strangers) if they would explain to me the importance of the hip theory. Because I’m a questioner, I asked “why...?” a lot. And they were cool with that. Talking with friendly academics who were happy to help me through my confusion made all the difference. I don’t think I would have been  as willing to explore a different personal brand without their insight. 

Return to the Material
During the month of June, I picked up the books and articles again. They were easier to read at this point. And the concepts were starting to make sense—and even applicable to what I was already teaching in my classes and exploring in my research. But the crux of my shift was being able identify small nuggets of content that made sense—a word, a phrase, a sentence or two. My thought process went something like this: Okay…human agency, technology and objects, power, unstable and fragmented, beings being shared…these are things that make sense. I think I might get it. Eventually.

Look for Common Threads
While hashing this out with another colleague, he explained that my beloved concepts and frameworks weren’t dead, per se. But they have evolved to include how technology and humanity interact. Looking at it from that angle, it was easier to see the common threads between my not-so-hip theory and the hip theory: both are about relationships, communication situations, and audiences. But the hip theory includes technology a central part of the conversation, which makes sense given the technoworld that we live in. So, upon seeing the common threads, I knew that updating my personal brand was a smart move: I’ve learned new concepts that will positively impact my teaching and research, and I’ve embraced the personal brand pivot that comes with insight and inquiry. And that’s the kind of person I want to be.

Thinking about re-branding your “Me, Inc.”? Here are four steps to get you started with process:  

1. Ask your yourself who you want to be and why.   

2. Does that new you require a brand pivot? 

3. Be open to change by looking for common threads between your existing self and what's hip. You might want to journal the connections or do a mind dump brainstorming activity. 

4. Be patient with yourself. You don’t have to change overnight. 


Let’s talk! What’s been your experience pivoting your Me, Inc.? Or how do you know when it’s time to update your personal brand? Let’s connect on Twitter @GeneseaC and on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.