A friend recently made an abstract remark along the lines of “there is no reality, only perceptions, and life is about managing perceptions.” A common enough sentiment, admitting layers of interpretation depending on whether you are talking about marketing or the nature of reality. “Perception management” as a high concept has helped me, through the years, integrate a rich collection of thoughts on identity and the apparently faddish Web 2.0 idea of personal brands (commonly misunderstood as “You are Your Facebook Profile”). Perception management goes beyond individuals, but let’s stick to the simple case. Here is my current model.
The 12-Step Path to Brandhood
Psychologists work with Piaget’s, Erikson‘s or Maslow’s models of human development. Sociologists prefer notions of socialization, individuation and enculturation. I have my own 12-stage model. My 12 stages occur in rough rather than strict sequence. You can stall at any stage, and there is an associated pathological condition. Here we go:
- Socialization/Enculturation: You absorb and act according to the norms of the most coherent and dominant of the many cultures you are immersed in.
- Globalization: You watch TV and realize your culture isn’t the only one around, and act according to whatever uncomfortable mix of sub-, intra-, inter- and super-cultural influences you can process. Your fragmented self mirrors the fragmented state of the world, because you have not yet developed a filter that can define a boundary.
- Idolization: You realize you’d be more comfortable being somebody rather than a microcosm of everybody — a point in social space rather than the space itself. You pick somebody to be like. Could be Britney Spears, Einstein, Azim Premji or Aishwariya Rai. There is a reason The Gap is able to market only a few fashions and achieve economies of scale. Most people just want to lock into one of a few off-the-shelf designs for ‘human’.
- Naive Individuation: Your powers of abstraction mature and kick in. You say, “Wait a minute! I am done aping X!” and pick an archetype rather than a specific individual to mimic. You are rock star, entrepreneur, tortured artist, scientist, hacker, or Myers-Briggs type INTP.
- Search for Authenticity: Real life knocks you out of your chosen impersonation and you find yourself forced to conform to multiple archetypes, not all of which you care for. You tire of all the masks you find you have to inexpertly wear in various situations, and ask who is the real me? If you haven’t caught up with the times and developed a sense of irony by watching That 70s Show, you go backpacking, or on a yoga retreat, hunting for the real you. If you are smart, you realize that ‘authenticity’ is yet another archetypal persona that seduces you into a static self-conception. If not, you go down an obsolete path blazed by a stoned generation.
- Acting: You realize that the non-universal, you-specific part of the Who am I? question is not really that deep philosophically (the universal part is a different matter), and that the answer is merely a function of why and how you want to differentiate yourself at all. You abandon a meaningless search for authenticity, and revert to wearing masks to suit the situation: dating, business meetings, parties: each brings out a different persona, and you now start to enjoy the game, rather than resenting having to play it.
- Method Acting: Troubled by the idea of being a lifelong actor/faker, you decide to only project personas you can actually credibly inhabit. You start taking on tests and challenges to validate your acting abilities. You collect degrees and certificates to attest to your ability to play certain roles at a minimal convincing level. If you are foolish, you believe that having an engineering degree makes you an engineer. If not, you realize that jumping through formal hoops is just a matter of skill in jumping through hoops. That all degrees are degrees in acting.
- Skill: Some of your personas become increasingly comfortable to inhabit, through use, like broken-in shoes. You start noticing that you are now acting out the role so well that you are actually as good or better in those roles than people you previously considered “authentic” non-actors. This leads to the epiphany that everybody grows into roles this way.
- Artistry: You start breaking the molds you filled out. You have gone from pretending to be an engineer with a piece of paper as proof, to being as convincing a pretender as anybody, to reconstructing the meaning of what the role of engineer means (or if you break the mold awkwardly enough, defining a new role). You enjoy poking fun at people who hang their identities on their degrees and resumes.
- Integration: You start noticing dissonances among the various personas you inhabit, and start trying to put them together, as an exercise in aesthetics. Increasingly, inhabiting one of your roles means seamlessly inhabiting others, as you shift roles through the day. As integration proceeds, you find you rarely stay locked into one role for long, but are instead defined by your style of movement among roles.
- Fluidity: Jumping among the set of point-like roles in the space of personas yields to continuous movement. The roles/resume-bullets lose their meaning. You become aware of the gradual expansion of the space you can inhabit. It starts acquiring, through its growth, a shape and character.
- Brandhood: The integrated, growing space which you can inhabit with fluidity starts acquiring an overall sum greater than the parts consistency, that has only one analogy: the notion of brand.
At this stage, a disconcerting realization hits you: that you are your brand. That even when you are alone, not assuming a shape, Boggart-like, to suit the social situation, your movement through the space that is your brand still has a certain character in solitude. It is defined by your inanimate surroundings and the churn of memories that haven’t yet settled. You start to notice nature more. You start becoming aware of the persona you project to your cat, the tree you are looking at, that rock. You begin to realize that you are your manifest presence in the real, physical world. That your I only exists because everything else does. And then it hits you: that sitcom-joke of a path to “authenticity” that you thought you’d ironically abandoned in Step 5, is what you’ve been continuing on all along. And inquiry can begin.
The Age of Identity is Ending
Marx noted that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Call this the arc of farce.
For the idea of ‘identity,’ the arc spanned the second half of the 20th century. Between roughly 1951, when Kerouac’s On the Road popularized in America (and eventually, in the world) the search for ‘identity’ as the centerpiece of modern life, through the personal growth movement of the 60s and 70s, and finally, to the mid-90s, when shows like Dharma and Greg and That 70’s Show provided the farce, the arc ran its course.
Before the arc, you had only communally-dictated models for how life should be lived. After, the pragmatism of Gen Y and globalization conspired to make identity-seeking a slightly ridiculous activity. In parallel, in the scholarly world, what began as the intriguing musings of Maslow on self-actualization wound its way to the curiously farcical pronouncements of Martin Seligman and the positive psychology movement.
So what takes its place? The age of growing out and into your brand. It is a subtly different concept from excavating the “real you” that the Age of Identity focused on.
You are your presence in the world. Your presence and impact on the world are a function of the space of projected perceptions within which you can, and should, consciously manage your movement. The real you is not on the inside, it is on the surface. Personal brand management is not, as a Businessweek cover story recently proclaimed it to be, the idea that everybody should become an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing blogger, with a tasteless LinkedIn profile (allow me my little joke here).
It is the shift from a culture of self-discovery, to a culture of self-invention.