A recent episode of This American Life (#598: “My Undesirable Talent”) told the stories of people who had become really good at things they regretted.
One of them was a guy named Zora, born to Ugandan parents and raised in Fresno, who went off to college and pretended to be an African exchange student. He did a whole Coming to America Eddie Murphy impression, first as a joke, and then, because so many people fell for it–and him–he had to sustain it for months.
He had fun with it at first–mainly because playing the extroverted, fun, upbeat kid from Uganda, he found, earned him far more friends and attention than he’d ever earned as the sole black kid in Fresno. He liked this newfound personality and character, and so did everyone else. He was beloved.
But, as you can imagine, he cracked under the pressure.
Forming real relationships under the guise of being someone else (in effect, mocking everyone you now call a friend) is, I imagine, a terrific source of stress. Especially when one of them was a girl he really liked.
When he finally broke character, his friends were thrown, but most recovered…except for the girl, who understandably felt mocked and betrayed. She was disappointed because he turned out to be, well, like every other dude. They were both hurt.
The whole thing kind of reminded me of Mrs. Doubtfire. And Tootsie. Anyway.
My point is this: How often do we get good at a thing because of what other people seem to want or need from us—and how long can and do we keep it up?
Fine, Zora is an extreme example. But think about it: How often or for how long have you been doing a thing you’re good at, that you don’t even want to do?
Because of the work I do in the brand space (ew did I really just say that) I know that there’s this level of weirdness that happens when someone fears they’re “pretending at” being someone or something else. There’s this whole panicky thing that happens. I’ve seen it. They worry that they won’t get “past” who they were or they don’t know who they are now.
Your brand shouldn’t be some other fake, glossy version of you. It should be, well, you.
Who you are now. And that that does change over time. It evolves. Like any organic thing.
The less of a gap between who you are and what you represent, the less confused you will feel and the more powerful your positioning. I always say this about brand: It’s a blend of your promise, your presence, and your practice—in other words, what expectations you set, what you’re like to be around, or what vibe you give off, and what you do over and over again.
So my warning is this: Don’t work hard at being a thing you don’t want to deliver on. Seems like a no-duh. But really think about it. Are you doing that?
This is of particular concern for one-man shops, freelancers, solos, business owners who are looking to grow and shift away perhaps from what they’ve been doing, to what they want to do.
Be wary of doing the things you can do, especially if you don’t want to do them.
Whether that’s certain services or offerings, or even being the person people come to for “x” when you don’t want to do “x” anymore.
The reason you may be afraid of doing this is because, like anyone, you’re afraid of turning business away. You think people are coming to you because of this one thing you do, even if you loathe doing it.
It requires an act of bravery to come out as you, to do what will serve you, even if it’s not what everyone else expects.
But what’s the alternative? Faking an accent so long you forget what you actually sound like? Bad idea.