I’ve never had a client who didn’t want to help people.

What I say to them (gently, of course) is that while of course I believe them, their good intentions do not constitute a brand.

Because everyone in their own way wants to help. It’s truth, but not identity. That we need to get past that to get to what makes them different, not the same, as everyone else.

As a brand advisor, my job is to help people get past the breakers: all the excuses, assumptions, platitudes and cliche, the noise and clatter around what they think they have to say, but not what they mean.

Keep going, is what I say. Past all of that. This isn’t an easy task, because people tend to hang out in the breakers, in the chop and churn; it makes them feel they’ve got a lot going on.

You do have a lot going on, I tell them, but the good stuff is further out.

It’s so easy to get caught there, though—as many people do, and some just say, paddling hard against the undertow, trying to figure out who they are and what they mean. When really, just a few hundred yards out, there it all is. My job is to hold them by the hand and urge them out further, to see what depths they can really achieve.

I get the fear.

The real the reason they resist swimming out isn’t just that it gets deep fast, but because they doubt there’s anything really out there at all.

What if there isn’t anything really that different or special about them? They certainly don’t want to find evidence of that truth.

They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s the ego talking, of course. That mini-me fashioned from equal parts need and fear that holds them in thrall, that says, No no, we’re fine right here, where we’re king of the current! They bow to the ego, and pump the brakes around diving in any deeper—it’s an act of self-preservation. The ego wants to create fanfare and fear of depth, because it knows that if it doesn’t, the jig is up.

But.

Once you can push past all that, swim out past the splash of daily chaos, small wants, to meaningful struggle and bigger goals, out out into the deeper water, those breakers lose their power.

In fact, from this angle, you realize how inconsequential they are—making a big ruckus, while the rest of the deep, living sea looms, rich and heavy and churning with real life.

The breakers? Please. They like to make a big fuss at the end, all style, no substance—really, nothing’s happening there. Like someone jumping in at the last minute and taking all the credit.

This is all very funny coming from me, since I have a deep fear of the ocean, and I, too, like to stay where it’s busy and shallow. I’m loathe to go past actual breakers to where there’s so much I cannot see. So I understand the fear.

The goal, of course, isn’t to loll around out there forever. You go out so you can come back in. And what each person does as they explore this new depth, and see who they are from a new perspective, is that all those ideas and intentions draw together into a new purpose that swells beneath them like a wave.

If you catch it just right, you feel the surge beneath your feet and can stand up in it, let it carry you all the way back in.

I’ll add I’ve never surfed a day. When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a writer first, and as a brand advisor, use words to identify and communicate what one person’s brand and business mean to other people. Everyone’s always caught up in “what they do,” but what’s far more important, I say, is the change they can make in someone else.

I worked with a man, a CEO of a software company, his name is Jyot (pronounced JOTE, like “note”) and he wanted to tell me how great his company was, how stellar his employees, how much he cares about them. That’s all great, I said. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but it’s not what makes you different.

I asked him about one of his most vivid childhood memories, and—this is key—something specific, a scene.

He told me about the time he was given a toy train with a unique feature: When it hit a wall, it would bounce off that wall and continue in the opposite direction. Cool, he thought. Then he wondered: What if I could figure out what makes it do that, take it out of the train, and put it into this toy boat I have over here, so that it could do the same thing?

So seven-year-old Jyot took the train apart to figure out how it worked and attempted to perform a kind of toy organ transplant on his boat at the same time.

He ended up with a broken train, and a broken boat. The struggle was real—he spent days doing this, only to come up emptyhanded and worse, down two toys.

I don’t think Jyot realized how powerful that story was, and why it mattered. He couldn’t; he was too close to it, and worrying about why anyone would care.

“Jyot. This isn’t just a random memory that popped up,” I said. “This is a pivotal moment.”

“It is?”

“Of course! This is the moment you became an engineer. This is the moment you realized you were willing to break a thing you loved to make it better. That’s what an engineer must do.”

 

(THIS, by the way is what TEDx talks are made of. You’ve got stories. You’ve got ideas. Why not you?  Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE, April 4&5 in Boston. To learn more and reserve your seat, visit tappedtospeaklive.com.)

 

Well, that changed everything. Because he went from being half embarrassed of a story to seeing the incredible lesson and value. And it became the opening scene for a talk he gave to his company. He looked out at his employees and said, “There’s a reason you’re here. Because I’m guessing there are more than a few broken toys in your past.”

This is not something I invented and gave him to use. This came from his life, his experience, the essence of who he is—and it came through story and scene, through the fabric of his actual experience. That’s what makes it so true, and so uniquely his.

What bothers me about—call it marketing, branding, how people are attempting to present themselves in the world—is that they’re all trying to be something else, something not aligned with who they are, as people.

They’re trying to create and maintain a “brand” as if it’s some kind of separate entity, a fragile replica of the real thing that requires kid gloves and a finicky diet. The best and worst thing marketers ever did was convince people their brand was a high-strung pedigreed dog that they have to drag around on a leash and clean up after.

When really, the way I see brand is simply this: What you and your work mean to other people. That’s it. And that’s everything. I don’t care whether it’s your website, your sales page, your keynote address or your TEDx talk—if it’s not specific to you it’s not worth doing.

But you can’t get at that thing if you don’t swim out, and dive below the surface. Because unless you’re willing to take a risk and say something of worth, you’‘re just not saying anything worth listening to.

Trust me, the risk isn’t that there’s nothing to say, but that you’re not willing to say it. But if you take a deep breath and swim for it, you will find one of the most precious things under the sun—and then burst up, gasping, to the surface, waving it in your hand so that everyone can see.

 

…Pssst. Is giving a TEDx talk on your bucket list? Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE, a transformational two-day in-person workshop in Boston on April 4&5. Walk in with a bunch of half-formed thoughts, walk out with your TED-worth idea. To learn more and reserve your seat, visit tappedtospeaklive.com. 

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