But Once You're Gone, You Don't Come Back

Here’s the question of the day. If your name is mentioned in some kind of conversation, whether on the internet or offline, how do people identify you? Are you the founder of a company that does something? Are you a blogger? Photographer?

When they hear your name, do they associate you with a movement? Are you an expert in something? Does your reputation put you in a position of leadership or authority? Are you, like the guy I met a few weeks ago, an I.T. Project Manager?

Does your job identify you? Do you find your value – heck, do others find your value – in what you do or what you are associated with?

If the answer to any of these questions are “Yes”, you have failed. The good news is, that’s not the end of the story. More after the jump

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I’ve said before that what people know about me via my very public persona is only a fraction of who I really am. Who we are when no one is looking is really what makes a man. But I digress. This post is not about the philosophical side of character. Instead, I want to talk about the pigeon hole.

It’s very easy to paint yourself into a box. Whether you see something that interests you and latch on to it or you make sure that you are a panelist or a speaker at industry events, you end up painting a picture of who you are to the world.

From a purely professional standpoint, this can be a real winner. However, like the I.T. Project Manager mentioned above that operated in that singular role for more than 15 years and who is now out of work and can’t find anything else, it can also be dangerous. It’s even more dangerous when the trend you associate with turns out to be nothing more than a fad.

I’m a big fan of hip hop, these days. In Curtain’s Up, a song on Eminem’s album Encore, fellow rapper 50 Cent rhymes these words:

You a fad, that means you’re something that we already had
But once you’re gone, you don’t come back

Sidenote: I always wanted to use rap lyrics in a post. Fantasy completed.

In a perfect world, you’re able to diversify your trade. You become an expert in something, yet have your feet firmly planted in other areas as well. You’re able to rap (pardon the expressions, considering the above lyrics) in multiple worlds. You have diversity in what you do, both personally and professionally.

When someone is asked what they think of you, in an ideal world, they have no idea how to categorize you. That’s where you want to be. When the walls come down because of job situations, the economy or the trends in the world, you have something to fall back on.

As a bonus, this is also the rationale for a lot of pro athletes who decide to get their degrees before entering pro sports.

Published by

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

9 thoughts on “But Once You're Gone, You Don't Come Back”

  1. Interesting insight here Aaron – after I answered yes to the question and saw that I’ve failed, I had raised eyebrows! I think it’s great that new media and all these social innovations have propelled some great people forward into various areas – heck, it’s helped me to do the same. At the same time I’ve also been able to explore and learn about various other things that catch my interest such as volunteering, philanthropy and youth development.

    I think it’s tough however to expect people to attach all of those features to you based solely on what you have put out there online or in public, in general. I think what the real important takeaway is that you have maintain relationships (solid ones) with those you have come into contact with through these social networks and tools. Not necessarily putting various aspects of your interests in public all the time just for the sake of being diverse. The important part is, when you do get laid off or something, can those people you really feel you’ve connected with, hear you out on a couple ideas on doing something else and then helping you down that path.

    Once again, great thoughts – just also expanding it a bit more and looking deeper into what people really have to know about you: that they either like/connect with you or they don’t.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly but I have seen instances where managers (perhaps less then ideal managers) aren’t sure how to appreciate someone’s contribution unless they can pigeonhole them.

  3. I believe, if you are satisfied with what you are currently doing, and are able to be content with your current situation, and feel like you can sleep at night knowing you are a good person and helpful and friendly, you are doing just fine…

  4. It is for this reason that I get annoyed with people who give Twitter/other social media platform “advice” – only be professional. Only. Don’t you dare look like you’re having too much fun.

    When I’m at the office, I dance around, crack jokes, and am considered a valuable member of the team. Why shouldn’t I be all of that and more in my digital world too? If people want to judge me based on a Facebook picture with a tequila shot in my hand, it’s their loss.

    1. No — it’s yours. Part of having fun and being professional is knowing who to reveal what to. I don’t put my photos on Facebook. I don’t like being tagged in very many. And I definitely only let my friends see ones I’ve been tagged in.

      The people who you dance around and joke with KNOW YOU. The hiring manager looking around facebook just sees a drunk girl with a shot glass in her hand. And who knows what else is in that album.

      Know your audience.

  5. This sentence draws my attention: “. Who we are when no one is looking is really what makes a man.” I had it somewhere in my subconscious mind. Also I want to add this:

    What you are is a question only you can answer.
    Lois McMaster Bujold, The Warrior’s Apprentice, 1986

  6. If your goal is to make yourself marketable with the intent to fill a specific position within the corporate structure, how you label yourself can be important. That said, the key is to create a skill set that translates into multiple positions within a variety of industries so no matter what the position, you can illustrate that you’re qualified for it.

    The online persona you craft can be as narrow or as wide as you choose. Some subscribe to the “control what people know…” mentality, while others subscribe to the “what you see is what you get…” point of view. What is best isn’t for anyone else to decide. It’s depends solely on your perspective and what you feel is appropriate.

  7. I get the point, but don’t agree entirely. I agree that the ability to be labeled can pigeon-hole you — trap you at a certain place in your career. But also, the ability to be labeled improves people’s ability to remember you and, therefore, to proactively act on your behalf when they hear about appropriate opportunities.

    So I would add a couple of nuances to this — the ideal situation is to be able to answer “yes” to some of those questions for people who don’t know you well, but to defy categorization for people who do know you well. I would also say that the ability to quickly add those identifiers as trends shift is important.

    Do you honestly think either Eminem or 50 Cent would give up being known as a “rapper” in order to simply be known as an “entertainer”? There’s no “entertainer” section in music stores, no “entertainer” format on radio. Frankly, you have to be able to fit the label to find the audience, particularly to find NEW audience beyond your current loyal fan base.

    So I would say NOT to shy away from those labels. Just wear them like a badge, not a tattoo.

  8. Making yourself an indispensable source of information can establish your identity as an authority marketer. The more helpful and valuable your information is the greater the chance those customers will purchase from you. This is the concept of attraction marketing – develop personal relationships with existing clients and become a person of value, so that they have the underlying feeling of attraction and want to come back for more. These clients will also bring in more business for you via referrals.

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