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Friday, June 17, 2011

Personal Branding: Advanced Shamelessness Required

Once we met a couple where the wife was Jewish and the husband Catholic. They looked, talked, and even gestured like identical twins.

I tried not to ask the impolite question of whether they were actually related. (As a child I had read every single book in the popular novel series "Flowers in the Attic." Major plotline: brother and sister imprisoned by evil grandparents together eventually marry.)

Of course I asked anyway. Not rudely but - well, OK - sort of.

The wife smiled and responded, "Everybody says that. It's just that Jews and Catholics are remarkably similar."

I threw my head back and laughed. She was right. Our two religions, two cultures, have one major thing in common: a pervasive sense of guilt.

So yesterday I was watching CNN's coverage of the Tweeting Congressman's resignation. There was Dana Bash, solemnly taking the "he did the right thing by resigning" side. (Recall the Congressman calling her fellow interviewer a "jacka**.") And somebody else taking the opposite side. Saying that others had gotten away with worse and stayed, and that sexual impropriety was not going to be a realistic standard for others.

I wondered. Why do some people get away with things while others don't? What's the secret of being Teflon-like?

The conventional wisdom (as espoused by Bash) is that it's about honesty. It was the lying that did the Congressman in.

I think it's about shamelessness.

People raised to feel guilty about everything have a very tough time saying, "I did it. So what?" It's like the sins are vines growing around their neck, strangling them. They don't lie very well at all. Thus the Congressman.

On the other hand, people raised in a different kind of environment - where happiness is prized as a right in and of itself and unhappiness is sort of a sin - just don't think that way. The moral laws are different. They don't believe in personal shame.

The classic illustration of this cultural conflict is the dynamic between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. He is the epitome of the neurotically guilty, eternally miserable Jewish New Yorker. Seeking refuge in a flighty, light, bubbly and accepting non-Jewish woman unburdened by guilt. Of course, he loses her to Paul Simon and the lure of "groovy" California.

When it comes to personal branding, like all branding, it's important to look at things objectively. You have to stand apart from yourself a bit in order to "own" your brand. That means - yes - forcing yourself to adopt a certain shamelessness. At the very least so that you don't freak out when you do something stupid and others learn about it.

But at the same time, you also need a moral compass. To know what causes other people shame and guilt. Because if you truly are a Machiavellian operator with no fear of hell, and you disrespect the ethical concerns of others, eventually you will be a source of shame to them. And like Hester Prynne in "The Scarlet Letter," they will brand you with an "A" on your forehead and cast you out.

Be careful - be balanced - and good luck!