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You look great!


Every other Passover we used to drive eleven hours from New Jersey to Toronto to visit my grandparents.

My dad, an ordained rabbi, was a closet trucker and he absolutely loved the road. There he would be, at three a.m., heading into the truck stop to get a huge piping hot coffee. 

"Do you want to go in?" he would say to me. 

Despite the time, I was up like it was daytime. It was exciting driving around all night. And I would chirp, "Sure!" and follow him in.

One time we stopped at a gas station called Hess, if you remember them from way back when. Amidst all the chatchkes (trinkets) there was one beautiful thing that caught my dad's eye. The famous Hess truck. This one actually had lights running all along the sides.

My dad fell completely in love. "Here," he said. "I want you to have it."

"Are you sure?" I said. "This looks expensive."

"I'm sure," he said. "It's yours."

I didn't like trucks at all. But I loved my dad, who he really was. Not who he pretended to be on the outside, the polished image he tried to portray. Just him - the closet trucker. And to this day, when I think about the things I love about my dad, I remember that Hess truck and how he gave it to me with a glimmer in his eye. 

Fast forward a few hours to the moment we walked into his parents' house. My Zayde (grandfather), quiet and dignified, would nod hello. He had this sparkle to his eyes. May he rest in peace - I really miss him.

My Bubbie (grandmother), may she also rest in peace, was tormented in Auschwitz and could never recover afterward. She would come to the door and she would look at me, but sort of hollowly. Her head shook all the time. It was frightening. 

And then she would say something to us in the vein of, "You look..." and then describe our physical appearance.

We were not allowed to talk about what happened to Bubbie in Auschwitz. But we were allowed to talk about how people looked - seemingly a safe topic of discussion. 

To this day, it seems to me, one of the most acceptable social rituals out there - since you can't safely discuss a host of sensitive topics most of the time - is to talk about how you look. How other people look. How they, and you, might look better. If you're a female you will likely talk about that more than men. When nobody else is around, you'll spend time reflecting on that with yourself - evaluating, assessing, criticizing.

I am not sure why we do this, considering the harm that such an external focus causes. Aside from leading people to marry for all the wrong reasons ("Kim's Fairytale Wedding,") run up huge credit card debt, buy houses they can't afford, choose careers they don't want, etc., it literally causes them to obsess about their looks all the time - to the exclusion of living a normal life.

And wouldn't you know it - in today's big feminist age, the vast majority of people with eating disorders are female. It is believed that about 8 million Americans have an eating disorder, 95% of them between 12 and 25 years old, and the ratio of female to male victims is 7:1. Fully 50% of girls aged 11-13 think they're overweight, and 80% of 13-year-olds have tried to diet. There is a significant link between disordered eating and anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

Given that eating disorders primarily affect young girls', one wonders at the possible connection with childhood sexual abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in retrospective studies, it was found that 25% of women and 16.6% of men were abused by the time they turned 18. Most victims do not tell what happened when it's happening, either. According to studies published in 2000 and 2007, 73% of child victims don't talk for "at least a year" and 45% don't tell "for at least 5 years."

Mary Ann Cohen, CSW, the Director of the New York Center for Eating Disorders, says that 40-60% of her patients - female and male - were sexually abused.

What if we decided that, given all this information, focusing on your looks is an impolite topic of conversation? Recognized that so much of a focus on the outside, to the exclusion of what is on the inside, is a form of inflicting lasting and dangerous psychic damage?

What if we stopped weighing ourselves, counting every calorie, measuring every bite? What if we stopped cutting up our bodies to try and stay sixteen forever?

What if we went back to the way we were when we were kids? When our parents held our hands, one on the right and one on the left, and swung us back and forth as we said "Whee?"

If we could operate all the time with that sense of unconditional love, love that has nothing whatsoever to do with looks, imagine how much happier we would be with ourselves and with the world. What better decisions we would make. How much smoother our world would function. How we could truly make the most of the time and the relationships that we have.

What's the most polite way to greet people? 

I am not sure, but maybe it should be something like "How are you?" 

Instead of automatically saying, "You look great."


Image source here

Personal Branding 3.0: Be Yourself

I have been thinking long and hard about a comment I got from a friend on my tweets.

"Who are you?" was the gist of it. "You don't talk like that in real life."

Defensively I tried to explain that people read my blog and tweets because of the useful information they get from it. Not to hear my self-indulgent ranting and raving. 

Plus it's a personal branding thing, I said. I'm trying to shape an image, I said. As a brand expert.

"Why?" was the reply. "You're not a brand consultant. Nobody is going to call you to pay you a million dollars to be one."

No, no, no, I protested. You are killing my dreams.

But I couldn't ignore the message.

"Get it? Just be who you are. Nobody cares."

In the beginning I just used it to dump my blogs on Facebook. Posterous does it automatically. 

My friends, who know me from way back when, were talking to each other like real people. But I wasn't comfortable chatting online like I do in real life. So I never connected with them. Except when I wrote a blog that was more contemplative. And I would read comments like, "Finally a blog I understand."

Why couldn't I just be myself? What was the big blockage?

I think like a lot of people I couldn't really talk about the things that mattered to me. So the fact that you could write about professional-related matters was a good outlet for my writing bug. And the belief that it would advance my career was a bonus.

Let me say that I do think blogging can serve a purpose when it comes to promoting your professional brand. If you want to establish yourself as an expert in a certain area, it is almost required that you do so.

At the same time, that expertise is rapidly becoming a commodity. As was also pointed out to me, how many "Top 10" lists can you write that are really novel? It's sort of superficial and annoying.

Which leaves us with the question. If you are blogging and tweeting (etc.), and you want your blog to promote your personal brand, how can you do so in a way that will set you apart from other people in the same field?

Maybe we can think of it this way:

* Personal Branding 1.0 was to blog your life.

* Personal Branding 2.0 was to blog your profession.

* Personal Branding 3.0 is to blog your passion.

Please do not misinterpret this: It's not about oversharing or taking away your right to privacy.

Rather, in today's world, to be an effective personal brand - meaning to be viewed as trustworthy, competent, relevant and unique - you have to blog about things that really matter to you. You have to be real. If your profession is something you are passionate about, it will by default get woven into your brand.

Like I am very interested in culture, because I am somewhat alienated from the religious Jewish community that I was raised in. So I became a sociologist. Which translates to understanding group behavior. Which is also consumer behavior. Which led me to the field of trend research and then branding.

There are many examples of people who do Personal Branding 3.0 effectively. Each has their own spin.

* Penelope Trunk provides career advice.

Shmarya Rosenberg takes on corruption in the Jewish community.

* Mike Vanderboegh is a citizen activist focusing on gun rights and corruption.

* The Bloggess ("Jenny"?) is a feminist mommy.

You may look at these blogs and think the writers are crazy. Or so real they're awesome and worthy of copycatting. But whatever you think, when you read the blogs I think you start to see the difference between writing that has the ring of authenticity, and writing that sounds self-promotional.

Do you remember "Archie Bunker"? When he used to rant about stuff that to him was "crapola"?

The feedback that I got cautioned me against putting stuff out there that seemed like a pile of pretentious crapola. I found a lot of meaning in that comment and am getting back to what matters to me. I have the sense that it will be a good thing. Blog about what I care about and stop looking for affirmation or recognition.

Looking ahead a few years, as more social-media-savvy people get into senior leadership roles, and they routinely Google their prospective hires before bringing them onboard, the blogs of those recruits will be examined too. And people will likely be filtered out NOT based on their technical skills. No - companies will be looking for recruits whose personality matches up with the corporate culture. 

(This is already being done today, to an extent, and it often screws people up, especially students, because they don't know what they're doing or how social media activity affects their brand - and they wind up establishing an image online that's viewed as unprofessional.)

In that sense, when you blog as yourself, about things that matter to you, you will probably find that it benefits your career by shuttling you toward organizations that are a good fit for your unique personality and aspirations.

In the beginning there was the paper resume. Then it became the LinkedIn profile. It is trending toward the infographic-style one-pager plus the sum total of your social media activity. 

If you want to brand yourself effectively for the job market of the future, it might be worthwhile to actually blog, tweet, etc. as yourself rather than the person you are trying to be. Doesn't mean you have to open up your private Facebook account to the world (although you should know that it is probably findable); does mean that people will judge you based on whether you're a likable, credible, interesting person who is relevant to the goals they are trying to achieve.

Thanks to the friend who gave me a little nudge in the right direction. I hope this advice is useful to you too.

Social movements are like family fights

Watching Occupy Wall Street prompts reflection and discussion:

1. What are the protestors actually protesting? ("Not sure." "Unemployment." "The rich.")

2. Are they right? ("Not sure." "Disrespectful." "Just like Woodstock.")

3. Is anybody beefing up their numbers to score political or marketing points? ("Definitely.")

Reflecting on this movement - what it is, what it means to the people who have joined it - suddenly I remembered something that happened when I was a kid.

We had moved to an area way too religious for my mom and me to bear. It was stifling.

Tensions bubbled up.

I guess we talked about them. Or maybe we didn't. But we seemed to keep on going and going with nothing resolved.

Till one night, as Yom Kippur ended, the tension exploded.

My dad came home from synagogue.

He said to my mom, "Where's the wine?" For havdala. We were supposed to observe the Jewish ceremony.

In that moment my mom had had enough.

"You want the havdala wine?" my mother said to my dad. "THERE's the havdala wine."

And she, short and packed full of a rage she could not express in logic, she took an enormous bottle of Kedem grape juice (we called that "wine") and SLAMMED it onto the dining room table.

Which was covered in a sheet of glass.

Which shattered into a thousand pieces.

The four of us stood in front of the scene. Shocked. Quieted. And we moved away very soon after that.

The fight was quick and took only about 5 minutes. But it destroyed what was left of our little social order. And I will never forget the sound of that shattering glass. Because it signaled very clearly that the way things were, wasn't working. And that something had to change.

Social movements are really nothing more than family fights.

They result when the members of the family, who will under normal circumstances try to get along and not change a thing, find themselves unable to tolerate the status quo any longer.

In the case of Occupy Wall Street, that day has come.

What the particulars of the anger are, probably do come down to sheer survival. To the sense that regular people can no longer find success in the system. And there are other things too. Probably, and I am not a scholar of this movement, the fact that regular people also don't understand the way the system works anymore in the first place.

When you think about it, what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are protesting, is the fact that they themselves are occupied by forces they no longer understand and agree to.

And that is why I think we are on the verge of very major and very meaningful social change. I hope that it brings us to a better place in the end.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck.

De-fanged by culture

Note: The following is a personal commentary on the sociology of family and political culture and does not reflect any political endorsement or lack thereof.

Last night in a particularly telling scene from the E! special, "Kim's Fairytale Wedding," (notice it wasn't called "Kim and Kris' Fairytale Wedding"), groom-to-be Kris Humphries clashes with overbearing monster-in-law Kris Jenner as they plan the wedding menu.

The dialogue, while I do not have a transcript, goes roughly like this:

Groom-to-be: "I'd like to help out with the menu."

Mother-in-law: "So Kris what do you want?"

Groom-to-be: "Well I was thinking burgers."

Mother-in-law: "You've GOT to be kidding...well, maybe Wolfgang can cook us up some sliders."

Over and over we see the same painful dynamic playing out until the tension finally explodes:

Kim: "This is MY dream wedding and I've been planning it since I was 10."

Kris: "And you could just slide any groom into it, couldn't you." (Door slams.)

Sometimes justified and sometimes cruelly, the women continuously run down groom Kris Humphries. They question his motives, exclude his parents, hand him his opinions, and generally do everything they can to turn him into a brainless Ken doll, smiling like a bobblehead as he accompanies Kim-the-Barbie before the cameras.

In short, they treat him like handlers to a politician.

A terrible headline appears in today's The New York Post: "Aimless Obama walks alone." I read the story, which expounds on the headline, in sadness.

I remember when I first tried to learn more about President Obama's views by reading The Audacity of Hope on vacation. I remember being struck by how smart a book it was. I'm a sociologist by training and a marketer by profession and I could see an incredibly savvy mind, in both fields, working there.

It struck me immediately what a great, great personal and professional brand was being launched through that book.

At the same time I found myself a little unnerved by the very same sophistication, especially about marketing politics. I wish I could find or recall the quote about how you sell things without being to overt about it. I read it and worried that a politician must be a little different than that. They must be smart but also resistant to being too smart for their own good. They must be purely issue-focused and absolutely overt about what they believe. Two examples:

* Michael Moore, the political activist and documentarian, was interviewed on C-Span's Book TV the other day. Moore is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of person. He is a champion of the middle class. He wears his politics on his sleeve. He talks common sense, and he is saying what he thinks, but he is not selling anything. I can't imagine anyone telling Michael Moore to order sliders from Wolfgang Puck.

* Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is also a champion of the middle class. Watch her talk for two seconds and you can see the same intelligent, highly informed, common-sense mind at work. LIke Michael Moore she is not marketing herself but rather is focused on an idea. When people take potshots at her, she ignores them (much like Hillary Clinton), and professionally walks away.

Political culture, like Kardashian culture, absorbs unique people with something to offer and then neuters them. What happened to these words from The Audacity of Hope?

"Whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose....What is needed is a broad majority who are re-engaged and who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interest of others."

This is all stuff most people believe in. But unfortunately, an individual alone cannot surpass the workings of a dysfunctional culture, something President Obama himself anticipated:

"There are a lot of well-meaning people in both political parties. Unfortunately, the political culture tends to emphasize conflict, the media emphasizes conflict, and the structure of our campaigns rewards the negative....When you focus on solving problems instead of scoring political points, and emphasize common sense over ideology, you'd be surprised what can be accomplished. It also helps if you're willing to give other people credit - something politicians have a hard time doing sometimes."

What if we went back to the beginning and just dealt with each other as people, ordinary people, in a healing way? What if we forgave each other for being human and stopped trying to score points, letting the best ideas win the day? And worked together across the political spectrum to solve our problems together?

Maybe it is time to overcome our dysfunctional culture, and let people just be themselves instead of making them fit into some sort of brand. And let them contribute the way G-d intended them to.

If we decided to do that, it would be a great day, indeed.