Yesterday morning I was reading “The Ten Best Books of 2019” in The New York Times‘ Book Review to see if I was on it (spoiler alert: nope). Anyway, the article contained a brief synopsis of each the NYT’s top 10 picks, one of which was The Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. I was drinking my coffee and skimming along and Mr. Barry’s book sounded pretty interesting – until I got to the last line of the review, which reads as follows:
“Their banter is a shield against the dark, a witty new take on “Waiting for Godot.”
And with that, I was done. No longer as interested as I had been. Maybe I’d pick it up, maybe I wouldn’t.
Because, I realized, while I’m not familiar with Mr. Barry’s work, I am very familiar with Samuel Beckett’s – especially on the Godot side.
As a writer, reader and former English major, I know that play. A lot of people know that play – even if they haven’t read it, or seen it performed, they pretty much get the gist of it. And, I’ll wager, a lot of Book Review readers are also familiar with Godot.
And because of this familiarity I immediately – and probably pretty unfairly – filed The Night Boat to Tangier away in the ‘this is like Waiting for Godot’ section of my brain. Sure, I know they’re not the same work, but in an instant that brief description defined the entirety of the book for me from now on out.
And pretty much killed my chances of reading it because, well, I already know Godot.
Yes, I know that I am a shortsighted, impulsive, largely uninformed idiot to take this position, and I know that I’m missing out on something here, but it doesn’t matter. You see, right or wrong, because I now have such a short and resonant snapshot of Mr. Barry’s work in my mind I probably won’t pick it up — at least ahead of other choices of which I know less.
In my brain, the equation now reads as follows: Night Boat To Tangier = Waiting for Godot lite.
It’s a stupid position to take, but maybe I have no choice. And neither do you.
In my defense, this quick-take approach is simply a result of the way we humans are wired: our brains are designed to keep things neat and efficient, and intentionally only focus on specific things at the expense of others. It’s a survival mechanism, because if we didn’t do this we’d be overwhelmed by all of the sensory data that’s constantly bombarding us. So when we get an idea of what something’s about, we immediately decide whether it’s relevant and then quickly package it and tuck it away on whatever mental shelf it belongs. In the Night Boat’s case, because of that easy framing, it’ll get filed on my mental shelf under ‘I already know what this is about, so no further exploration needed’.
And that’s not only a shame, but also the risk we all run when deciding how to present ourselves to the world.
Sure, I recognize Mr. Barry’s work is almost undoubtedly so much more than this simple connection I’ve made via a brief definition (it is ‘Top 10’ after all) and that I’ll definitely be missing out on a great opportunity that is likely far richer and even, perhaps, better than the work with which it is pithily coupled.
But there it is: the danger of the short definition.
It’s the kind of thing that kills opportunities, careers, brands and relationships.
So why did this idea of definition all jump out at me? And why, right now?
We live in a world that is frantic. We are all running and don’t seem to have time for anything. We are all constantly taking it all in, making myriad decisions based on scant information, and somehow have convinced ourselves – or perhaps been conditioned to think – that having the time to explore something in greater depth is a luxury.
And while I think this is (or perhaps leads to) insanity, there is a truth to it.
In my case, it’s something I’ve struggled with for years. Professionally, I identify as a Writer and Brand Strategist. But I am also an Author, Father, Husband, Copywriter, Photographer, Poet, Artist, Communications Expert, Gamer, Business Strategist, Surf Caster, Pumpkin Grower, lover of all things Halloween, Principal at LGM Creative, Storyteller, creator of the Brandphilic method, Hater of Soulless Consumerism, and nascent Screenwriter and Videographer.
And that’s not even a complete list.
Like so many of you, for years I too have wrestled with the “how do I present myself” question. And it has been paralyzing.
On the one hand, I get it: on the professional side, efficiency can be helpful – especially if you’re a business or recruiter looking to fill a job. So maybe on Linked In you make it clean and lean: For your convenience, I am these, and only these, specific things, these are my specific keyworded skills and here’s a tidy summary of my proactive, results-driven (retch) existence. Please pick me.
Yes, I get the convenience of quick Definition.
My business card – at least the unedited version (see pic) only says Writer and Brand Strategist.
But, I’ll argue, because it can’t say everything, maybe it should say nothing.
Perhaps this is something specific to creatives – I don’t know – but all of those things that we are beyond the quick definition with which we are tagged are those very things that inform our work. They are the creative well from which we draw to do our thing. And while it would be easy to suggest that if I were, say, a programmer, a tight list of all of the programming languages I knew would be all that matters, I think that that too is untrue.
Every profession needs to create and evolve and contribute and – until we’re replaced by our AI-driven robot overlords – that very messiness of definition is where our true value lies, not in the sanitized and short and concise one.
As I mentioned, I’ve been paralyzed: do I set up two sites – one as a brand communications writer strategist, and the other as a fiction writer, creative and all the rest of me?
Seriously, it’s tricky. You don’t want to be perceived as either an unfocused flake or a very basic cog or robot. And the same holds true for your business, or your brand. You don’t want to confuse people, but you also don’t want to present yourself as a parity provider either, because the latter is far more dangerous over the long haul.
If you decide to present yourself too tightly and for the perceived convenience of others, you are running a very real risk of making this two-dimensional version of yourself easily dismissed. Worse, if you do succeed in, say, attracting what you want as a result of this thin and tight definition, you may be perceived as only that, and will likely find yourself struggling for something more rewarding, fulfilling and true to yourself in a very short time.
So for me, I’m going all in and hopefully, the people and projects I want to work with will find me. Sure, I’m busy as Hell, but as of late I find myself restless and looking for new creative challenges and partnerships, and it doesn’t make sense for me to try and pigeonhole myself while looking to broaden my horizons. If nothing pans out, that’s fine, but if it does, I want to make sure the ‘me’ I’m putting out there attracts what I actually want.
And the same holds true for how you present yourself, your offerings or your business. Quite frankly, I think that’s why branding interests me so much because, for me, your brand is simply the way people think about you. How you shape and manage that is critical, because if you present yourself in a manner that will definitely produce higher ‘engagement’, but is in some manner false to what you really are, you’re going to attract clients that may not actually value what you really offer, and the resulting relationship with be brief and likely painful. Same holds true for humans. Like I said, it’s a tricky business.
I guess my counterculture advice would be this: present yourself as big and messy hopefully also as interesting and curious and passionate as you really are, and without apology. Be clear and professional, but maybe don’t be too easily digested; instead, be interesting. Pique curiosity. Be human. And be true to you, and others.
If not, you may wind up being thought of as just another commodity, a one-trick pony to be used or quickly dismissed.
And that does us all a disservice.
Is putting it all out there a safe approach? No. And Yes. The safe route says work passively in the system, hold on and don’t make waves, but that doesn’t feel much like living, does it? Plus any system that values that approach does not value you, so just how ‘safe’ is it, anyway? For me at least, if I put myself out there as thoughtfully and honestly as possible, then wherever I do land, and whatever new paths open up as result have a much better chance of being the just the right paths for me. ALL of me, and that’s pretty cool.
Y’know, I may just read Mr. Barry’s book after all.