I’m putting together a YouTube channel for a project I’ve been working on. I had planned on releasing it on a friend’s channel, but after some consideration, we decided it would be best not to. This resulted in an immediate panic on my part. I realized that if I created my own channel, it would have to be named, and might require a blurb or two, something defining who I was and what I was doing here.
I like writing. I love to tell stories, sometimes I like to blog or write an essay, and occasionally I make a foray into the wonderful world of poetry and spoken word. I would like to turn that into a career. Over the years that task has seemed either daunting or a matter of course, depending on how optimistic I was when I woke up that morning. But it’s always involved a plethora of very different projects, not all of which fit together into a coherent picture. I have all sorts of plans and dreams and castles in the air, and asking me to actually sit down and say what I’m about as a writer, asking me to boil all that down into a simple self-definition, asking me to actually get down to it and brand myself—asking me to do that is a little intimidating.
“What?” I think, “You mean I actually have to start somewhere?
My friend was amused, and probably didn’t quite get the panic. He’s more of a get-it-done type, less prone to worry. So he gave me a book about branding called Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk, who is a very successful businessman. And I have to be honest, thinking about writing as if it were a business feels a bit cheap to me. A little cynical. I’m not here to make money, I’m here to communicate! To tell stories! To make art!
But Vaynerchuk is not cynical. This is a guy caught up in the sheer fun and creativity of business. The subtitle of his book is Why Now is the Time to Cash in on your Passion. He wants everybody to make a living not just doing something they can live with, but doing something they enjoy. And Gary Vaynerchuk made a point about business that caught my attention.
The best way to brand yourself, the best way to market your product, is to be honest. Customers value sincerity. Consumers want someone they can trust. An honest businessman catches your attention. You know who he is and where he stands. He doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not, and that’s attractive. He’s not trying to deceive you or manipulate you, he’s here because he’s passionate about his product and he wants to share that passion. The fact that he can make a living off of it is simply the beauty of passion meeting opportunity.
There are two lessons I got out of that, and the first is rather obvious: businessmen are not money-hungry, soulless, vampires. They are people doing what they love. Yes, they market things, they target consumers. Yes, they do whatever it is they do in exchange for money. But if you could make a living doing something you enjoyed, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity?
The current cultural climate is not friendly to businessmen. When I was younger, I was insulated from that by living in a community of free-market types and blue-collar workers. I was taught respect for people who worked hard to get a job done and to earn a living, and I was taught to be thankful for an economic system that allowed the people on the bottom to work their way to the top. But for the past four years, the circles I’ve run in have not had the same values. “Big business” is that thing that exploits poor people, colludes with the government, and destroys the environment. And because I run in artsier circles at least some of the time, business is that thing people do when they no longer have the courage, the drive, or the inspiration to live life creatively.
See, people are funny. We can talk all day about not judging a book by its cover, about not being prejudiced. Pretty much everyone agrees that you should give people the benefit of the doubt and actually get to know them before passing judgment on them. But in practical application, we rarely do this. The people in my life who shout the loudest and proudest about tolerance are often the first to mouth off about businessmen. And, sometimes, I buy into their preconceptions.
But in Vaynerchuk I was confronted with the fact that people who market and sell stuff for a living aren’t just suits who sold out. They can be passionate, creative, and honest. And it’s Vaynerchuk’s emphasis on honesty that catches my attention. If you deceive your customers about yourself or your product, for a while you may see some success. But over the long run, they won’t trust you, they won’t stick around, and they certainly won’t recommend you to their friends. Market deceptively, and you’re just another guy selling just another version of the same old product. Market honestly, and you’re a guy I know and trust, a guy I will buy from. Honesty pays off.
That’s the other lesson I got out of that book: Honesty pays off. In a world of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and blogs like this, we all have the opportunity to put on a different face, to pretend to be someone we’re not. This is an age-old temptation. People lie about themselves and put on airs in order to impress others.
But the funny thing about this is that it doesn’t work. We can all tell a phony. And we all know that if you spend the day pretending to be someone you’re not, in the evening you have to come home and live with who you really are. After all the witty tweets and well-written blog posts and carefully doctored Pinterest photos, you have to live with your own fears and anger and insecurity, your clumsiness, thoughtlessness, and failures. Lie in public, bask in the likes and retweets, but eventually you have to shut off the laptop and be yourself.
Honesty feels dangerous. Letting people see your strengths, your good side, that’s easy. But letting them see your weakness and your wounds, the places where you are damaged or weird or just don’t measure up, that’s terrifying. It opens you up to insults, to shaming, to exclusion. It’s terrifying.
But honesty is refreshing. We trust an honest person; someone who doesn’t have it all together, and doesn’t pretend to. We trust his opinion, because we know he’s not just putting on a show. We admire his courage, because we know he passed through fear to obtain it. We admire his strengths, because we feel for his weaknesses. We can sympathize. An honest man is someone you can trust, and in an age of phonies, that’s refreshing.
Put on airs, and men will trust you only until you fail. Be sincere, and men will trust you despite your failures.
Lessons from a marketing guru: Honesty is the best policy.