Monthly Archives: September 2014

Self-Branding Revisited II

All human beings are entrepreneurs. When we were in the caves, we were all self-employed … finding our food, feeding ourselves. That’s where human history began. As civilization came, we suppressed it. We became “labor” because they stamped us, “You are labor.” We forgot that we are entrepreneurs.

-Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and micro-finance pioneer

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argued that life before society was stuck in a “war of all against all;” man’s natural state was selfish and chaotic. The advent of government was marked by an understood agreement to a social contract, by which men gave up their savage desires in order to cooperate with the group, under the pretense of the group gaining more resources with less effort per man than any one member of the group could have leveraged on his own. Karl Marx had an almost opposite perspective: he felt that communism was a return to man’s original state, in which property did not exist and men shared resources in harmony based on need.

We now know that the truth is, of course, somewhere between the two. Humans have for their entire history lived together in social bands, but perhaps not as primitive communists. Hierarchies kept order, and bad behavior was punished. Bands may have distributed resources based on work, rank, or need.

Bands rarely exceeded 150 members, which happens to be the number of people we are roughly able to keep track of to this day. You might have 500 Facebook friends, but 150 is about how many people you could accidentally run into and share a beer with, sans awkwardness. For the average person, this may be about 100 people with whom they work on regular basis, and 50 non work-related friends and family members.

In a band (or tribe as well), you didn’t have a resume, but you did have a reputation. You didn’t have Google nor old Facebook pictures, but gossip occasionally kept your past alive. Everyone knew who you were, and what your “thing” was. Your “thing” was who you are, how you treated others, how you hunted or worked, your idiosyncrasies, and more. In a word, in a primitive band you would have had a “brand.”

The quote above captures it well. Becoming labor was overall a good thing: agricultural and industrial societies do a much better job feeding everyone than hunter-gatherer societies. However, and here’s where I am speculating, some degree of self-respect and individuality may have been lost when people started no longer having a “thing,” and instead started doing the same thing as three dozen other people. In general, vast institutions and their hierarchies made us feel like anonymous cogs rather than our own “entrepreneurs.” Perhaps this is also where being “labor” versus being an “owner” started to mean vastly different things in terms of how much property you own and what quality of life you enjoy. So proprietism is therefore kind of like the paleo-diet version of a form of organization. Everyone owns a little piece and everyone is responsible for their “thing.” Most of all, everyone has a “thing.”

Proprietism and Self-Branding Revisited

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.

-Lawrence Pearsall Jacks from “Education through Recreation”

It was about a year ago that I first made posts relating proprietism to the new era of personal branding in which we live, where lifestyle-design and DIY are paradigms and social media allows us to constantly show others who we are. I’d now like to revisit the topic; here’s an update in the growing realm of self-branding: Sally Hogshead, a leading personal branding expert, published How The World Sees You in 2014. The book involves taking a short test designed to uncover the way others see you, and then placing yourself into one type, out of no less than 49 possible types. Sally then helps you create your own personalized “anthem” based on this type, which helps you pinpoint your brand. Mine was the “trendsetter,” and I provide “cutting-edge thought leadership.” Fun stuff. Also this year, Brenda Bence has written a self-branding how-to guide entitled Master the Brand called You.

The point I’d like to make here is that your brand, perhaps “cutting-edge” in my case, is who you are no matter what you’re doing. For example: at work, I dress well (thanks to my wife), and strive to keep a very tight-knit team-oriented atmosphere, while watching our shipping budget and approaching challenges with pragmatism. During lunch and over the weekend, I ride a sturdy but not overpriced bicycle whether or not I’m experiencing joint pain. My coworkers know this, and it adds to my brand of hard-work, leading from the front, and practicality in regards to money. I am in a band, and which adds to my image of being edgy and creative. Some even know that I write a blog, which maintains the idea that I am industrious and contemplative. While I can make a distinction between work and play (as there are many things at work I still have to do, not to mention my commute), I see the gap closing. Every day I gain constant real-world experience leading a team of individuals, each with their own unique brand (developed to varying extents), through harsh economic times.

While many folks prefer a work/life seperation, I believe that embracing the wholeness of it all makes work much more stimulating and fun. Your “brand,” is where it all starts. Everything you do, work or play, adds to your brand. This business paradigm, popularized in 1997 by Tom Peters, is experiencing a resurgence right now in the business world. In my opinion, it is a paradigm that is going to stick around, perhaps permanently, as more and more workers become independent. So if you haven’t already, get started. My advice: start with your favorite fun activities, and ask yourself what they say about how you approach your work. A well-branded worker can purvey value much more quickly and clearly than one who isn’t.

The Twilight of Institutionalism

I recently finished reading volume one of The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama. The author takes you through the early history of many civilizations, pinpointing the critical characteristics of institutions that may have affected the success or failure of a society even today. The common motif is that a written rule of law and checks and balances to an authority’s power often allow for a corruption-free society to flourish. Also, Fukuyama agrees with Nicholas Wade, author of A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes Race and Human History that a population’s behavior in society may reflect the institution-type in which their ancestors lived.

After finishing the first volume, I adopted a new view on history: civilization is the story of the development of human institutions. The Wikipedia definition of an institution is “any structure or mechanism of social order governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given community,” such as constitutions, religions, and organizations. Fukuyama states that by definition, an institution creates rules that reduce human freedoms, but in doing so permit the institution to have more efficient collective action. Human history therefore contains within it a survival-of-the-fittest style contest between institutions and their version of what Thomas Hobbes called the social contract.

The next logical question is, where is the evolution of institutions going? The world around the year 200 BC might have suggested that centralized governments are the strongest institutions, and they will naturally grow until the world is comprised of only a few or even one incredibly powerful institution. At the time, Rome dominated Europe and the Qin dynasty dominated Asia. However, history has now given us repeated examples of mega-institutions fracturing: Europe after Rome, the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, Christianity today, Islam today, Gran Colombia, just to name a handful from this long list.

The United States is very institutionalized. It’s made up of a federal government, state governments, counties, districts, cities, businesses, agencies, educational systems, membership organizations, and more, each with their own laws. Its “I’ll sue you” culture has saturated government and businesses alike in rules and procedures, something I discussed in this post. In many cases, our institutions violate the very purpose of an institution as stated above: to permit efficient collective action.

So can it swing back the other way? Can the United States become less like a precarious pile of wrought-iron institutions and more like the strong web Spider-Man would have to make to prevent the falling institutions from crushing innocent people? In another post, I explored the institutional detachment of millennials. Though the data can’t predict a trend such as “the US is becoming less institutionalized,” I have hope that this survey at least has some prophetic power.

The reason why is central to proprietism: technology. The more perfect our information systems become, and they appear to still be conforming to Moore’s law, the less we will have to subject others to procedures, and the more we will be able to make flexible, real-time decisions (I touched upon this topic here). Humans have an innate predisposition to make and follow rules, and rules exist to counteract that urge we sometimes get when nobody is looking to gain at the expense of somebody else. Cyberspace calls for a different level of accountability. Someone may not always be looking, but your actions may be forever captured in zeros and ones, waiting to be recalled if necessary. Sound scary? It shouldn’t. Big brother’s not going to be watching your every move, and some even argue that transparency can be leveraged. Human society will always function with a small degree of rule breakage; what matters is the rationale behind the it.