Perhaps we’ve all been too wrapped in ourselves for 33 years to correct the misquotation, but the phrase Tom Wolfe used in New York magazine way back in 1976 was actually ‘The Me Decade’, rather than generation. (For a cheap exercise in time travel, the article is still online.) Mind you, in helping ourselves [sic] to this handy epithet, we’ve been misinterpreting as well as misquoting him. As summarises, Wolfe was describing:

… the new American preoccupation with self-awareness and the collective retreat from history, community, and human reciprocity. The term seemed to describe the age so aptly that it quickly became commonly associated with the 1970s. Compared to the 1960s, Americans in the 1970s were self-absorbed and passive. Americans turned from street theater to self-therapy, from political activism to psychological analysis. Everyone, it seemed, had an analyst, adviser, guru, genie, prophet, priest, or spirit.”

As work models – and daily life – in the UK continues to absorb American influences, we have clearly moved on since the 1970s in a lot of significant ways. The zeitgeist has been influenced by an increasing presence of business and commerce in every aspect of our lives: the emphasis on enterprise and free markets has been possibly the biggest factor in cultural change in the years since Wolfe’s article.

But habits are, notoriously, hard to change. We may have abandoned our communes (much more 70s than 60s, despite cultural mythology), mostly put our crystals away and applied a strict-cost benefit analysis to the percentage of our incomes we’ve spent on quasi-spiritual pursuits, but we’re still generally pretty self-absorbed. As the same era has seen the demise of the ‘job for life’, and a transformed – and much more competitive – jobs market, we’ve not had a great deal of choice. Life may always have been a case of sink or swim, but the pool has been getting deeper in recent years.

In an essay probably as famous (in business circles) as Wolfe’s, Tom Peters’ article The Brand Called You, published in Fast Company in 1997, was the first to openly voice the idea of the individual being a brand that needs to vigorously market itself, in the same way the private sector businesses have always done. (Like Wolfe, Peters’ article is also still available online.) Re-read 12 years on in England, it’s easy to tell it was written during a more optimistic time and for an American audience, but it’s still an arresting mixture of the insightful and the cheerleading. Here are a couple of quotes that give a flavour:

It’s time for me — and you — to take a lesson from the big brands, a lesson that’s true for anyone who’s interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of work. Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You. It’s that simple — and that hard. And that inescapable.”

 … don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle. it’s also a principle that every corporate brand understands implicitly, from Omaha Steaks’s through-the-mail sales program to Wendy’s “we’re just regular folks” ad campaign. No matter how beefy your set of skills, no matter how tasty you’ve made that feature-benefit proposition, you still have to market the bejesus out of your brand — to customers, colleagues, and your virtual network of associates. For most branding campaigns, the first step is visibility. […] There’s literally no limit to the ways you can go about enhancing your profile. Try moonlighting! Sign up for an extra project inside your organization, just to introduce yourself to new colleagues and showcase your skills — or work on new ones. Or, if you can carve out the time, take on a freelance project that gets you in touch with a totally novel group of people. If you can get them singing your praises, they’ll help spread the word about what a remarkable contributor you are.”

While Peters’ approach might jar with more European social and working culture even in late 2000s, it strikes me that the potential for cultural difference wasn’t the biggest thing he may have overlooked. That award should probably go to human nature: the messages – that this vigorous self-branding needs to be based on, and built on, real working achievements, and that style needs to be applied to substance – seem, in hindsight, to have escaped quite a number of us.

A more quintessentially English figure would seem to agree. Peter York knows a thing or two about branding. Indeed, Peter York is a brand – the author and broadcaster alter ego of Peter Wallis, whose professional profile you can also view online. (If you have a typical English taste for irony, note that Wallis’ consultancy, SRU, remains a private – in the ‘shy, retiring, reclusive; sense – company, and has no public website: that contrast with Peters’ article is striking.)

Writing in the current edition of the Economist offshoot magazine, Intelligent Life, he explores the history of personal branding in an article called The Big Sell. (At time of writing, the article is not available online.) Although the bon mot and the witty phrasing are elements of the Peter York brand, Wallis is a man who knows that a wedge can be more than a hair cut or a shoe style, and can recognise a thin edge when he encounters one. For a man hardly unfamiliar with PR, personal branding clearly doesn’t strike as the industry’s greatest moment, no matter how it might seek to present it. Here’s an extract that illustrates York’s experience at the receiving end:

While recruiting for my company in the early 1990s, I met lots of business-school boys and girls. The first few struck me as completely amazing – their confidence, their projection. The things they said on their CVs about being ‘natural leaders’, how they were high achievers and team players, their range of smart internships worn like a row of medals, their international experience, impressive travel histories and achievements in smart hyper-active sports. And that was only the girls. It was terribly impressive and exciting, if a bit exhausting.

But by the fifth interview I could see that they were all doing a branding job, building a character from ready-mades, the kind they gave them at Robot School. I started to tune into the vocabulary, and the body language […] and longed for a candidate to tell me they collected 17-century Iznik pottery, or better still, watched a lot of television.”

York’s point is – or should be – instructive: if our intention is to stand out, we don’t achieve it by adopting a universal stereotype. He makes the comparison with plastic surgery (another truly ‘me generation’ pastime) where the participants now seem only to look increasingly alike. If we’re looking for competitive advantage, selling points surely need to remain unique?

Yet there are two more important points that should be made. Firstly, that the generalist image consultancy industry is ultimately serving only itself: if someone as smart as York/Wallis finds its outputs indistinguishable from each other, it’s an industry that is failing its clients, who are presumably paying good money as an investment to make themselves better money in return. If they’re failing to stand out at initial interview, their investments aren’t showing a great return.

The second point lies closer to the heart of effective personal development in any working context: any business is looking to benefit from its recruitment and retention policies and practices, and personal development achieves better results where the individual’s objectives are aligned with their team or organisational, context. We should progress and succeed for what we achieve for our organisations, not purely for ourselves. If acting detrimentally to the social good now runs the risk of an ASBO, shouldn’t business be inventing – and implementing – the ACBO (Anti-Commercial Behaviour Order)?

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