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March 11, 2008

Deleveraging the Personal Brand

Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

Perhaps it is because I am within a day of finals again (damn quarter system!), but for that, or some other reasons not worth indulging in as public a forum as this, I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately—our own, those of others, and those of society—especially, the relationship of such expectations vis-à-vis the (patent) meaninglessness of life. In particular, how do we (in the royal sense) reconcile the lofty—and very likely, unattainable—expectations that we and others set with the certain and blinding futility of life? In a dense and meandering article last year, I suggested that the way to resolve this paradox was essentially to ignore it, letting hope and (daily) contemplations of suicide coexist uneasily, mentally disquieting though that approach may be. Today, I propose an alternative solution: deleveraging one's personal brand (as we say in contemporary parlance).

As most of you who have spent any time toiling under the auspices of adding value could likely attest to, managing expectations is probably the career skill most crucial for leveraging one's personal brand in the increasingly global (diverse!) workplace. Often, it does not matter what you do, so long as you do more than you said you would, faster than you said you would do it. Harder, better, faster, stronger—or something like that.1

This skill is just as important in the personal sphere, if not more so. Ensuring that others do not expect more from you than you are inclined (or able) to deliver is essential to not disappointing those around you whom you hold nearest and dearest. Though I suspect many of you will be remiss to apply the particular phrase managing expectations to your (necessarily futile) personal life, most of you likely engage in its practice nonetheless. E.g., John was telling me that he took Sally to McDonald's on their first date. Aren't you glad we came to Chili's? Awesome blossom, baby! Or, Diamonds may be forever, but hundreds of Africans need not die for this cubic zirconium. It sort of looks like the real thing, right? Or, maybe, You know, I read somewhere that the average guy only lasts 40 seconds. That makes me sort of above average, right?

However, if you are like me, preparing others for the string of unending disappointments that is certain to follow from making your acquaintance is not the problem; preparing oneself for the disappointments wrought from self-deception is. This is where deleveraging one's personal brand comes in. What does that mean, you might ask? Simple. Using affirmative actions to proactively extinguish any feelings of hope or success that one may feel in day to day occurrences.

How does it work? Again. Simple. If something good happens to you, remind yourself of how irrelevant that particular event is in the grand scheme; how you are still a failure; how you will never amount to anything; and most importantly, how you will die alone and lonely, having never accomplished much of anything you set out to do (unless you set out to do nothing!). If something happens that gives you hope of happiness (or something equally preposterous), recognize the most likely result: soul-crushing disappointment. By actively monitoring the leverage in one's brand, and crucially, ensuring that it is not allowed to expand, one can survive the inevitable margin calls that follow the proverbial bursting of the bubble.

Still not getting it? I do not blame you. No one should have understood that last paragraph (though it is perfectly sound in the corporate dialect, and I bet a lot of you did—for shame!). Some examples should be instructive.

For instance, with regards to ego boosts, say that you get a compliment on some work you completed (if you work), or a good grade (if you are in school). The natural impulse may be to feel good about this accomplishment, but ultimately, that is only setting yourself up for more disappointment when you inevitably crash and burn. Instead, rather than focus on the present accomplishment, and allowing your self-esteem to build, one should focus on the bigger picture: it was only one assignment of thousands you will complete, it likely was not that good, and what is good anyway? Marginally better than the worthless crap your so-called peers turn it? As if.

Hope is even easier to extinguish. Say you live in an environment that might generously be described as a small contingent of extremely intelligent, but grossly non-functional human beings surrounded by large swaths of poverty-stricken vagabonds and criminals. Say further that on the bus ride home late one cold winter evening, you see the first (relatively) attractive woman you have seen in weeks. After confirming that your eyes are indeed not playing tricks on you (you think), what should you do? The unenlightened person might be inclined to initiate conversation; this would be a grievous error, however.

Instead, going over the probabilities of success for such a venture will ensure that you are not led astray—and know within a minimum of three significant digits what that probability is. For instance, if the probability of approaching without tripping over yourself is 0.5, that of actually being able to synthesize a coherent opening (e.g., Hi) is 0.1,2 that of the woman responding (e.g., Yes?) is 0.01 , and that of the conversation progressing beyond that stage is 0.001, then your cumulative probability of success (where success is defined as the conversation progressing beyond a greeting) is only 5.0 x 10-7, or a mere five in ten million. Not only will calculating such probabilities in your head keep your mind sharp, but more importantly, it will ensure that you do not embark on a wild goose chase destined to fail 99.999995% of the time.

Hope indeed is the worst of evils, and certainly, we cannot eliminate it entirely, but we need not to achieve our ultimate end.3 This is a war of attrition; as long as we are able to contain this evil, one of two things is guaranteed to happen: either hope will finally grow weary and leave us alone once and for all, or we will die (alone and lonely). Win-win? I think so!

^ 1 While I do enjoy the Kanye West version of Stronger, the original Daft Punk version is way better.
^ 2 This may be generous. It is by no means clear that I can come up with as coherent opening as hi 10% of the time. C'est la vie.
^ 3 What that ultimate end might be is left as an exercise for the reader to determine. Also, if you manage to solve this problem, drop me a line.


The key to happiness is low expectations. Including the expectation for happiness.

That might be a little to philosophical for me.

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