Bookshops — remember them? — featured shelf after shelf of self-help books, largely because they are among the easiest books to write.
Simply assemble a collection of well-worn, readily recognizable banalities and use an unusual word for it. Then from that word, build an entire system that people will need to discover, learn and follow in order to reap its promised harvest of wealth, success, and personal happiness. Your system skirts rehashed platitudes so your readers will get the intended sense of recognition, that you’re identifying something they know to be true. That will keep them going and with any luck establish you as the unassailable expert in the system comprising nothing new that you just made up.
Let’s try it. Everyone wants to figure out who they are, be successful, and have people like them; we learned that in the ’60s. At least, enough people in the right demographic do to make a decent readership for our book. Now we can’t write a book about that, it would be far too hard to actually come up with how to help people figure all that out and it would probably require a degree or two in psychology or something. Plus, if it were possible it would probably have been done by now.
So instead, we think of a word that’s unusual in that context, but that is tangentially related so it can open up a whole can of lucrative worms for us to explore in our book. And our public television series, with luck.
Let’s see. What are these people doing; building a reputation? Hmm — too stuffy. They are trying to focus their career? No fun in that. Build self-awareness? Too pop-psych. I know: they’re creating their own brand! They want to be like Kleenex, figuratively of course. Like Apple. Like Ford. Like Sony used to be.
Alright now we’re off and running, and all the things big business did to give companies the properties of people by way of incorporation we can reverse, giving our readers self-improvement lessons by way of big business. “Build your brand” — no wait — “build your personal brand” (we’re not about to teach them how to actually come up with the next GE). Put that on the cover, come up with a few great chapter headings in a similarly vague, businessy vein (“Identify your core competencies”, “Understand your customers”, “Reach top of mind – and stay there”, “Build recognition”, and so on), and you really can’t fail.
And that’s what’s pretty much happened with all this talk about personal brand today. Millions of people will waste significant stretches of their life reading stuff they already knew translated into terms they never before associated it with.
In the process, they may feel a momentary sense of enlightenment — this is the pay dirt of the self-improvement peddler — that somehow fades once they put the book down or turn it in for a fraction of the cover price at Half Price Books, where it will join similarly unlikely and often unread volumes in the self-help section apparently concerning Cheese, Parachutes, Intention, or Wellness.
Nirvana, too, but that was understandably misshelved and should be in the music section.