Jo, a facilitator was working with a group of people on a team-training day. The individuals had worked together for over a year so they knew each other fairly well. To start off the day, Jo asked each person to write down three words to describe each of the other people in the room. She gave them 30 minutes to do this and sat and watched them as they scribbled notes. When the time was up she invited each individual to take turns standing at the front of the room while their colleagues read out the words they had written down. The exercise was going well. There were some laughs, a couple of surprises. Then it was Brian’s turn to stand and the five other people in the room started reading out their descriptors. All of the words were highly positive – ‘capable’, ‘organized’, ‘intelligent’, ‘good leader…’. however Jo noticed that as the exercise went on, Brian was becoming increasingly tense. His face became red, a muscle in his cheek started to twitch, his hands were clenching and unclenching. He stopped looking at the people reading out the words and kept his head down. Soon the colleagues noticed and the last colleague read out his words with some hesitation. Then there was silence. Brian, avoiding looking anyone in the eyes, picked up his briefcase and walked out of the room. The facilitator followed him out to ask what was wrong. He was so angry he could barely speak. “No one said ‘creative’!” he blurted out, “I am a creative person.”
A familiar term in marketing is ‘USP’ or ‘unique selling point’. What has this brand got that, that no other brand has, that people need? When someone buys a product they are really buying the values that the brand stands for. Brand equity is what really gives the financial oomph when a company is sold. It is no surprise that the idea of ‘branding’ has seeped into the personal development arena on the basis that the more we stand for something, represent certain qualities consistently, the more recognized we are. There is much truth in this. All the big personalities, the heads of industry, the celebrities have a stamp running through them. This is a tool that is useful. However that is all it is. It is a tool that we can choose to use or not.
We can choose what we stand for, what values we represent. It is the same for us as it is for brands. Remember that old joke, ‘How do you double the price of a Skoda? Fill it up with petrol’. Fast forward through a highly successful rebranding campaign and it was voted family car of the year by Top Gear Magazine last year. If you think that your identity and who you are are inseparable then you then you have no choice but to continue with it. If you understand that identity is made up of an infinite number of elements, that you can continue with if useful and ditch if not, then you have real freedom.
Underneath all the labels that we apply to ourselves, the results of our experiences, the beliefs about ourselves, the masks that we use to protect ourselves – is the real essence of who we are. Uncovering this essence, taking the mud off the diamond (as Michael Neill, author of Super Coach describes it) gets us to the simple truth about ourselves. The more layers we take off the more we realise how we are simultaneously unique and infinitely connected to everyone else. The differences between us are nothing compared to what makes us the same. Ignoring this is to lose the truth of our humanity. As Neill says, ‘At the level of essence there are no boundaries – we are all one. Deep inside, we all want the same things: to love and be loved, to care and be cared for, and to live as happily as we can in whatever world we’ve been born into’.
There is nothing more powerful than someone who is simply being. Not trying to project something. Not aiming to create an impression or influence. Not hiding anything. Perhaps that is why watching sports people in absolute absorption is so magnetic or when great writing sings out at you from the purity of the author’s voice. When the armour dissolves and someone ‘just is’, when someone puts the whole force of their being on the track, on the page, in the song, in the conversation, we see the simplicity and the scale of what it is to be human, the vulnerability and the strength that we all have.