In 1897, Samuel Clements wrote Following the Equator – A Journey Around the World. Its opening lines are, “Be good and you will be lonesome. Be lonesome and you will be free.”
These words have stayed with me over the last 30+ years for a couple of reasons… One is to remind me of what is important in life…the admonition that we should choose the path that is “good”, a course that may not follow the direction or the pace of others, but which is “right” for me. It is “okay” to stand apart, on principle, on ideology, on religious or spiritual matters, or with regard to any of the moral, ethical or secular qualities that define who we are individually.
What’s more, by standing your ground on those things that matter most to you, you achieve a level of freedom that others, particularly those bound by constrictions of imposed beliefs, values or rules, cannot aspire to.
In 2012, the cautionary advice of Mr. Twain is particularly apropos. Too often, in far too many aspects of our lives, we are defined on overly-simplistic terms. It could be something as fleeting as a comment, or an observation, or possibly a simple inquiry. What we say, what we buy, what we consume, may well be how our personal “brand” is set.
Are you a Democrat or a Republican? That may be all someone needs to know about you, which may or may not have any correlation to who you really are. It doesn’t really matter what the facts are though. The judgment in the court of public opinion has been rendered, with no preponderance of evidence beyond one simple declaration.
Opportunities for judging abound… Where do you shop? What designer labels do you wear? What kind of car do you drive? Where do you live? Who does your hair? What brand of watch is on your wrist? What did you think of a given movie? Do you believe in God? How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many connections on LinkedIn? What groups do you belong to?
Here is the point: When you bring yourself to others in search of validation or acceptance, you are going to be judged on many bases that have less to do with who you are than the fears, uncertainties or doubts that your appearance or response elicits. An aggregate of societal and brand messages, embodying the interplay between imagery and emotions, creates a “mindprint” of you that establishes expectations in the minds and hearts of everyone you meet. Once set, those expectations may be impossible to change.
An example: Your preferred drink is beer, you like to go to the races, your favorite clothes are t-shirts and jeans, and your favorite meal is steak on the grill. You drive a truck, wear boots for a living, dream of going hunting. Got a picture in your mind of who this is?
Are you this person: A Budweiser drinker, hanging at the dirt track on a Friday night, in Levis and a dusty t-shirt….driving your ten-year old Ford F-150 truck and talking about the best way to field dress a deer? What does this person stand for, what can you already tell about him (or her), and what kind of person is this?
Or are you this person: A Stella Artois drinker, at the Polo Club on a Saturday afternoon, in Ralph Lauren jeans, an Armani blazer and an Italian designer t-shirt… Wearing a pair of Tony Luchese ostrich belly boots, driving your Range Rover and planning a safari to Africa next spring. Still fits the profile we described earlier. But how do you feel about this person? What does he/she stand for, and what do you know about this individual?
What if you were this person: A Budweiser drinker at a Polo Match, in your ten-year old Ford F-150 wearing Hugo Boss jeans and a JCPenney t-shirt, and a pair of Wal-Mart boots while planning your duck hunt in the fall on a hunting lease owned by a hedge fund manager… What would people make of you then? Which brand or imagery is working against you? Who is this person??
I imagine Mark Twain would have had nothing to do with any of the questions, would not have given you a straight answer to any of them, and would have lumbered off, to leave you wondering what just happened.
The reality is that how we see others and the world are often guided by established cultural values, societal mores, and brand perceptions created by those who wish to shape how we see ourselves in the context of their product.
Who you are is largely foretold, right or wrong, by what products you identify with, whose services you partake of, and where you are seen. This is the curse of living in 2012. If who we truly are is a unique pantone in the spectrum of all colors, we are seen by others as something far simpler to define…perhaps more like one of four primary colors.
It still amazes me how marketing today simply can convince you to believe if “buy this you will be desirable”, or “buy this and you will be loved”, or “buy this and you will be safe”. It isn’t just the message, but the physicality of who is telling us these things…what they look like, who we know that likes them, and what others say about them. A “hot” celebrity in a revealing outfit can trump a better quality product any day of the week.
This has been the case for years, so it isn’t new. But what brings a new twist to the age-old shaping of contemporary beliefs is the impact of social media. When I was a kid, I believed that smoking was cool, when the Marlboro Man or the Flintstones promoted their brand of choice. Then as a young adult, I got mixed messages. Smoking was cool, but it could kill me. A few years later, smoking is all but passe. Except for the kids. They see Hollywood starlets smoking in paparazzi photos, and all of a sudden, smoking is once again cool. Expensive, and it will kill you, but cool because you will look like Robert Pattinson or Scarlett Johansson.
“Be good and you will be lonesome.” How prophetic has this turned out to be? “Be lonesome and you will be free.” Works for me. How about you?