How Much of Your Personal Life Should You Reveal Online?

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

Break Through Your Creative Blocks!Once upon a time there was a clear distinction between our personal and professional identities.

Our professional lives started punctually at 9am on Monday morning, when we walked into the office in our smart clothes. Our personal lives were confined to evenings and weekends, when we wore an entirely different set of clothes, mixed with a different set of people and showed them a different side of our personality.

For some of us, it was just as well that our work colleagues didn’t find out about our personal interests, beliefs and/or habits, as they could have compromised our professional image. But as our work colleagues never met our weekend friends, it wasn’t a problem.

Then along came the internet.

Social media has blurred the neat dividing line between our personal and professional lives, giving rise to a whole new range of social dilemmas: Should you accept your boss’s Facebook invitation? What about those photos of your friend’s stag/hen party?

You don’t have to be breaking a full-blown taboo for this to be an issue. Will your colleagues laugh if they find out you like making ships out of matchsticks or taking part in historical re-enactments? Would they sneer at you for supporting the ‘wrong’ football team?

This is even more of a problem if you’re a creative entrepreneur and want to attract customers by projecting a professional image online.

How much of the ‘real you’ should you reveal? Are you being inauthentic if you don’t share your private life and opinions? Is it bad for business if you do?

This is the dilemma faced by ‘Esther’ who sent me the following email in response to my invitation to send me your creative blocks, and asked to remain anonymous:

I’m actually facing down this creative block for the sqau-billionth time this very morning! And, as always, it’s winning…

I would like to start a website/blog, online presence, but my mental pattern that stops me is:

  1. I feel like I have to niche (reasonable)
  2. I think I feel like once I choose one, I can’t include or “reveal” the other aspects of me in that project…
  3. SO, I become paralyzed in picking a niche, and…
  4. Have been stuck in this place, therefore doing nothing – for weeks and months!

I love learning, coaching, teaching, and writing funny but profound emails! (yes). I’m a certified coach, have a PhD and lots of good teaching experience, LOVE to write, want to work at least part of my life virtual, love to move around and “BE” in different places.

SO – I want to start a blog and website, but I get STUCK thinking, well, should it be for COACHING? If SO, then I can’t be funny in writing about my personal life and mishaps like I am with friends, because it won’t be “professional!” And people won’t hire me. I need a “professional persona,” I guess is my rolling assumption.

If I DO a slice-of-life, just entertaining-but-profound blog, then I need to use a pen name, because the antics described therein would detract one day from my more “professional” posture on another site one day… AND – what would be THE THEME of THIS blog anyway? And a title? OH – HOW I AGONIZE OVER THEME AND TITLE!!!!

So, here I sit – all this content and enthusiasm, but doing NOTHING because I don’t feel like any direction is “RIGHT,” you know?

This is an issue faced by many would-be entrepreneurs and freelancers – they have an awful lot to give and express, but until they resolve this question, they feel paralysed, unable to start creating the phenomenal website and online presence they are burning to get started on.

Fortunately, the choice doesn’t need to be as black-and-white as it sounds in Esther’s description. In fact, the dilemma is based on some questionable assumptions about social media, branding and what it takes to succeed online.

1. Authenticity Doesn’t Mean Letting It All Hang Out

One of the big myths of social media is that to be authentic, you need to share all aspects of your life and opinions, from what you’re having for breakfast this morning, to your personal relationships, political opinions and philosophical musings.

In turn, this is based on the idea that you have a real, authentic self that is bursting to be expressed – so you’re not being true to yourself if you suppress any of your thoughts or feelings.

Having practised psychotherapy as well as coaching for over 15 years, I’m not convinced by this idea. There are many different facets to your personality, they are what make you interesting – and they can’t be reduced to a single ‘true self’.

You aren’t exactly the same person with your work colleagues as you are with your parents, your friends, your partner, your children, or people you meet in other contexts. Every relationship brings out a different aspect of your personality. You don’t express everything to everyone, all day long.

So why should social media be any different?

If social media is really about authentic relationships, shouldn’t those relationships look a little more like the relationships we have in other areas of our lives?

Brian Clark likes to say that effective communication and marketing via social media is about telling an authentic story.

It’s authentic because it needs to be genuine – people can sniff out a fake, so there’s no point (or pleasure) trying to pretend to be something you’re not. But it’s also a story, in that it’s a personal account that emphasizes some aspects of who you are, while leaving others in the background. Just like your communication with people in every other context of your life.

For a great example of authentic storytelling via social media, see Tim Siedell’s interview on Lateral Action. He points out that he has several different online identities – including funnyman @badbanana on Twitter and the curator of the Bad Banana Blog – that could easily be different personalities. And far from revealing everything about his personal life, he enjoys playing with the “theater of the mind” quality of Twitter, “because people are talking about what they’re doing, but you can’t really see what they’re doing”.

In my own case, there more to my life than creativity, but it’s a big passion of mine and Lateral Action is the place I go to express that. I sometimes mention my poetry, since poetry is a creative medium and conceivably of interest to my audience.

But I don’t blog much about the time I spend watching football, playing with my children or hanging out with friends and family, as I can’t imagine Lateral Action readers would be interested. And I still maintain a psychotherapy practice, but again, it’s not particularly relevant to this audience, so I don’t write about it here.

Finally, beware of the temptation to write an “a slice-of-life, just entertaining-but-profound” blog! If you want to do this for your own pleasure, that’s cool. But if you want the blog to help you build your business, remember that VERY few people can pull this off. I know I can’t.

Heather Armstrong has done an amazing job of this over at Dooce, but if you look around at most successful bloggers, you’ll see she’s the exception to the rule. Most bloggers, especially in the coaching sector, succeed by being helpful to their audience.

When it comes to writing a business blog, it’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for them. Which means it’s about who you are for them.

2. Being Professional Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

When you say “I need a ‘professional persona’” it sounds very buttoned-up and proper. And to be honest, not very interesting.

What does sound interesting in your description are the little hints you give about the ‘mishaps’, ‘antics’ and humour in the background. Now I don’t know what you mean by these, and I deliberately haven’t asked – but I’ll bet there’s something in there that contains the seed of a truly remarkable professional identity.

A unique selling proposition (USP) is a classic marketing concept – it’s about defining what makes you different from all the other people and companies in your industry, and then communicating it to your audience. There are several different types of USP, but if you’re a coach, trying to attract people to work with you one-to-one, then your USP needs to include something about your own personality and idiosyncratic passions.

For example, I used to be a ‘normal’ business coach, wearing a suit and working for large organisations, and doing pretty well. But my career really took off when I ‘came out’ as a poet and started focusing on working with creative professionals.

For another example, Naomi Dunford is a great example of using ‘unprofessional’ language and attitude over at IttyBiz. Apparently she gets quite a few emails from people telling her she won’t sell anything by swearing on her blog. The irony, of course, is that she’s built a successful business precisely because of her swearing and irreverent attitude to marketing.

Havi Brooks has a duck as her business partner. Not very professional either. But very funny for her audience. And part of what makes them love her.

Gary Vaynerchuk stretches the boundaries of what is considered professional in the wine industry, by posting insanely enthusiastic and opinionated videos on his site.

Chris Guillebeau‘s personal assistant is his cat Libby. He has also used his blog to speak out on political issues such as healthcare reform in the US. He got his share of criticism and unsubscribes for that – but he also got a lot of respect from his audience who love the way Chris isn’t afraid to speak up for what he believes in.

You’ll probably remember these people, not because they share every aspect of their lives, nor because they stay rigidly professional at all times – but because they tell authentic personal stories that resonate with their audiences.

So throw out the boring ‘professional persona’ and open the door to a more interesting you…

3. Who Can You Be Now?

It looks to me as though you have two choices:

A. Craft a professional identity around what makes you unique AND valued by your clients

Once you give yourself permission to project a quirkier version of yourself on the web, you may start to get an idea of which traits to accentuate in your online portrait.

It’s also worth asking your coaching clients what they value about you, and why they chose you/stayed with you as a coach in preference to the legions of other coaches out there.

And if you have a trusted friend, mentor or colleague who knows you and your work, ask them what they consider your most attractive and distinctive qualities. Apart from giving you a valuable new perspective, this should be a great ego boost. :-)

If you like reading, check out Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow for advice on how to stand out from the crowd and create a remarkable business.

Once you decide which of your personal and professional passions to focus on, it should be a lot easier to come up with a name and theme for your blog.

B. Have separate sites/brands for different aspects of yourself.

My first blog, Wishful Thinking, was about creativity. So I figured it made perfect sense to include the odd post about the poetry I was reading.

Big mistake.

Certain members of my audience made it very clear that they weren’t nearly as interested in my views on medieval Scottish poets as they were in practical tips to make them more creative. So I took the hint and set up a separate poetry blog.

By having separate sites for different interests, I can take each of them to extremes. Over at my poetry site I’m free to write an entire post in Middle English, or about the pronunciation of a single syllable in a poem by W.H. Auden, confident that my poetry-geek readers will be as interested in it as I am.

If you really think your personal interests would damage your business, and you still want to blog about them, then you might be better off writing under a pen-name.

But if your interests are complementary, or at least not detrimental to your business, then having two different blogs could add an extra dimension to your online presence and actually help your business.

Whatever you do, take the time to make sure you feel genuinely excited at the prospect of writing your blog, and 100% committed to making it a success.

Over to You

Do you ever feel a conflict between your personal and professional identities online?

How do you resolve the conflict?

Any tips to help Esther resolve her dilemma?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. To get the rest of the Creative Blocks series delivered to your inbox, make sure you sign up for free updates from Lateral Action.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Mark:

    Great post. Really useful. I think about this a lot. What I’ve found really helpful is to look at blogs, lots of them, and identify the things I like and feel comfortable with – from my own perspective. I fuse what I observe and learn with my own ideas and style, making lots of revisions. (This is essentially how Picasso worked. I’ve read a lot about him. He taught himself technique, experimented with ideas that came to him, played around with what he saw other artists doing, and synthesized it all over time into his own uniqueness – revising and reworking all the time, through the very end of his career.)

    On the specific question of what and what not to reveal as a blogger, I think it’s a matter of personal choice. My own perspective, for what it’s worth, is that too much definitely can be too much. I recently saw a new blogger reveal that he was just coming out of a bankruptcy. For me, that was too much, but others might not agree. I recently unsubscribed from two A-list blogs where the blogger was spending too much time, I thought, mocking people (on their blogs and on Twitter). It’s just not something I want to read – I think it detracts from positive energy. Some people find that sort of thing funny, though. I understand that. We’ll never please everyone as bloggers, and we’ll drive ourselves crazy if we try to.

    I think the distinction you raise about authenticity and authentic story is really useful. Authenticity doesn’t mean revealing everything. And besides, I think most people read blogs to find a solution to a problem. The more personal info the blogger includes that’s not on point, the more he risks having his blog be too much “me, me, me.”

    You’ve linked to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Tedtalk before – I think it’s hugely helpful for anyone trying to find a muse. I also think the book Mindset by Carol Dweck is invaluable for gaining self confidence in what we do.

    Great post. Thanks, Mark.

    Susan

    • Thanks Susan, yes definitely worth looking around – there are all kinds of approaches to transparency. And no, I’m not keen on subscribing to mockery – or complaints, or negativity in general, so that’s one aspect of ‘authenticity’ I’ll happily opt out of!

  2. I’d like to address a different angle of your post. When I read a blog in the “professional” category, I come upon two sorts I think are not good practice for people wanting to build professional credibility. One is someone’s continually using his own practices as exemplars in situations where those practices are either not on point or unremarkable. It is an ineffective sort of self-promotion. It is much more effective to do as you do, which is to showcase not only your own practices but some remarkable or interesting cases you know of. I love it that you steer us to other people’s wisdom as part of conveying your own. Many people are afraid to do this. What you do is a mark of authentic interest in providing best services.
    A second poor practice I have seen is related to what you describe as slice-of-life but profound, though it isn’t exactly that. It is distasteful when someone believes everything he or she thinks of is profound and shares it. The reader is thinking, “well, I am glad she/he has realized this now.”
    I appreciate those who post when they have something really interesting and thoughtful to share. You are absolutely consistent in this way as is Seth and many others to whom your links have sent me.

    • Thanks Fritzie, yes I do try to get a balance between my own experience (where it’s relevant) and others’ examples (to broaden the perspective a bit – and frankly, because they often say it better ;-) ).

      • Fritzie says:

        I’d say when a person brings in other perspectives, it shows his own thinking is informed by understanding different ways of looking at the question at hand and that he has synthesized and evaluated these different points of view. This way of thinking and working gives the blogger credibility as an informed and thoughtful person rather than someone who runs only off his instinct or follows a fad.
        In terms of how much to reveal online, I like a blogger to convey what he feels strongly about that is related to the subject at hand and his central activities related to the subject at hand, but I respect the person’s privacy in other matters. If a creativity coach/blogger, for example, is advising someone on how to juggle many projects, I want to hear that he has juggled many projects simultaneously and an anecdote about a case of that. A visual artist may feel that another visual artist has a special understanding of her creativity problem and so a blogger or coach who is a visual artist should reveal that.
        If there is a relationship being built between blogger and reader so that the reader replies, I would expect the level of information the respondent reveals about himself not to exceed what the blogger reveals. In that respect the relationship is different than in a therapy practice, I would think.

  3. I’m a big believer that one of the best options for someone with multiple interests is choosing to separate them. It’s so tempting to try to roll everything into one, but there’s an important lesson I learned in my early days of freelancing: the freelancer who designs, develops, writes and does a few other things will never be seen as the best person for any project because clients assume that a jack of all trades can be master of none.

    It’s okay to have different and separate presences online. There are certainly consequences (including having to decide what to reveal through each of those different presences) but it’s been worth my while.

    • because clients assume that a jack of all trades can be master of none

      Yep, fair or not, I think a lot of clients have that perception. Much easier to position yourself as the best in the world at X than amazingly good at X and Y.

  4. Mark–

    Great post. I find this debate for bloggers really interesting, and I especially like your points 1 and 2. The bloggers I respond to most are the ones who show personality while balancing that with presenting something useful. It’s certainly not unprofessional to have fun–and on the web (much more than in the real world), I think being boring is really the kiss of death. So it’s great to play and be creative and different–and writing about your own life is one sure way that nobody else will be writing the same things as you.

    The whole debate about being professional doesn’t mean to me that you can’t admit your mistakes. I really value bloggers and coaches that do admit their mistakes–but who then also reflect on them and come up with solutions they use that can help others as well. It’s much more collegial to learn from someone who has been in your shoes than from some uber-productive robot that never suffers from creative block or saying dumb things at dinner parties or whatnot. As a coach, how do you approach this?

    Thanks for a great discussion!
    Baker

  5. As a coach, how do you approach this?

    You can probably guess a lot of the stuff I write is based on my own experience of getting things horribly wrong and working out a better way to do them. So I often do the same in coaching sessions – if I recognise the situation the client’s in from my own experience, I’ll share how I screwed up and the solution I found.

    And it seems to help whether or not my particular solution is relevant to them – a lot of clients say it normalizes their situation when they hear about someone else going through the same experience. Which is another reason I’m writing this creative blocks series…

    • This is so important. We can waste so much time thinking there is an answer out there when what we really need is the courage to continue on our own way. Nothing empowers us more than authentic connection with people who are further down that road. We see that we are both just human beings working at our lives; it makes me at least feel part of something wonderful.

  6. My main dilemma is still “To Facebook or not to Facebook?” FB feels to me much more of a potential revelation zone than blogging where, at least, you get to choose what you say or what you don’t. I’d be very interested to know about how others see FB in relation to their blogging presence.

    Thanks for another stimulating discussion :)

  7. Barbara says:

    I use my Facebook account for everything, but most notably, I like to store my travel photos there. I have been a serious photographer for many years and have recently begun landscape painting using my own photos, and I often post the finished paintings on FB. Most of my “true” friends are interested in travelling as well as the fact that I have begun to paint, and I have had some uplifting positive feedback. However, my older sister recently informed me that these postings were in poor taste “due to the economy and the fact that few people have the money these days to travel.” What do you think? Have a committed a major faux pas?

    • Have a committed a major faux pas?

      Absolutely not.

      Please tell your sister from me that you are performing a public service at a time of economic hardship, by giving people inspiring glimpses of places they can’t afford to visit right now. ;-)

  8. Barbara says:

    Good one! Ha! Also, if those pictures depress people, I would suggest they stop looking at them! Duh!

  9. Hi Mark,

    What a healthy discussion of this topic! It’s a block for me, too. I’ve been through quite a storm in life these past 3 years, and find that my passions, rather than being snuffed out have been deepened — as if I understand who I am for the first time, or at a deeper level than I knew was possible.

    Now…how do I restart my life? How do I stop talking about my losses (franlkly, it scares people) and get on with my work, but from a new place of depth and knowing?

    I am passionate about the potential of individual action to create good — and to create new businesses that truly improve life. not only for the individual but for those who follow. I see us entering a new economic era and want to name it, write about it, and help people live into it. My ideas are all over the place — a book on capitalism, a desire to start a marketing business to help solopreneurs express themselves through social media and information products (exciting stuff!), creating an organization that engages successful Western internet entrepreneurs with budding ones in developing countries using online communities, and speaking out in favor of entrepreneurs and courage to counter the defeated, helpless air that seems to have taken hold here in the US and is so damaging to individuals and our nation as a whole.

    You’ve given me a way to get started and an action item. To start my focus should be on helping my audience-to-be. I can weave in my personal experiences in that context, and I trust I will know when and how to do that — that is actually the journey of healing, is it not?

    Second, I will ask my friends what they see as my distinctive traits. One told me I have a very strong online brand, and that she would read anything I wrote and come to any talk I gave. I was dumbfounded, even embarassed….but this is where I will get my answers and grow into the person I think I can now become.

    You bring a wonderful, sane perspective that is very distinctive, and I for one am grateful to know you from across the pond. What else but social media could have brought just the right ideas into my world today?

    With warmth –

    Susan

  10. Really interesting post, Mark. I had the same dilemma myself, when I first started in business as a coach. I also believed I needed to be “professional”, which I took to mean “serious and stuffy” – which isn’t like me at all. It took me a while to realise that people are attracted to who you are, not who you’re trying to be – just as some people will be put off by who you are (and probably also by who you’re trying to be, if you’re not making a very convincing job of it!!) So it makes sense to just be yourself – which can be both “professional” and “authentic”.

    I think it makes sense to separate the different interests, though. You can easily put a link from one website to the other (as you have done in this post), if you think your readers would like to find out about what else you do.

  11. Really great post, Mark. I came across this dilemma myself. I wanted to pursue acting, singing, songwriting, psychology and business all at one point! A little too ambitious. But I’ve narrowed it down to focusing on my business, which helps other artists and performers market themselves online, and my singing career.

    Even when I had chosen what I wanted to do – I couldn’t figure out whether to market my shows or my business, and that led to branding confusion as well because for 1 week I’d have my ‘singer’ picture and the other week it was the Essetino ad! Major frustration.

    The way I dealt with it was basically to create a unified, unique persona that was both me (showing my personality, singing, etc.) and my entrepreneur side. It worked out because I am in my own niche market, so its like I’m setting an example for my clients – other artists and performers. I also have two separate websites of course – one for the business, and under my own name for my singing.

  12. I think the only answer to this question is none. I really do not see the point. People write their whole business all over the web and what have they got to gain by it? Nothing, there is no good that can come from it, only bad.

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