Use It or Lose It: How To Avoid Commoditization of Your Personal Brand

by Frank on March 15, 2010

Being an Atlanta Braves fan, I never really got used to Greg Maddux pitching in any other team’s uniform.  But that’s the business of the MLB.  A team buys the rights to a player’s physical abilities.  And while we all would love to attach the kind of value to our abilities that would garner even a league-minimum contract, the same basic principles are at work in your career and mine.  We’re all free-agents and you are the product you’re selling.

So here’s my question for you today: is your product becoming a commodity?

The High Cost of Becoming a Commodity I’m a huge history nerd… so when Avanish Kaushik tweeted a link to 100 Incredible Lectures for History Lovers, it sent me to a particularly happy place.  The Internet is a wonderful place because it means that there is more information available to you while you sit on your couch eating Chee-tos than you could possibly get through.  You can master Chinese on your morning commute, and via Avanish’s link, you can learn more history than most people you know.

Jim Rohn describes “lifetime learning” as the single thing that determines success and failure in life… and if you spend your evenings glued to reality TV, you’re well on your way to the latter category.  Successful people don’t stop learning the day they get their diploma.  They’re naturally curious – curious enough to stay up late and learn something new even if they’re not getting paid for it.  As Jim Rohn advises people, “work harder on yourself than you do on your job.”

But most people won’t do it.  Statistically speaking, most Americans don’t finish a single book after college.  Maybe the Internet is taking over, but judging by the huge time investment most people put into “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” or “The Bachelor,” my guess is they don’t have much time for much beyond Facebook.  If their employer doesn’t send them to seminars or otherwise pay them to learn, they’re quite happy to take up a desk and complete required tasks, and put in their time.  If that’s what your workday looks like, then I hate to say it, but you’re a commodity.  And like any commodity, there’s likely to be a cheaper alternative, via automation, outsourcing, or some other means.

In 2005, Stephen King spoke at the University of Maine’s commencement and echoed Rohn’s advice:

Don’t forget that you’re a mental being, with a humongous trillion gigawatt hard-drive at your disposal. Most of you have been running it like crazy for four years, moaning about all the books you’ve had to read, the papers you’ve had to write, and the tests you’ve had to take. Yet thanks to that hard-drive and about a thousand cups of coffee, you made it. Just…let me put it this way. I can find out where you live. I have my resources. And if I show up at your house ten years from now and find nothing in your living room but The Readers Digest, nothing on your bedroom night table but the newest Dan Brown novel, and nothing in your bathroom but Jokes for the John, I’ll chase you down to the end of your driveway and back, screaming “Where are your books? You graduated college ten years ago, so how come there are no damn books in your house? Why are you living on the intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese?” I sound like I’m joking about this, but I’m not. You’ve got a brain under the cap you’re wearing. Take care of the damned thing. Try to remember there’s more to life than Vin Diesel and Tom Cruise. It wouldn’t kill you to go to a movie once a month that has subtitles on the bottom of the screen. You can read them, you went to college, right?

— Stephen King, May 7, 2005 (emphasis mine)

Let me say it again: we’re all ultimately freelancers, and you are the product you’re selling.  Your brain is the most valuable asset you have.  And if – like a professional athlete, you keep it razor-sharp, it’s totally recession proof.  But once you stop being a student, your product becomes a commodity real quick.  But you can avoid that.  What are you learning so far this year?

Here are some resources to help you keep your value high:

  • – make the most of your commute
  • iTunesU – also good for time spent on planes, trains and automobiles
  • – Kindle, Kindle for iPhone, or – hey, novel idea: buy a book (you know, with pages).  Any format works, just buy it and read it.
  • New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist – the writing in all three is outstanding, and will help you see the issues affecting the world.  The Economist is just about required reading for anyone taking the Foreign Service Exam.
  • Blogs/RSS Feeds – Interested in a particular industry?  Find 10 blogs or feeds and subscribe.  Why 10?  Because too many and all you can do is skim to clean out your feed reader, and too few means you get a limited perspective on the industry.  Find a happy medium.

Any resources I’m missing?  Add them to the comments below!

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