I’ve always understood that people in higher places have to be more careful with what they say and do, because more people are watching and, sadly, waiting for them to take a step wrong so that they can launch an attack on them. It can be seen in the smallest, simplest arenas. Like the popular girl at school being resented by the other girls, all of them waiting to just get dirt on her to bring her down. The same thing happens with employees who would jump at the chance to find something to bring down the super performer in their department. Sad as it is, human nature has an underlying current of insecurity that fuels the need for people to pull themselves up by pulling others down. All of which is pretty much normal life that we all have to deal with, but things change as you develop beyond the levels of just being a face in the crowd.
So, here are a few things I’ve learned in the past year or so about what happens when you become more recognized (this list will probably need amendments later on):
1. You can’t be yourself in public view anymore
I had lunch with a friend a few days ago, and we got to talking about how Twitter has changed for us over the years. She’s developed a fair amount of public recognition and built herself into a successful, ambitious business woman, balancing two separate brands. The price of all of this, however, is that she’s increasingly found herself unable to really be herself online. Her Twitter ‘persona’ now bears the responsibility of being a brand representative for actual businesses, not just herself. As a result, she can’t make comments that are a bit loaded with sarcasm or poke fun at things anymore, as it will reflect badly on her brands. In any ambitious position, you become your own brand and most valuable commodity and have to constantly keep that in mind.
Two things happen when you deviate from what you’re perceived to be online:
1. You alienate your existing follower base who don’t personally know you well and followed you mostly based on what you’ve said or said you are, to date
2. You open yourself up to all kinds of attacks and trolling
I’ve always been a ‘think thrice, speak once’ type of person, but over the years I’ve become increasingly careful of what I say online. People have a habit of seeing you as one thing when they encounter you online and will continue to associate you with that. So if you say you’re an architect, you had better be tweeting, blogging and commenting mostly about architecture and keeping it all clean and professional. The fact that you might be an avid mud wrestler in your spare time had better not be mentioned, and if you have any form of bigotry ingrained in you, you’d best keep it to yourself for the sake of keeping your career alive. The problem with online and public facing personas is just that: you get to have one main image, with maybe one or two smaller aspects you can occasionally mention. People, for the most part, have multi-faceted personalities and interests. They’re not just one thing all the time, just as their moods, energy levels or food cravings vary from day to day. For the sake of not confusing the people who follow you and don’t personally know you though, you have to pick an aspect and stick with it. Come to think of it, that’s probably why fake accounts and trolls run rampant in the online space: the platform that’s meant to encourage freedom of speech and expression has become the most critical platform that pries into your every moment and can keep screen shots as evidence to back them up and bring you down.
I know my blogs and tweets are mainly based on life observations, lessons, and the occasional motivational post. From time to time I loosen the reigns just enough to make a wacky remark or two or show some part of my personal life, before I get back to my usual mode. I can’t be sure but I guess from what you see online you’d think I’m mostly a serious person who thinks too much. Okay yes, I do tend to think a lot, about a lot. Other times I have “screw it, I’m taking the day off to do something totally mindless” days. The other sides you don’t see though, is me cracking jokes and goofing off with my son and friends, spending hours refurbishing furniture or painting walls because I find it therapeutic, loving stand-up comedy after having tried my hand at it way back as a pre-teen and – now less often but still – gaming. You don’t see me saying humanity is a bunch of dumb asses who honestly can’t see basic, fundamental truth if it smacks them in the face, although I sometimes think it. You don’t see the expression on my face when I finally give in to the curiousity of why everyone’s going on about some Niki Minaj video, only to play it and within seconds go, “What the f… Who watches this?”, then wishing I could give my brain a bio-hazard worthy acid scrub afterwards. Tact is something I’ve learned from a young age, and coupled with self-restraint I’m happy I can smile at people even when they swear at me. But the reality is, if you want to excel at something, you’ll have to keep the rest of you well out of sight and only let it out around a select few people who you know and trust. I’m not saying become a robot and I’m not suggesting we should all abide by this rule – some high-level, respected professionals crack a few crude jokes online and get away with it because it’s accepted as part of their personality and they really don’t care if you don’t approve. I am saying, though, that the higher up you go, the more advisable it is to simplify your life and associations as much as possible because the risk of exploitation exponentially increases as you become more prominent.
2. What you say matters more than ever before
If you’re a regular person with a normal job, or no job even, you have very little to lose by going on an all-out, super opinionated rant. Nobody’s listening because nobody really cares anyway, right? Low paying citizens get to scream, shout and protest about how they are done wrong, how their president is an idiot and how rich people are all jerks. They can do it because, in some unspoken sense, they are entitled to do so and we all turn a blind eye. They have no immense power of influence individually, and knowing this allows them the freedom to say anything they want. If a minister, corporate CEO or prominent public figure had to suddenly go on an uncontrolled rant about something in the same spirit, they’d be ripped to shreds, years of hard work and PR obliterated in a matter of minutes.
Then there’s the other aspect to consider: misinterpretation. People generally misunderstand each other quite easily; a lot of the time when you say something you have a clear image in your mind of what you mean, but you don’t convey it in a way that’s clearly understood by someone else. Along with the power of influence you have at a higher level, comes the risk of people twisting your words, sometimes very maliciously. Basic rule of thumb? Keep it concise, clear and objective. Just like you’d spell-check your writing before hitting send, you’ll have to make sure what you say can’t be interpreted in some other way.
3. You can’t just endorse people or vouch for them as easily anymore
I find this one tricky, because I like to see the good and potential in people. Sadly, sometimes they either don’t see it in themselves or they just don’t have the discipline or ethics to see something through that you help them to attain. Your name rides on the people that you recommend or endorse, whatever happens to them directly affects how the third party perceives you. Failure on their part means that you essentially failed the sponsor or company involved as you made the recommendation. In the same light, affiliating with any association means your entire reputation rides on them and if anything goes wrong, your name goes down with theirs. Sometimes your faith in humanity and desire to help has to take a backseat to risk mitigation. Instead of directly helping the little guy, sometimes you have to go to the big guy to help the little guy indirectly.
4. It becomes an odd game of chess, coupled with trusting your gut
Calculated risk becomes a daily thing, maybe it’s also a sign of growing older but understanding what you have to lose makes you all the more cautious. You start looking before you leap, and after a while you might even have to research the whole terrain from a safe distance before coming anywhere near the cliff, let alone jumping. Life becomes more strategic as you advance, you don’t just do things because you impulsively feel like it. Now you have to take everything into consideration, being well aware that every decision is a pebble that lands in the pond of your life and career. Everything affects everything else. It might sound all too serious if you’re reading this, a bit control-freak like even. It’s not so much an obsessive, paranoid state of constantly checking everything as it is something you grow into though, until it just becomes a normal part of your life. This is where the trusting your gut part comes in. In spite of all the sum of life experience, professional conduct and calculated risk, very little of that matters at all when it comes to a strong gut feeling about something or someone. Sometimes you just get a feeling that you can trust a person, your faith in them completely shifts your doubts to the side and you choose to involve them in your life on some level. Sometimes this works out great and you find yourself earning a true lifelong partner in your business or personal life. Other times you find you were wrong, as we all are sometimes, but you pick yourself up and carry on, taking whatever lesson you gained from the experience with you, in better preparation for the next.
5. Not every opportunity offered should be an opportunity taken
You know how people say, ‘opportunity comes once in a lifetime’? We’re all taught that you don’t get a lot of chances or big breaks in life, so you had better give it your all and go for it when it comes. The funny thing is, there might well come a time when opportunity knocks so hard you sometimes wish the door was soundproof. People offer you things for various reasons and, as is typical with human nature, a lot of the time something is offered in the hopes of gaining something in return, often very selfishly so. You’ll encounter people who offer you business deals, personal opportunities, even offer to give you things for nothing (apparent) in return. This is just as true for everyday people as it is for the highly successful, although the latter obviously tend to get these offers far more often. Again, this is something that involves gut feeling as much as careful consideration – not every opportunity is a good one that will make your life better. It might even be something that sounds like a great deal to the person proposing it but to you, it’s below your level of advancement or does not line up with your overall career strategy. Also, saying yes to the first thing that comes along might well mean you’ll be forced to turn down something far better down the line.
6. A solid group of real people in your life is critically invaluable
I don’t think life was ever meant to be this balancing act of selective behaviour and awareness that you have to keep a close check on what you say and do, to the point that you can’t even be yourself. Unfortunately, everything comes at a price and in order to thrive in our society, you have to abide by certain rules in the game. All of this means you need a reality check and proper grounding more than ever. People tend to suck up to you a lot more if you have power of influence or something they want, which means you rarely get the raw truth from them in words or their behaviour towards you. Family members and a handful of friends who still see you as the person you were before all this success happened and the person you still are when the world isn’t watching, are the anchors to sanity you need to keep a level head and be truly happy. I’m not remotely well known or hugely successful, but I do know that while spending time with the pioneers in my industry makes me feel inspired and driven, nothing makes me deeply happier and more content than spending a few hours being a total kid with my son and joking about everything without need to hold back. This is something I know will never change, the value of people who you know won’t judge you or run out to bad mouth you in public at the first chance they get, is beyond explanation. This brings me to the last point…
7. Making time for loved ones vs career responsibilities becomes very hard
There used to be a time when lunch with the family and getting together with friends was something you didn’t even need to think about, it just happened based on your natural desire to spend time with them. As things progress in your career however, you find you’re often pulled in many directions by many obligations and opportunities. A very ambitious person would find it hard to turn these down – not only for personal gain but if some form of greater good is to be served, you understand the responsibility you have to use your power of influence to aid others. Somewhere along the line the lunches become less frequent, the phone calls shorter and the connection and knowledge of every small detail in your loved ones’ lives fray to a point where you sadly realize you’re not nearly as close as you used to be. You have to turn down invitations for visits becomes something’s come up again and soon you find yourself feeling pretty torn and guilty, hoping they understand that you don’t love them any less and that they are still a priority in your life, things are just a bit hectic at the moment. I’ve come to understand that it’s very hard for people in general to understand where someone else is coming from when they are not as busy in general. Few things work people up as much as having a good amount of free time on their hands and sending a text message, then sitting waiting for a reply for hours. Meanwhile the other person has been in back-to-back meetings all day and only gets a chance to reply that evening, their apology for the late reply feeling pretty hollow and guilt-ridden. I’ve adopted many things by learning from my uncle, who has always been a workaholic and became highly successful. One thing I really need to adopt as well, is his insistence on some well-needed rest time. Before he retired from this main career (he also owns several companies), he worked ten months straight with plenty of long hours and few breaks. When the end of November rolled around each year though, he’d pack his suitcases and fly down to Cape Town and for two solid months he would do nothing but spend time with family and friends and just relax. As much as advancing in your career is important, you can’t risk losing time with the people who matter, hoping one day you’ll have more free time to catch up. We tend to assume that because they’ve always been there, they always will be. Much as that might be the case, the amount of time you have left with them is sadly uncertain.
Something we all should learn in life is you will never find time to do the things you want to. That’s because time is not something you find, it’s something you deliberately set aside. You make time for things. If you wait to find time for it, you’ll never end up doing it because something will always come up, no matter how many times you try to clear your schedule.
Remember that there is a life outside of the image you’ve developed and make time to build on things and people you know you’ll have for life, even if all of this success and recognition suddenly falls away and you’re left with nothing.