What happens when you’re burned out on your personal Brand

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By Emma Goldberg, The New York Times Company

Kahlil Greene’s father works as an accountant, and his mother does something involving “administration,” though he doesn’t know the details. His parents rarely spoke about the goings-on of the office when he was growing up. His mother sat in a cubicle farm — he remembers this from Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day — and then she or his father picked him up from the Boys & Girls Club, and they talked about other topics, like “Judge Judy” or Serena Williams. Their work never bled into their personal lives.

That made it tricky for Greene, 22, to explain to his family why he had turned down a job offer from McKinsey to build his online brand as “the Gen Z historian.” He has drawn more than 500,000 followers on TikTok, LinkedIn and Instagram to his posts about history and politics; his money comes from brand deals and public speaking. To Greene, it seems natural for his source of income to be something all-consuming, something he thinks about while falling asleep and talks about nonstop with friends.

“There’s no clear delineation between my work life and my personal life,” he said. “Sometimes it can be exhausting.”

Greene, in other words, finds his job and self inextricable. Like many other millennial and Gen Z workers, he is his brand. This can feel freeing. It can also feel grueling.

In interviews with more than a dozen people who have built lucrative personal brands, they shared that nothing made the benefits and drawbacks of it clear like the pandemic did.

Since 2020, many workers have had the chance to redefine their expectations of employers. More than 40 million Americans quit their jobs last year; most hopped or swapped roles, seeking higher pay. Remote work helped some to prioritize their needs outside the office, while a tight labor market allowed many to assert bolder workplace demands. For many people, leverage meant the ability to create emotional distance from their employers, to draw stricter lines between who they are and what they do.

That also meant a new set of challenges for those who work for themselves: It’s tough to find boundaries when employed by “Me Inc.”

For the millions of people who monetize their online presence in some form, the downsides of this type of work are becoming clearer, especially in a moment when so many are rethinking their careers. Building a personal brand blurs the divide between an identity and a job. It puts pressure on families. It demands that every intimate experience is mined for professional content.

“It’s very hard to disconnect when you are building something that is personal and also a necessary component of your economic life,” said Katie Sullivan, associate professor of communications at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. “It’s ‘I will co-opt my own self in service of this labor.’”

Jesse Israel, for example, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, has a mindfulness brand. Israel, 37, ran a record label for years, which took off with MGMT, before the stress drove him toward meditation. He realized he had a knack for leading guided sessions, and he began to cultivate a public profile, drawing thousands of people to community meetups that he called the Big Quiet. His soothing, emotive persona landed him on tour with Oprah Winfrey. Then personal life interrupted his personal brand: During the pandemic, Israel began to suffer from debilitating depression.



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