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 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 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.
“I’m sitting at the dining room table with my mom, crying,” he recalled, describing a period of loneliness, illness and career instability. “I’m like, ‘Mom, people think of me as a mindfulness expert, and I feel like I’ve lost my mind.”
Israel, whose mental health has now recovered, experienced a challenge unique to the upside-down working world of the 21st century: His work relied on his personality. When his sense of self lurched, his work went with it.
Unlike other professional phenomena, personal branding announced its formation loudly and clearly (on brand). Tom Peters, a management writer, popularized the term in a 1997 Fast Company article, later linking the idea of brand building to the all-American entrepreneurial spirit of Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc.,” Peters wrote 25 years ago. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”
Peters, in a recent interview, said he had realized that with organizational bureaucracies disappearing, workers could no longer trust the prospect of a steady career ascension. “Slowly climbing the ladder by sucking up and then sucking up some more wasn’t going to work,” he said. “You were as good as your ability to get your boss to think you were the second coming.”
For decades, heightening business competition had prompted corporate brands to distinguish themselves by selling not just a product or aesthetic but a story. Apple’s “1984” television advertisement, inspired by George Orwell’s book, was about the freeing futuristic powers of a Mac computer; Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign positioned the beverage as community glue. Peters remembered that his own 1997 article was published in Fast Company with a chic advertisement for Procter & Gamble soap.
Then, as brands that sold warm and fuzzy stories went through rounds of layoffs, and shareholder-focused policies erased worker trust in their employers, belief in the power of branding began to shift from the company to the employee. Management gospel, like Peters’, urged workers to cement their professional reputations by developing their own brands.
Dan Lair, an associate dean at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, studies the troubles of personal branding. His interest in the subject came from his experience being laid off. Lair, at age 25, got a job in corporate marketing. It wasn’t the most thrilling work in the world, but it was a way to make rent in Missoula where, he noted, “you can’t eat the scenery.” Lair was hired in the summer of 1999. By the winter of 2000, after the company’s acquisition by an East Coast-based firm, he was fired.
“I felt dumb,” he recalled. “This was a company that very much branded itself as a family. It was built around two dynamic founders. A couple months before, we’d had this big retreat at a summer camp that I had been to as a kid. There was this sense of shock that this could actually happen.”
But he was equally disillusioned by the notion that workers should have to steel themselves for economic uncertainty by building personal brands that would make them indispensable. It felt to him like what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called an individualized solution to a social problem. And Lair did what many people do when they end up citing sociology to explain phenomena in their daily lives: He went to graduate school and studied personal branding. For some entrepreneurs, brand building at first is more dopamine than drudgery; there’s a thrill in the full exposure it demands.
Alexa Heller, a millennial who built a yoga teacher brand, used to feel it was important to be fully candid with her Instagram followers. She posted about making efforts to stay celibate, taking months off from sex and dating. She posted about insecurities bred by her acne. She attracted thousands of followers on Instagram, which she also used to boost her yoga classes, by treating her followers like close friends.
She felt the angst of compressing every strand of her personality, from the professional to the highly personal, into a single persona. Friends sometimes questioned whether various members of her online audience — relatives, business associates, potential suitors — might judge her ultra-openness. “One of my girlfriends was like, ‘Well, if a guy reads your profile, he’s going to be freaked out,’” she recalled.
When she switched career paths in 2020 from yoga to real estate, seeking more financial security, she realized that there was a different kind of rush in maintaining boundaries. She hid some of her old posts. She started to share online only about work. She still wrote down reflections on anxieties and ambitions — but now in her diary.
When everything is content
Modern interpretations of the “brand called you” present a trade-off of sorts. Workers are no longer reliant on the fecklessness of an employer that could at any moment pivot, downsize or cut wages. There are heaps of corporate data pointing to those possibilities: Over roughly the last four decades, typical hourly worker pay rose 17.5%, while productivity rose by nearly 62% and CEO compensation by 1,460%, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
But with personal branding, the line between who people are and what they do disappears. Everything is content; every like, follow and comment is a professional boost.
“It sort of shifted the responsibility for those kinds of disruptions from particular companies to the person themselves,” Lair said. “It’s sort of, ‘Now you are the one who’s supposed to solve this problem.’”
And many of the workers whose careers were shaped by the rise of personal branding are feeling its growing pains.
Kanchan Koya has seen the pressures that her brand breeds for her family, for example. Koya’s brand, Chief Spice Mama, which has more than 230,000 Instagram followers, offers nutritional tips that draw from her history of gastrointestinal illness. She knows that her followers engage excitedly with her more intimate captions, so she mines some of her own experiences for content.
But recently, she has begun to bristle at the responses that evokes. She received direct messages asking her why she is taking photos of her baby daughter instead of focusing on mothering. Her husband has asked her not to include him on her Instagram; he’s part of her personal life but doesn’t want to be part of the public brand.
“I’ll be super honest right now: Where I’m at with social media — if my business wasn’t intertwined with my social media presence, I would be on it 90% less,” Koya said. “I just don’t feel like it’s natural for us as humans to have so many people in our business.”
Plenty feel that public exposure isn’t worth the toll. Sadhbh O’Sullivan, a British-Irish journalist, stopped using her Twitter. The chance to boost her writings didn’t justify the revulsion of selling her personal life, Carrie Bradshaw style, and she’s made peace with the twinge of envy she feels for friends trumpeting their talents to land flashy new jobs. Sarai Atchison built a comedy social media brand during the pandemic after finding herself addicted to watching YouTube personalities like movie commentator “Dylan Is in Trouble.” But in March, she decided to take a job doing promotions for the Colorado Rockies. She found an unexpected relief in work that doesn’t draw on the emotional ups and downs of her own life, from heartbreak to social anxiety. The coming-of-age aches stay in her journal, without prompting worries that discretion is undermining her ambitions.
“Putting yourself out there is cool, and at the same time, in the back of your head, you don’t know how somebody is going to take your brand,” Atchison said. “It’s hard not to take it personally because it’s you.”
And some are tempering their exposure by sharing with social media followers more thoughtfully. Maybe not every breakup and depressive episode warrants public translation. Israel, for example, has embraced an approach that his mentor called “sharing from the scar, not the wound.” When Israel’s feelings are raw, he waits before conveying them to his audience of tens of thousands.
“When work was directly tied to my identity and sense of self-worth, I would ride these crazy waves,” Israel said. “I started to realize how important it was to build my sense of self, my self-worth and an identity around things that made me special as Jesse and not my work.”
Even Peters, the original brand evangelist, is dismayed by the extremes to which people have taken his message. “Use social media,” he said. “But you have to have something to talk about.”
He recognizes that his own brand is outdated — or, as he put it, “I’m talking as an incredibly old fart.”