OCTOBER 19, 2004

By Christopher Kenton

How We Figure in Life's Ledger

If you own a business, identity means settling on a brand image and pitching it. To the customer, it's the never-ending quest to purchase personal validation

Ever have one of those moments when all of the disparate threads of your life come together in one idea -- an idea so powerful that it sweeps away all of the obstacles that once held you back? I'm not talking about the time you ordered a set of Tony Robbins tapes after a 2 a.m. infomercial. I'm talking about a genuine epiphany, one that revealed your destiny. I have had that glorious moment, and I want to tell you about it because it will change your life. For only $199.95 plus shipping and handling.

Just kidding, but if I put a 1-900 number after that first paragraph I could probably pay off my mortgage by the end of the year. Finding a sense of meaning and direction is so compelling, so irresistible, it undergirds our entire economy. It's business. It's religion. It's education. It's commerce. It's equally personal and corporate. It is the timeless belief that if we only had a better grip on our role in the world, be it as a person or as a business owner, we'd be happier and more successful.

IDENTITY, IT'S AN OXYMORON. When it's personal, we call it personal growth, or self-help, or psychology. When it's business, we call it branding, or positioning, or market strategy. But when you cut to the core, it all stems from the same drive: Defining our role in the world around us offers a significant competitive advantage -- and the product of that definition, whether deliberate or subconscious, whether personal or corporate, is what we embrace as our identity.

"Identity" is one of those strange words that means one thing and also its opposite. Identity is the distinct character or personality of an individual. But it's also the set of characteristics or behaviors that make an individual recognizable as part of a group. Identity is about uniqueness, but also about belonging.

In business, competition is also about uniqueness and belonging. We often talk about the importance of competitive differentiation -- the development of some quality that sets us apart from the crowd so that our products drive greater demand than those of competitors. But it's also most efficient for companies to create products that belong to a recognizable category, if not a recognizable trend. Anything that is entirely new has to overcome the significant cost of attracting and educating an entirely new customer base.

The similarity between personal and corporate identity is no mystery: Identity is one of the fundamental tools of operating effectively within a social system. To put it simply, our lives are organized to exchange materials, energy, and information with our environment -- we don't survive unless we're able to get what we need. In the environment of a civilized society, the exchange is one of value -- if you want something from me, you must provide something of value in return.

EPHEMERAL VS. ESSENTIAL. Whether you're a college graduate or a heavy-hitting corporation, the more effective you are at providing value, the more successful you'll be at gaining it. Having a clear identity facilitates the exchange of value. A clear identity clarifies our goals and priorities into an obvious market or social position, communicating to those around us the value we have to offer. It identifies how we are similar, which builds trust and acceptance, and how we are different, which increases our worth to the extent our difference provides value.

How we discover and create our identities is a topic of endless fascination. Whether it's an instinct or an imperative imposed on us by the need to advance our own interests in a competitive group, we spend a vast amount of time and energy trying to understand, define and refine our role in the world around us. But the process and the outcome aren't always clear -- much less a conscious pursuit -- and both people and businesses frequently get lost, sometimes caught up in an endless cycle of superficial trends, other times forgetting that a sense of meaning provides any value at all.

It's precisely when we're lost, however, when it becomes most interesting. It's then that the assumptions and avenues we take in rediscovering a sense of purpose become clear, and also where the defining difference between people and businesses emerges.

I've spent my career working on different facets of personal and corporate identity development. My first business was a software startup that created management training tools for goal-setting, problem-solving, and decision-making. No guru, just basic information to help people explore over time how they operate within their environment, and how they construct a sense of purpose and identity.

EARNING OF THE GREEN. That business failed. It turns out very few people want to work at a program that takes a commitment of time and effort. What they want is an evangelist promising to resolve their sense of crisis overnight -- like a constant supply of aspirin for fast, temporary relief.

I switched over to the corporate side to work on brand development and marketing, what I still do today. I help businesses discover and build compelling identities to communicate effectively with their markets. Just like people, companies struggle with the fundamental questions of who they are, what they have to offer, and how to communicate in a way that is both unique and immediately familiar. The difference is that businesses are more often willing to do the hard work that people typically avoid, and for good reason.

For businesses, having an effective identity is a necessary precursor to fulfilling their primary, universal purpose in life: making money. For people in a consumer economy, it's usually the opposite: Making money is a necessary precursor to spending it, which has become the way we construct our identity in a world where we are what we buy.

THE VALUE. For businesses, having an effective identity is a necessary precursor to fulfilling their primary, universal purpose in life: to make money. For people in a consumer economy it's usually the opposite: making money is a necessary precursor to spending it, which has become the way we construct our identity in a world where we are what we buy.

For businesses, identity is the means to an end--what matters is communicating value to your audience. For people, identity is a constantly changing destination--what matters is finding a sense of purpose that connects us with the world. While a business can construct an identity by tailoring it to the intended audience, that approach usually leaves people feeling empty; and while people can happily spend a lifetime finding their purpose in life, that approach usually leaves businesses bankrupt.

So what about this epiphany I mentioned at the start? What about this revelation that will bring the threads of your life together and sweep away all obstacles? Well, I can't give away the store, but what I can tell you is this: the distinction between personal and corporate approaches to identity should really be more of a balance.

Each of us, whether we're a corporate executive or a school teacher, is running a small for-profit business when it comes to our finances, and we can't survive if we're not effective in the competitive exchange of value. And every business, whether a sole proprietorship or a large corporation, is comprised of people who need to find meaning in their work that connects them with their social environment. Both scenarios are the domain of identity --the determination of success in each depends on whether we see it as a tool or a destination.