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Welcome To The Age Of Career Rebranding

Katie Mulloy
·14-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From ELLE

It's not like it was a wildly original idea. ‘Magazine editor and writer moves into a potentially more stable and profitable kind of content creation’ is becoming a well-trodden path for those of us all too familiar with the contracting reality of traditional media. Still, my segue into running PR and social media for small businesses and brands wasn’t just a strategic move, it was an exciting one. A new challenge! Using my creativity! Offering expert advice that would really be of use to people! I love all of that.

Besides, who isn’t rebranding right now? Even Kim Kardashian-West is shapeshifting from master selfie-taker and shapewear entrepreneur to actual lawyer. Anything is possible. In fact, the celebrity world is awash with successful rebrand stories. Victoria Beckham, from questionable songstress to respected fashion designer. Cameron Diaz, from movie darling to wine producer. Over in a slightly different realm, one-time TV presenter Esther McVey is now a Conservative MP.

Rebranding has become the cornerstone of modern-day career advice; there is no job for life anymore, it’s all about the pivot, the shift, the second – oh, at the very least – career.

Life is constantly evolving. And, if you’re savvy, so will you. We’ll be working longer than any generation before us, but we also have options beyond the slow, hard slog to retirement; the opportunity to chop up our skillset and redistribute our favourite bits into a job that will make us happier, wealthier, more successful. Given the economic turmoil that’s become a defining feature of many Gen Y careers, the rebrand – whether in the form of a side-hustle or a total career change – may be an inevitability.

Grow to know yourself better

Economic circumstances aside, I think there is something deeper to our modern obsession with rebranding. ‘Growth’ has become the keystone of the personal development industry. Self-reflection, striving to be a better version of yourself – it’s a rite of passage for those who consider themselves even marginally self-aware. It’s probably been a couple of decades in the making.

Look back to writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s sojourn around the world in the name of reinvention, told through her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love. It wasn’t ridiculed as the personal crisis (made public and profitable) of a wealthy white woman, but embraced as a glamourised search for the answers that many of us were also asking ourselves.

And, of course, this self-help notion of growth collided with the explosion of personal branding; social media conflated our personal and professional selves, and putting it all on show becoming a bona fide way to succeed (or self-sabotage, depending on how savvy you were with it). So our jobs have become an integral part of our ‘personal journey’.

Photo credit: Stefanie Keenan - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stefanie Keenan - Getty Images

But what happens when that journey seems to have taken you down a road that makes you want to look in your rearview mirror and wonder if you picked the correct turn after all? I ask, because, well, months into my savvy social move, I felt slightly deflated by it all.

‘I felt outright miserable,’ confesses 34-year-old Rose Douglas* who, two years ago, left her graphic design role at a creative agency to go into branding for a major high-street name. ‘It really affected me; I’d meet friends for dinner and end up bursting into tears when they asked me how work was.’

I’m on the phone to Rose, asking her to relive some of her less happy work-life memories, in the hope that they might help me sort out some of my own dilemmas.

Like me, she didn’t make the move without proper consideration – or go into it with rose-tinted glasses. ‘I’m a grown-up. I don’t expect work to be fun all the time,’ she says. ‘I knew it wouldn’t be as creative as the role I’d come from but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make for the salary and title.

‘But I really struggled in such a corporate environment; there was a very hierarchical chain of command, so I was constantly being overruled by people above me who didn’t really have the expertise that I did. They’d say they wanted my creativity and a fresh approach, but then, it seemed, would actually want to do things the same way they’d always been done.’

Such was her disillusionment that Rose began to see a career coach, with the hope of figuring out what the problem was: her or the job? ‘I hadn’t really had a role I hadn’t felt a success at before, so I guess I really needed to understand why – and what that meant for the future.’

Photo credit: Nazar Petyshak - Getty Images
Photo credit: Nazar Petyshak - Getty Images

She was slightly baffled at first when her coach began asking her a selection of fairly abstract questions.

‘The one that sticks in my mind is: “Who’d be at your 70th birthday party?” Beyond my family and close friends, many of the people I imagined being there were work colleagues I’d got on with throughout the years. After a bit of reflection, it was clear this was because they were people on the same wavelength as me, who respected and appreciated me. Being celebrated professionally, and being regarded as being accomplished in my field, mattered to me more than I’d ever realised.’

Values give you meaning

What Rose was referencing, she discovered, wasn’t her ego – they’re her values. Your values are essentially what make you, well, you. What make you tick. They are a fundamental part of our identity and our psychological make-up.

‘And they’re the route to professional fulfilment, because it’s your values that make your work meaningful – and meaning is ultimately what matters,’ explains Lisa Quinn, an executive career coach. Lisa rebranded from her high-status role as a media company communications director three years ago after going on a coaching course as part of her professional development – loving it so much, she knew immediately that she wanted to do it full-time. Now much of her life is spent helping others successfully shift careers. She is, unlike Rose and me, a successful rebrander.

The big problem – as Quinn (and science) will tell you – is that when it comes to career choices, we often get seduced by the other stuff. That’s usually pay and perks, despite the fact that research repeatedly shows that ever-increasing salaries don’t make us happy.

Instead, we get caught in a ‘golden handcuffs’ cycle. Research by Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky – an expert in the psychology of happiness from the University of California – found that if people made $30,000, they estimated they’d need $50,000 to feel happy. But people on $100,000? They said they’d need $250,000 to feel happy.

(This is despite the fact that in a 2018 survey by BetterUp Labs, nine out of 10 people said they’d trade 23 per cent of future earnings to have a job with meaning.)

Or, if it’s not about money, then we may simply see people who have the same skillset as us making a success of something we know we could do, and we start to think that’s what we should do. (Guilty.)

‘But our values aren’t all the same,’ points out Lisa. ‘What will be fulfilment for me definitely won’t be fulfilment for you.’

Photo credit: Dominic Lipinski - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dominic Lipinski - Getty Images

In a 2019 Ipsos Global Advisor survey, 85 per cent of under-35s said that having meaningful work was a source of happiness. I think we can safely assume that not all of those surveyed were tackling climate change or saving lives. That’s because meaning and purpose are derived when work aligns with our personal values.

Perhaps one of your values is creativity: filling in spreadsheets or following a formulaic working pattern isn’t going to cut it for you. Or maybe you value intellect – in which case a job where you’re surrounded by peers who admire your brainpower or appreciate your judgement will feel good to you. Your purpose, in this case, is putting your intellect to good use. The context or outcome don’t necessarily matter; what’s important is that it aligns with that value.

In Rose’s case, one of her values is excellence. So when an overbearing boss meant she couldn’t be as good at her job as she believed she should, she suffered. In fact, values are so important that how we perceive our job matters.

Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, an expert in organisational behaviour at Yale School of Management, calls this ‘job crafting’. Professor Wrzesniewski found that hospital cleaners who viewed themselves as an integral part of the wider medical team – and, therefore, patients’ healing process – derived far more satisfaction from their work. In other words, if you can adjust your perception to align with your values, your job will have more meaning.

As we chat over Zoom – me ignoring a stack of ‘New Me’ work I don’t want to do – Lisa encourages me to visualise life when things feel easy, when I’m living in the moment, when it isn’t a struggle or slog and everything just flows and I feel at my best. She explores and expands on various things I say and makes me realise how important certain aspects of my life are to me.

It’s in the reflection that you find the answers. It’s not always easy to see how the things that make you feel good – or don’t – are actually a value. I have this random love of being barefoot in the garden or on the beach; I can’t explain it – it gives me this kind of contented peace. And I love yoga; similarly it is the only thing that can ever settle my monkey mind. But I always thought they were just things I liked doing. Lisa suggest these are actually signifiers of really strong values: freedom, a love of nature, mindfulness.

Photo credit: Edward Berthelot - Getty Images
Photo credit: Edward Berthelot - Getty Images

And so the fact that, in the past, I have burnt out from the onslaught of a high-intensity role that’s located slap bang in the middle of a capital city? Maybe it’s not so surprising. Being freelance probably works really well for me. But now, I’ve pivoted into a role that requires me to be connected to technology more than ever. Perhaps that mental overstimulation is what’s leaving me feeling so drained.

Stay true to what you want

Indeed, analysing your negative feelings can be as useful as reflecting on the positive ones: ‘Values are essentially feelings,’ Lisa explains. ‘Often when we feel negatively about something, it’s because our values have been compromised. So make an effort to sit with those feelings for a while and figure them out.

‘Another idea is to look at what you get obsessed about,’ she adds. ‘What do your friends and family tease you about? Sometimes, we can take a value to an extreme. If you are a perfectionist, for example, you might have a value of “excellence”, which has “mutated” for some reason. Focus on the value that’s underneath the mutation, rather than the mutation itself.’

I can relate. Like Rose, I have values of excellence and respect. I know there are people who’d say I’m foolish – or even arrogant – for getting frustrated with a client who wants to do it their way rather than mine. Why can’t I just accept it and take the money? Well, now I know it’s because I’m compromising my values and feel rubbish about it. Recognising that, instead of feeling guilty or that I should be able to feel differently is a game changer.

Photo credit: David Crotty - Getty Images
Photo credit: David Crotty - Getty Images

Claire Rothstein was at the top of her game as a hair stylist for celebrity and fashion campaigns when she started her rebrand. The difference? She wasn’t afraid to listen to her values.

‘I’d spent decades on shoots and, the more I watched photographers working, the more I thought, I could do that,’ she says. She’d picked up a camera before but started to learn properly, putting what she’d learned by osmosis into action, asking for guidance from photographer friends.

She is now one of the UK’s most in-demand photographers, shooting high-end campaigns and editorials as well as being the editor of Girls. Girls. Girls. magazine, and is credited with creating internet-breaking images (including Rachel McAdams using a breast pump). In the world of photography, it’s an astonishingly quick ascent.

‘I was 35 when I made the jump and I knew myself,’ she reflects. ‘I suppose I’m a control freak in some ways, or at least I like to lead. I’d had creative control as a stylist and I knew I couldn’t go back to being someone’s assistant. So I created my own magazine in order to showcase my photography style and aesthetic. It was a gamble financially; a huge investment on my part. But it paid off. I think if I’d denied that side of myself, if I’d told myself simply becoming a photographer was more important than having creative control, and gone the conventional route of assisting, I would never have stuck it out. It would have crushed me.’

In other words, it’s not indulgent or egotistical to recognise who you are – it’s smart. ‘Your values are what anchor you,’ says Lisa. ‘Rebranding isn’t always easy. Before I was a coach, my previous communications role came with a lot of status and perceived glamour; it very much passed the dinner-party test: Taylor Swift sent my daughter a birthday card! So when I left all of that, of course I questioned whether I had done the right thing. But I held my nerve by constantly checking in with my values: Am I learning? Am I helping others develop? Am I being challenged? Those all mean something to me, and the answer to all of those questions was always yes. It kept me on the right course. I knew I was making the sacrifice for something worthwhile.’

Failure to do the same can lead to a slightly less boasted-about-on-social-media phenomenon: the rebrand rebound. Rose ended up going back to the same company she’d left – so does she feel like her attempted rebrand failed?

Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images

‘Yes and no. Time in a different working environment wasn’t wasted. For one thing, if I hadn’t had those realisations about what my values are, I might not have gone back to my current job. I might have thought it was – or would look to other people – like a step back. Like I couldn’t hack it in a different environment. But I’m so much happier here. And I see the future more clearly, too; I know what I need, and what I can’t cope with.’

Am I rebounding? For now, I’m floating somewhere in the middle of all of that. I have kept on with the social media clients who allow me freedom and creativity. But I have let go of the others so I can take on more meaty editorial projects that I get a kick out of. I’m also practising yoga regularly, understanding that I’m better and happier when it’s a priority in my life and I’m even looking into yoga teaching courses for the future. I’d previously written off the idea as a dream that had hit its sell-by date. But acknowledging its importance has reignited something in me. Perhaps it will be a side hustle in the future, or even an entirely new career.

Most importantly, I have my list of values stuck up on my office wall. My new blueprint for career satisfaction.

This article appears in the October 2020 edition of ELLE UK.

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