This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
At each year’s end, people are apt to imagine that the previous 12 months were uniquely bad, The New Yorker‘s Jia Tolentino recently pointed out. “It’s in the nature of years to feel exhausting in retrospect,” she wrote. “But 2016 does seem to have earned some sort of special designation.” Zika outbreaks spread, Bowie and Prince died, uncivil discourse blossomed like a cold sore, and November brought what we now know to be a tampered-with U.S. presidential election. And that was just in the Americas. Standing on the cusp of 2017, we seem poised to roll back decades of social and environmental progress.
All of these disasters were amplified by social media, which bombards us with news of global mayhem in exactly the same space occupied by news of our loved ones and pictures of bunnies. Confronted with cute memes, we click the “like.” But we keenly feel our helplessness to alleviate the suffering and antipathy that’s increasingly on display right next to the things that make us smile.
Personally, I believe that helplessness goes viral inside, and I just shut down. Apathy and exhaustion are understandable responses. But they don’t help, and neither do the conventions we’ve been coached to use online, particularly in our professional lives. That’s why I’m changing my approach to social media in 2017—and you should, too.
According to career experts and “personal branding” aficionados, we’re supposed to craft careful brand narratives to represent ourselves. I think that’s bunk. Branding injects products with human qualities to make them more relatable. Well, guess what, human—you’ve already got human qualities.
In 2017, I’m going to inject more authenticity into my social media activity so that people know the human they’re dealing with, where I’m coming from, and why I do what I do. I’ll talk about, for instance, how flunking the fourth grade ultimately helped me. I know that’s not conventional wisdom for a seasoned professional. But if we learned anything in 2016, it’s that conventional approaches don’t guarantee success.
Personally, I don’t like President-elect Trump or what he stands for, but I see that he uses social media to show his authentic self, warts and all. That helped him succeed.
When it comes to my opinions about politics and global issues, I simply don’t agree with the idea declaring them on social media is risky, and not in keeping with the allowable professional uses of LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. To do so, on the contrary, is to hold your own integrity as a virtue and a value and to ask an employer or client to recognize that—as long as you take the high road in the way you express yourself.
Businesses have long touted the need for “authenticity” in the workplace. At the same time, they struggle to cope with lone-wolf employees who go “off message” and with the mounting risks of getting dragged into political disputes by third parties, even if everyone sticks to the script. For many in the business world, these are genuine PR worries.
But speaking respectfully and thoughtfully about what matters to you is about squaring your beliefs and values with your career, and seeing the two as mutually informing. Companies should value that, not fear it.
You might be concerned about scaring off potential clients or employers by revealing too much. Of course, professional encounters require a more limited level of self-disclosure than personal relationships. Confine your disclosure to what fuels your expertise with energy and passion. Keeping what’s personal private is different than cloaking yourself in the false persona of personal branding.
This resolution might delight the leading social platforms, which all want engaged, “active” users. Many people step back periodically (or permanently) from their social feeds when they feel overwhelmed, and sometimes a “digital detox” is just what the doctor ordered. But there are rewards in the opposite approach, too–digging your heels in and using social media more, not less.
This year, I’m resolving to activate those same channels that threaten to overwhelm me, and create more kindness and clarity in the world around me. After all, as a coach, it’s my professional mission to help others get the money and respect they need, and social media can be a powerful means of making life better for somebody else.
In fact, no matter what you do for a living, your role is fundamentally about the same thing: improving your own life and livelihood and those of others, even if indirectly or in the smallest of ways. Taking that same approach to social media isn’t a stretch—quite the contrary, it’s just another way to fulfill the deeper purpose underlying your career.
That’s why if I see suppression of dissent in this country or an inappropriate elevation of one group over another, I’m going to speak up and counter it through my social media channels. I’m challenging myself to become critically engaged in 2017.
This year, I’ll consistently let my social media connections know that I believe in love, kindness, and cooperation. I know I can’t totally counteract the extreme hysteria of online hate groups, fake-news planters, and any forces that seek to divide us and foment chaos. But it’s a start.
I’ll be more vocal about my work to counteract those who don’t value your contribution except to exploit your expertise and talent when they need you. And I’ll be transparent and explicit about why I do what I do, knowing that’s the best way to engender trust, instead of coaxing false confidence. I believe that standing as an example of transparency is a small but meaningful way to combat the hidden agendas that so many use social media to advance.
I know these may seem like inconsequential changes for one guy to make. But I truly believe it takes the progress of measured steps, first by a few and later by many, to make things better. Those small steps–those everyday acts of clarity, caring, and kindness–are where real change begins. And it’s how substantive, purposeful careers are built: by people who live out their convictions, one day at a time.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.