Marketing people talk excitedly about branding. How important it is to secure a share of the market for a product. Since we are now inclined to speak of people as products too, it is to be expected that we should talk of branding of people too. We may not all be very special, but we are all specialists now. One is not a banker, one is an investment banker. One is not a doctor, one is a gynecologist. Once there are enough investment bankers and gynecologists, I am sure pioneering bankers and doctors will develop further sub-specialties and promptly brand themselves with a new name. Our role will be to stand in awe of the new sub-specialty and rush to use its service.
Of course it is useful to know what other people do. You can take their help when you need it. That is why society initiated a branding system. When you have a problem in your bathroom, you call a plumber. But it is a bad plumber who not only fixes your leaking faucet, but also tries to fix a leaking roof instead of telling you to get a roofing specialist. It is the problem of a specialist who does not know the limit of his specialization. The other problem is the problem of the specialist who draws the limit too closely, echoing Voltaire’s laughable eye specialist who is a specialist of the left eye only.
By then it is not society’s useful branding, it is our branding of ourselves.
In school I had a friend in our class, Jay, who had a way of telling jokes. We enjoyed and laughed at his jokes. He continued to tell his jokes. Later, as we graduated to other classes, he remained a fount of jokes and became informally crowned as the clown of the class. I met him five years later, among other friends, and was surprised to see him persisting in his role as the joker. I wondered if he would ever break out of that role and try something different. He had branded himself too indelibly to change.
Early success can be pleasing, but it can also become a fetter. It may stop us from seeing beyond the comfort of what we do easily and well, and try something that has the potential of far greater accomplishment and, just as important, far greater satisfaction. I suppose it is not just success but also failure that can influence us strongly. When I was young, I was painfully shy and had difficulty, when asked, even to say my name. I saw how people reacted to my mumbling, how quickly they turned away and lost interest in what I had to say. I struggled to overcome what at one point seemed to me an inherent handicap and took an inordinate interest in public speaking. Soon I was speaking in college and university debates and, by most accounts, excelling. My later work involved a large amount of public seminars, key briefings and even press conferences. I seemed to draw adrenalin from larger crowds. I am glad I have stopped in order to try other things.
Starting with Egyptians four thousand years back, we have branded animals -- cows, horses, mules, buffaloes, even sheep and goats – to display the glory of ownership. The very word brand comes from the same source as fire. We have branded baby calves and colts, before they were weaned, because owners thought they would be easier to handle. By any standard, it is an unspeakably cruel and offensive practice.
There must be few things sadder than when we choose to brand ourselves and imprison our free selves in the cage of a concept. Like Chinese women, whose feet were tightly bandaged from young days so that they could have beautiful small feet, we adapt to the shackles of our own idea, adopt a new persona and strive to make a reality out of an illusion. It is no less cruel than what we have been doing to the animals.