Friday, March 30, 2012

What Running a Half Marathon Taught Me About Personal Branding

Photo by Matt Ramspott
Okay, so every time I hear “personal branding,” I can’t help it, I think of Stuart Smalley on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s hard to say those words and not feel like a dork. When did living an interesting, meaningful life and knowing how to talk about it become a cheesy business experiment?

Then I think about the past couple of years and realize these lean economic times have led to many of us having new obsessions with the idea of reinvention. We’re grasping at snazzy marketing-savvy straws like “personal branding” to deal with the fact that many of us feel stuck right now. Maybe we’re unemployed and looking for work, or stuck in jobs we don’t like. Maybe we haven’t had raises in recent years because of budget cuts and furloughs (I’m raising my hand on this one). You start to feel really frustrated and powerless, and want to have a master plan in place to transcend it all, and something like “personal branding” is as good a plan as any.

In August 2011, I made a master plan to train for the CareFirst Rock n’ Roll USA Half Marathon in Washington, D.C. I did it for all the reasons most people have for doing a race the requires a ridiculous amount of running: stress management, wanting to get in better shape, blah, blah blah. But I also did it because my husband was getting ready to apply for tenure at the university where we both work, and I knew that process would be challenging for both of us. I wanted a new project that would remind me work isn’t everything.

While training for a half marathon, here’s what I learned about, yes, personal branding:
  • Remember your unique history. When taking on a new challenge, think about something difficult you overcame in years past, and what inspired you back then to get through it. For the half marathon training, I created running mixes featuring some of my favorite music that helped me survive high school. I would listen to Midnight Oil’s “Dreamworld” and suddenly getting to eight miles didn’t feel impossible anymore.  

  • Map out your master plan in an accountable way. Early on in my training, I went into my Microsoft Outlook and set up reminders for my daily workouts according to the half marathon training program I was following. No matter how many committee meetings or deadlines I had at work that left me exhausted and brain dead, I always knew how many miles I had to complete that day because of the little messages that popped up to keep me in check. When you’re taking on a new project, make it easy to stick to the tasks that get you there, in whatever way works best for you, whether it’s an email reminder or a list jotted down on a piece of paper and pinned to your refrigerator. In other words, don’t make it high maintenance for yourself to complete important steps in your process of reinvention.  

  • Selectively share your successes, but don’t hyper-broadcast them. Part of the fun of training for something like a half marathon is telling your friends, family and co-workers about all the runs you do, especially through a social media update of some sort. They usually chime in with supportive comments that make you feel validated you got in seven miles after a long day of back-to-back meetings and seemingly endless emails you had to answer. It’s great to seek out feedback; you just don’t want to over-bombard people with nothing but your updates on how awesome you are all the time. That’s boring and annoying. Instead, connect your project with something bigger and more universal. For me, that meant asking fellow runners for advice and sharing photos I took on long runs so others could enjoy them.  

  • Let your mistakes empower you and invoke empathy. Working toward a long-term goal means that inevitably you’re going to screw up from time to time. Don’t be afraid to admit when something really dumb or disappointing happened. Stay humble and real with your supporters who are listening to your progress, and they’ll feel more connected to your journey. One day I left my running shoes at home (I usually squeezed in runs over my lunch break), and had to drive all the way back home after my day was over to get them and then head out again to the gym in the pouring rain when all I wanted to do was crash on my couch. I shared this mishap, as tiny and insignificant as it was, on Facebook, and it made people empathize with me and how hard it is to stick to a rigorous training schedule. I in turn felt good about dragging myself out of my house to make that run happen.  

  • Channel your own bad-assed-ness. Somewhere along the way of getting ready for this half marathon, I became obsessed with the idea of creating superhero T-shirts for the race. My father-in-law, one of those amazing people who run and bike 17 miles a day well into their golden years, had also signed up for the half marathon, and I wanted to do something special to thank him for flying to D.C. to do it with me. I decided to go with green T-shirts because of the race happening on St. Patrick’s Day, and chose superhero names that related to the festivities, and what we were trying to accomplish: my father-in-law was “Green Lightning” and I got to be “Verdant Velocity,” a verbose superhero name that reflected my word nerd self. 

  • Share the spotlight with someone who has helped you. Though my father-in-law lives in a whole different time zone from my husband and me, he is still one of the most generous and supportive family members we have. He’s always got great advice about a project we’re doing around our house, or something I’m trying to figure out at my job. There was nothing more fun than running that race next to him. Not only did he check in and see how I was doing, but every mile or so, several people would see my father-in-law’s shirt and yell out, “GO GREEN LIGHTNING!” He loved ever minute of it. It made me happy to see someone who has been so loving and kind get a moment in the spotlight like that. He deserved it. He is a superhero, in many ways, with what he accomplishes and the ways he cares about people.
All in all, the race was FANTASTIC: my friends and husband and hundreds of strangers cheering us on as we raced through one of the best cities in the world on a beautiful day. I’m so glad I did it.

I don’t know what the future holds for higher education, or what interesting twists and turns my career might take in the next year or two. All I know is that I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, and feeling more fearless than ever about pursuing things that matter to me. I trust my creativity, intuition and ability to solve problems in a way that I haven’t for a long time. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Here's the link to one of my favorite half marathon training mixes on Spotify.


Jen Helms said...

Becky, you are such an inspiration! I loved reading your blog and can't wait to see what happens next for you! Love and miss you!

Becca Ramspott said...

Hey Jen, thanks so much for reading this. Miss you, too!

Linda T said...

Enjoyed reading this, Becky - great job with the half marathon and love the shirts!

Joy said...

Congrats again to you on the half-marathon! That in itself is pretty badass! Great post, girl!