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What an introvert turned bestselling author can teach us about personal branding…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You have the ingredients of a strong personal brand

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Susan Cain, a lawyer-turned-author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet, built her career on her experience as an introvert.

The year is 2012. Susan Cain just debuted her first book, Quiet, about the power of being an introvert in an extrovert’s world. Two weeks later, Quiet was a number four New York Times bestseller and on the cover of Time magazine. Then, in less than a month, Cain’s TED Talk reached a million views—the most views reached in the shortest amount of time for any TED Talk video up to that point.

So, how did Cain do it—especially as someone “who [didn’t] like to advertise themselves”?

Cain’s story starts on Wall Street. Though she’d always dreamed of becoming a writer, she became an attorney, hoping “to be practical [after college].” “For a while,” Cain recalled about her legal career, “I really liked it, in the way that you like a foreign country. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and, oh look, I can speak the language.”

But the allure didn’t last forever. After 7 years in the legal world, Cain quit and opened her own consulting practice. She also wrote on the side for fun. Four years into entrepreneurship, she began writing about what it meant to be quiet and “knew it was the [book] I wanted… to throw my whole being behind.”

Cain told herself not many people would be interested in her work: “I thought I was working on this highly idiosyncratic project and I’d be lucky to get a book deal and sell a few copies.” To her surprise, publishers “went crazy”—and launched “an auction and a bidding war” for her manuscript.

It would take seven years for Cain to finish writing Quiet. But, when it finally came out in 2012, the reception ended up being anything but quiet: The book skyrocketed on the New York Times bestseller list and made its way to the cover of Time magazine. Cain’s TED Talk also “attracted half a million views in its first day online” (as of writing this in 2023, that number is nearly 34 million).

Why was this the case? Book editors, Cain hypothesized, were fans because “most editors are introverts.” Meanwhile, readers rejoiced because “they felt validated and seen for the first time.” 

The “Quiet Revolution” picked up speed: Letters, tweets, and comments poured into Cain’s inboxes as “introversion came suddenly into vogue.” Stories about “nurturing and including introverted employees” began to spring up in Fortune, Fast Company, and the Harvard Business Review. Introverts around the globe saw themselves “explained and exonerated.”

Today, Quiet has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 40 languages. Cain has been recognized for her work in leadership by institutions like Harvard Law School, Toastmasters, and Inc. Magazine. Bittersweet, Cain’s newest book, was also an instant New York Times bestseller.

So, the next time you find yourself being told to build a personal brand, remember Cain, who did so not by creating something out of thin air, but by embracing who she was.

Susan Cain in her 2012 viral TED Talk about introversion.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? You are more than your job title.

How many times have you been told to “build a personal brand?” And how many times have you found yourself wondering, Sure… but how??

After toiling over this very question for years myself, I finally have, yes, a framework:

Your personal brand = who you are + what you do + how you do it + whom you do it for + why you do it

Want to define your own personal brand? Ask yourself 5 questions:

(1) “Who am I outside of my job title?”

  • e.g., “I’m a recovering lawyer,” “I’m an immigrant,” “I’m an introvert”

(2) “What do I do (in plain English)?”

  • e.g., “I make videos,” I build software,” “I write”

(3) “How do I do it (that makes me different from the next person)?”

  • e.g., “By telling stories,” “by transforming everyday things into frameworks,” “by transforming jargon into plain English”

(4) “Whom do I do it for (your audience)?”

  • e.g., “For fellow PhDs,” “for investors,” “for community college students”

(5) “Why do I do what I do (besides the money)?”

  • e.g., “To create safer communities,” “to create hope,” “to break the glass ceiling”

Now, put your responses from questions 1-5 together.

Here’s one way that I think about my personal brand: “I’m a first-gen professional who deconstructs ‘tacit knowledge’ that takes years to learn through trial and error into practical career advice to help professionals from humble beginnings and underrepresented backgrounds ascend to positions of leadership.” 

It will take time to build a personal brand you feel good about! Moreover, what you fill in for each blank can and should change depending on who you talk to, so don’t be too hard on yourself about having a single polished “personal brand.”

And: The fact that we have 5 blanks means that there are few people (if anyone) out there in the world who are exactly like you. Sure, there are many international students and/or software engineers (for example) out there, but how many of them can say that they’re international students and/or software engineers who do A by B for C with the goal of D. This makes you unique!

In the case of Cain, there are many introverts out here. But Cain became more than just an introvert. She became an introvert who wrote a book on the hidden superpowers of introverts to validate the experience of other fellow introverts. She filled in her other four blanks—and in doing so, carved out a unique niche for herself.

Personal branding, as Rachel Montañez puts it in HBR Ascend, “is empowering… [and] can give you control over your professional development, network, career, and overall well-being.” Montañez is right!

I know it because I’ve experienced it: The Unspoken Rules has endorsements from some pretty big names. But… these aren’t people I used to know! I cold-emailed 50 people asking for endorsements—and the vast majority of them either never replied or said “no.” What do all of the people who said “yes” have in common? They all received a version of my email where I didn’t hide behind my professional titles but, instead, told my story from the heart.

Be yourself—and build your brand!


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