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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

On Being Unique

OK, That’s Different

KNOW anyone who wears white suits these days? The signature white suit was adopted rather late in his life by the great writer and humorist Mark Twain as part of his “brand.” It was part of what made Mark Twain, well, Mark Twain.

In his enjoyable book, Mark Twain: Man in White, Richard Shelton tells the delightful story of Twain showing up on a December day for a Congressional hearing in Washington wearing a snow white suit, shirt, tie and shoes.

Twain’s friend William Dean Howells said: “Nothing could have been more dramatic than the gesture with which he flung off his long loose overcoat, and stood forth in white from his feet to the crown of his silvery head.” Just what Twain intended.

With tongue firmly in cheek Twain said of his sartorial choices: “You see, when a man gets to be 71, as I am, the world begins to look somber and dark. I believe we should do all we can to brighten things up and make ourselves look cheerful. You can’t do that by wearing black, funereal clothes.And why shouldn’t a man wear white? It betokens purity and innocence.”

It also betokens being known for something even if you lack the talent to pen a Huckleberry Finn.

Needless to say, few of us – none of us – are Mark Twain. That mold was broken, but there is a good deal to be said for “being known for something.”

I frequently sit in my office and talk to young folks just embarking on their careers. They ask for, and I routinely grant, an “informational interview.” These young folks typically want to know about our business, my career path and, of course, how they break the barrier and land that first real job.

Having done this interview many, many times over many years, I’ve come to regard two questions as essential. If the aspiring professional can answer them, I have all the time in the world for them. If they don’t have an answer, I politely suggest they need to think some more and come back another time because I probably can’t help them.

First question: what are you really good at doing? I think the simple, one word answer is best, but I usually get something like, “Well, “I’m a very good team player.” Or, “I’m a good, fast learner.”

I’d prefer an answer like, “I’m good with the short irons.” Or, “I can write well and fast.”

Second question: Who are you? It’s not a trick question, either. I want to know – and young folks often don’t know – just how to describe themselves. I’m looking for insight in what they are all about, what they care about. You tell me “I’m a history buff who loves movies” or “I’m a sports fan who really understands social media,” I now know something about you. I’m particularly not interested in talking to the person that they think I want to take to. I want to talk to them – the real person.

Answers to those questions tell me – and the world – something about the person. In a way, it is the beginning of their personal brand.

Barry Salzbergis the CEO of Deloitte LLP and soon to be the global CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu the international accounting and consulting firm. Salzberg told the New York Times recently that he tells his young colleagues to “brand yourself.”

“Make sure people know who you are and that you stand for who you are. Be unique about something. Be a specialist in something.”

I think it is great advice designed to set one apart the sameness of the crowd. The world is full of generic answers. The football coach whose only comment is a variation on the theme “if we can stay healthy, we should be OK this season.” Or the candidate who says in response to the most asked question in politics, “why are you running,” well, “because I have a strong desire to serve the public.”

Horse pucky. I like coaches like former Montana Tech football coach Bob Green who once said his team played like we “just got off Willie Nelson’s tour bus.” Or the politician like former Sen. Bob Dole who once said as he watched former presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon standing together: “There they are. See no evil, hear no evil, and…evil.” You don’t forget those guys.

Few of us would feel comfortable wearing a white suit as part of our personal brand – it occurs to me that the writer Tom Wolfe does – but we can intentionally adopt a brand that can “make sure people know” who we are.

I can only guess at how the great Man in White would answer my two simple questions. No generic answers from him, I’m confident.

The world is full of people in plain packages. It’s no crime, and quite an advantage, to stand out with distinction in a crowded world. It just might get you noticed. It just might get you hired. It’s certainly more fun.

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