Success no longer means following a linear career path. It can be measured by Instagram followers, a banging Etsy store, or the blog you set up on your lunch breaks winning a bunch of awards. Yet our view of what a successful woman looks like remains incredibly rigid. We still expect successful women to dominate the room, the conversation, the meeting. We assume that the women we’re hearing about bossing it in all industries must be Alpha because that’s the way they’re presented to us.
Self-promotion comes far less easily to Beta women because we’re not hardwired to push ourselves above everyone else, but even the most Beta entrepreneur will know how to compose the perfect rousing Instagram post about living her brand 24/7 or whatever, even if she cringes as she presses send. Because social media, the internet and the technology that have made it possible for us to follow such diverse and individual paths to success have removed so much of the nuance around how we’re allowed to present ourselves. Even the most Beta woman can shout about herself in the most Alpha way when she’s doing it from behind a screen. The result? The way success is viewed is becoming narrower, more homogeneous, not broader.
We tell young women that they need to become their own personal brands to succeed, to find their niche and learn how to market themselves. But are we teaching them how to lead for the future? How to collaborate, work with others and motivate people? (That is, how to be a good Beta boss.) Everyone is told to be disruptive, to tear up the norm and to lead from the front. But what if that model for success is at odds with your personality? What if disruption makes you anxious? What if you find leading from the front emotionally exhausting? How are you ever supposed to be the best version of yourself? And, crucially, why do we assume that disruption is always the best route to success?
Have a quick flick through your Instagram and check out #buildingmyempire: apart from all the motivational memes, it’s filled with snapshots of people’s lives that demonstrate just how much they’re ‘bossing it’, ‘smashing it’ or ‘nailing it’ (pick your favourite). Not shown: when they spent a week staring at a wall because they couldn’t work out what to do next, or took on some personal brand unfriendly data-entry work to pay that month’s rent, or how much of their new business venture is being funded by their parents. Why don’t we see those bits too? Because they don’t fit with the tale we’re trying to tell.
We’re increasingly taught to create a narrative around our careers and our (back to that phrase again) personal brands. You know the adversity-story thing they always do on The X Factor? In the last few weeks of the competition, as things start to hot up, they’ll introduce a narrative around each of the remaining contestants. The detail is always slightly different, but the gist is the same: something bad happened to them in the past that makes this particular contestant’s Personal Journey to the finals more poignant than those of the others. Then they’ll talk about How Far They’ve Come, before cutting to a family member, who confirms that said contestant has indeed Come Far. Finally, the video will cut back to the contestant, who will say, ‘This has been a dream come true for me. It’s been the journey of a lifetime. I don’t know what I’ll do if I go home tonight,’ before bursting into tears. Rinse and repeat.
So why do it?
Because we root for people who have a clear story – beat the odds, fight against adversity and win – whether that’s presented in a video clip before one goes on stage to belt out a cover version of If I Can Turn Back Time, or through a series of motivational Instagram memes. Whether your business is building or blogging, if people root for you and relate to you, they’re more likely to support your endeavour.
And all this might feel inauthentic, or like a distraction from the bigger picture or a bit . . . boasty? Immodest?. . . but there’s no escaping it. And when everyone else is shouting loudly about their achievements, keeping quiet about yours doesn’t make you modest or discreet. It means no-one will ever hear about them.
But how do you have any semblance of work-life balance when your work revolves around your personal brand? Emma Gannon has made a career out of her personal brand – and with a blog, book and podcast of the same name, she’s a poster-child for how success can look in the Noughties. I’d say she was Alpha because her career is so closely tied to who she is. And, given that her personal brand is her career, I’d say, based on what I see on social media, she’s never not working. But is that an illusion?
“It definitely looks like I do more work than I am doing in the evenings, because it comes very easily to me now,” she admits. “I’ll do a blog page in half an hour and spend the rest of the evening with my boyfriend. But it probably looks like I’ve spent the whole night doing something.”
And it’s that filter through which we view other people’s lives that can alter our perception of what success looks like. Emma certainly works hard, but is the sixteen-year-old girl who follows her and dreams of a similar career getting a true version of her life?
“It’s curated. You’re not lying but you are leaving stuff out. So you’re always telling the truth. I’m presenting the truth at all times, but it’s like a sliver of everything.”
This is an edited extract from Beta | Quiet Girls Can Run The World: There Is More Than One Way To Be The Boss by Rebecca Holman, RRP$32.99.