Thanksgiving 2006: A Tribute to Brand Yous

Did the Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock? Did they break bread with the Indians on Thanksgiving? Are we white folk responsible for genocide concerning the Native Americans?

I don't know the answers to any of those questions, other than "open to debate." But there is something I do know ... for sure. The folks who came from England on the Mayflower, landing somewhere or other, and breaking bread with someone or other ... were a flinty, tough, strong-minded, determined, resilient bunch. And America's subsequent long march to global leadership is indeed a reflection of wave after wave of such determined, tough immigrants ... many of whom, after a generation or two, broke into the clear and made a mark. For example, my Grandfather Peters, who came here from Germany in 1870 or so, and became a leading Baltimore contractor; my grandmother Peters, in turn, founded one of that grand city's leading charities of the day.

So my perhaps odd "Thanksgiving message" (how pretentious!), or rant (far less pretentious), is about, um, "Brand You."

Huh?

Yup. "Brand You" was not, as some critics contend, an idea born of the '90s desire for self-adulation. To the contrary, in the late '90s I saw technology begin to supplant workers, increasingly skilled workers; then as the calendar turned to the new millennium-century I saw the astonishing explosion of energy and determination arising in the likes of India.

American economic isolation came to an end in a flash. We all, even "management gurus," became part, overnight, of a global labor market. Wages stagnated. Outsourcing soared, and technology got smarter and smarter. A pal, Dan Pink, said, more or less, "Here are the options: Do you choose to lose your job to an Indian? Or a microprocessor?"

It's not quite that dire in reality. But it is psychologically. Any sense of lifetime job security is caput. Health insurance is a distant dream for millions. Pensions are no guarantee of a cushy, or at least adequate, retirement after 40 years as a loyal Cubicle Slave.

Enter—as I saw it and see it—Brand You. What Brand You really means (to me) is a glorious (yes, glorious) return to the idea of those flinty Pilgrim men and women. A return to Franklin's (the true Father of Brand You) principles and Emerson's self-reliance. And the spirit of the brave ones heading West in the rickety Conestoga wagons. Or the spirit of Charles Lindbergh. Or Jackie Robinson. Or Martin Luther King or Elizabeth Cady Stanton ... or Carly Fiorina.

Ms Fiorina flatly said, "There is no job that is America's God-given right." Wired guru Michael Goldhaber adds, "If there is nothing very special about your work, no matter how hard you apply yourself you won't get noticed, and that increasingly means you won't get paid much either." And Sally Field tells us, "The only thing you have power over is to get good at what you do. That's all there is; there ain't no more."

Yes, I do see this as good news, and not just for Ivy Leaguers. Ivy Leaguers? America—God bless America—now has about 11 million women-owned businesses—damn few were started by Ivy Leaguers. (But that's another story.) In our abiding attention to Google's or Yahoo's next micro-move we blithely ignore the thousands of brave entrepreneurs I talked to last year who had the guts to roll the dice, skip out on ordinary means of security, and take on the responsibilities of starting and owning tanning salons!

Is it a lonely life that I propound? To the contrary. Those hearty first white New Englanders were at once self-reliant ... but had the support of an extraordinarily tight-knit community. My "Brand Yous"? On their own—but, if they're wise, creating their own, resilient communities of reputation and support. Face-to-face or, increasingly, online. (Web 2.0? 3.0? Who cares; it can work.) I mostly work alone, or, rather, with the assistance of a wee group of colleagues in Vermont and Boston. And a powerful band of supporters from hither and, increasingly, thither. To tell the truth, I feel a lot more secure with my self-created network and devotion to self-improvement than I ever did at, say, McKinsey or Stanford. It's up to me, per Sally Field, to constantly get better-different than yesterday; and it's up to me to expand and mind my network.

Hence my flavor of Brand You is at once distinctly Solo and distinctly about creating and minding a Network-Community of, mostly, one's own construction.

My Thanksgiving suggestion is to remember the true nature and character and determination of those Pilgrim Fathers & Mothers as their little band, alone on the East coast of a great continent, carved out the beginnings of a truly New World that eventually became a Beacon of Freedom and Opportunity for all others around the globe.

(Have we dimmed the light of that Beacon of late? Perhaps. But "they" still line up at the portals of our embassies around the world—wanting in. God help us when those lines get shorter.)

There is an absolutely stunning article in this issue of Fortune about Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp. As a Princeton senior, 17 years ago, she had a dream. Seventeen years later fully 10% of the graduating classes of Yale and Dartmouth, in the midst of a more or less bull market for college hires, applied to Teach for America. All told 19,000 seniors applied for 2,400 slots. After only a few weeks of "basic training," these bold, young Brand Yous, circa 2006, will enter classrooms in some of the toughest schools in America. Hats off, way off, to the Golden Ten Percent at Yale and Dartmouth. And hats off, way, way off to Wendy Kopp. Can one person make an enormous difference in a still complacent nation of 300,000,000? Damn right.

Happy Thanksgiving to our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locales. To, especially, our active-duty National Guard types, often serving a second tour in the desert. Happy Thanksgiving, Wendy Kopp. Happy Thanksgiving, Yalies and Dartmouth youngsters and the rest of the 19,000 volunteering for tough active duty of another sort. Happy Thanksgiving, brave tanning salon owners and pioneering women business owners.

The hell with those pensions-for-time-served-in-cramped-cubicles. Welcome to a New Age of Self-reliance in a flattening global society of equals.

Thanksgiving considerations, honoring the chutzpah of our Pilgrim forebears:

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"Mary Oliver

"A year from now you may wish you had started today."—Karen Lamb

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[Tom is home—and the family's Designated Shopper; part of Susan's list is above.—CM]