Use Your Shame Like Rocket Fuel

"High all the time
To keep you off my mind...."
- Tove Lo, "Habits"
"Pull up, I think we're here," I said.
I was so excited. It was late August 1987 and we had finally, finally landed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Also known as home, at least in my mind, ever since I could pronounce the letters N.Y.C.
My father and mother were in the front seat of the nondescript but high-value kind of car my father prefers to drive. I was in the back seat with my bags, ready and revved.
"Here." My father turned and handed me a $20.
"What's this?" I asked.
"It's to help get you started."
That's not much money, I thought to myself. When was that last time my dad was in the city?
"Uh, thanks," I said and scrambled out of the car.
"Do you need any help?" My mom.
"No, I've got it."
I stood there and surveyed them for a second, my parents who seemed so clueless and yet so loving and loyal, in their way.
"Bye." And they were gone.
* * *
Upstairs, I surveyed the little studio I was to share with my roommate. It wasn't much. Walk in the door, and there's a fridge to your left. Straight ahead, a little shelf where you could eat standing up. In front of that, two beds so close together it was all they could do to put a nightstand between them.
Probably 640 square feet and I had $20 in my pocket. Not good.
Outside in the hall it was a scene right out of the movie Fame; we shared a floor with a school for ballet dancers.
Inside I sat there, feet swinging from the bed, looking out the only consolation, a window.
On the nightstand someone had left a local newspaper. I flipped it open and yawned. There in the back was an ad, which said. "Need $$$$$?"
I was curious at the ad. I needed $$$$$ for sure. Sixteen years old, having skipped two years of school in my early years, for reasons that I'll tell you about another day.
What do you have to do? I thought. I had become a fast typist, I could do that.
There was a picture with the ad. It was a line drawing of a beautiful woman, in a beautiful gown, in some kind of ballroom, doing what looked like a waltz.
They're going to pay me for dressing up?
As a teen my mom had taken me to a place in New Jersey where they supposedly discovered up-and-coming stars. I was not one of the ones discovered, unfortunately.
But this did not mean I lacked qualifications. I had done a production of "Hello Dolly" at the Jewish Community Center. Played Potiphar's wife in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" when I went to camp.
I could do elegant!
You know this isn't right, my gut said to me. Something about this stinks.
But I didn't want to listen to my inner alarm bells. Those were for "old people," I told myself. People like my parents.
More than anything else I wanted to be free. I wanted too have money, to never have to ask anyone for permission to do anything ever again.
What will they be paying you to do? My brain was screaming. Think!
I searched for some justification that would make this ad make sense.
"Go On Dates. Make Big $$$$."
You will not believe me when I tell you this. But I told myself that the ad was literal. That they needed pretty girls to go on dates with people like visiting diplomats, who just didn't know anyone and would have to go places with someone in a fancy dress.
Delusional...I know.
"What were you THINKING?" I can hear you saying. (I know, I know.)
I checked out the fridge. Seemed my roommate had already stocked it. There was Haagen Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond ice cream in the freezer. I found a spoon and took some.
We're roommates, I thought. She won't mind.
* * *
There was a bank a few doors down from the dorm. Feeling very proud of my newfound adulthood, I opened an account and put my dad's $20 in it.
Now I am a grownup, I thought. And I am totally broke.
I could have taken the bus home and asked my parents for money. Could have raided their fridge and gotten some food.
But I couldn't do that. You know that, right? That parents-dropping-me-off-at-college-with-a-$20-in-my-pocket scene was symbolic and I needed to hold it in my writer's memory.
No, I wouldn't go back across the Hudson River for anything.
Later I would figure out how to eat. Ever heard of Balducci's? It's a fancy food eatery. I ate their fancy muffins for free and bagged food.
A second job was typing up labels on prescriptions at a pharmacy across the street. Hopefully nobody died because I couldn't read some doctor's handwriting.
Yet a third occasional job was serving food on Saturday nights for a local Jewish caterer. It was the only time I ever made it to synagogue, and the leftovers were free.
All of that came later.
* * *
That day, that embarrassing day, the day I am lucky I wasn't raped, kidnapped or killed, I went to investigate the "Big $$$$" job.
I'll admit it. It was nice to be young and stupid.
  • Not to know what "tax-deductible" meant.
  • Not to think about saving up for retirement.
  • Not to worry about cross-checking credit card receipts against an end-of-the-month statement.
The sky was so blue, the air crisp and clean. I had more than a little bit of ice cream in my stomach. Replace the ice cream, I reminded myself.
It was about fifteen blocks to 56th Street and I walked there all the way for my "interview."
It was a happy, rich part of town. There is no doubt about it, wealth makes you ecstatic. That's gonna be me soon, how about it? I thought. Beautiful and happy. Me and the rich people. Us.
* * *
I found the building.
Don't do it, something told me. Don't don't don't don't don't don't don't.
"Shut up," I said to myself. I think I said that out loud.
The walls were made of thick black marble, threaded with flecks of light green. I pressed my hand to it. What a beautiful marble. I can't believe this is real.
I was spewed from the elevator on some very high floor. There were thick leather chairs. No receptionist, no people. Just a lonely sign that read, "Leave Your Driver's License Here."
Beneath it was a lonely bucket.
Instantly I knew that I was in the kind of place they warned me about at yeshiva. A very bad place. A den of evil. The smell of evil. It rose from the floor like smoke.
I clapped my hand to my mouth in shame. I knew what this place was.
I turned and pressed the elevator button, hard. Over and over again I pressed it. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.
On the street - I don't think I ever touched the street. Just kept running, running, running till I got back to the dorm.
Whew, whew. Oh my G-d. I was shaking. The thought of what I had nearly gotten myself indescribable shame engulfed me. I was sure I was going to hell.
* * *
It's funny, I was so ashamed back then. But looking back, I only feel compassion. I remember all the feelings, how they were so real to me, and how raw and exposed I felt at my mistakes.
I think about all the other mistakes I've made, that frankly I make every single day. And with each mistake my brain stands there in self-judgment.
How could you be so stupid? I say to myself. You know better.
What are you, a moron?
The stumbles, and the fumbles, and the foibles and the fears. How the people I know also beat themselves up for the slightest thing.
And then I think something revolutionary:
What if we our screwups make us more likable?
What if our suffering and struggling make us better people?
I realize that these kinds of people are always the ones I instinctively like, whereas "perfect" people are annoying and even repulsive.
Like a flash it hits me that the most successful people also have spent their lives struggling to recover from some horrible experience.
And that the superstars somehow seem to own these, and make them into an asset rather than a curse.
Shame is not shame unless you torment yourself with it.
Walk toward the pain, not away from it. Stand with your feet on top of the emotional coals. It will burn for a while, sure.
And then one day when you're doing something else, you'll find out that you forgot all about it.
Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo by Trey Ratcliff via Flickr

Why You're Not All That Engaging

Because you're so clueless, you use words like "engaging" just because they're the latest buzzword.
Because you look away from me when I'm talking to you, like that "how fast can I get out of here" kind of look.
You check your goddamn PHONE! YOU DON'T HAVE ANY EMAILS!
Because you don't listen to a single word I say. Not one. You're too busy waiting for a turn to talk.
Because you're so full of yourself. YOUR ideas, your methodologies. G-d, I can tell you are so FULL OF CRAP!
Because you insist that you are right and I am wrong. When I know you're wrong! And you know it, too.
Because you haven't got a single clue about what tasks are "on task" versus which are "off." You call yourself an innovator, but you think like an Army drill sergeant. 
Because you never really read anything. I can tell. You have nothing to say. That's boring.
Because your staff meetings are filled - just FILLED - with dead air. Plus fear. The lousy, stinking stench of the death of great thoughts.
Because you always talk at people, even in the copy we write for online. Who wants to read your piles and piles of drivel? 
Because you insist on approving all my Tweets. 
Because you're just so, so shallow and egotistical and self-promoting know what? You're just plain BAD.
You're not engaging because you don't like people. Someone hit you over the head when you were a kid, or they dropped you on your head or you somehow fell down a flight of stairs, and now it's the fault of the rest of the world.
So no matter how shiny your bright smile is, I can see your evil filthy soul beneath.
Truly engaging people are humble and inherently good.
You, unfortunately are not one of them.
Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo by Adam Jones / Wikipedia

5 Big Predictions 2015

This one's a little different than the social media trends prediction I did a short time ago. These are the big ones, the major marketing trends, clear moneymakers.
1. Decadent healthy: Anyone can make a sugarfree chocolate bar. I'm talking about luscious, gorgeous, voluptuous packaging for water, that comes from the purest streams in the most distant places on Earth.
2. Expensive DIY: We will refuse to pay for anything, but we'll splurge on the "ingredients" to make everything.
3. Inner circle economics: I work with my friends and they work with me. Trust and camaraderie go beyond any specific skill. Currency is how far you go back with each other.
4. Forgiveness coaches: Experts, some trained but mostly not, will abound who can help you to "release" the wounds of your past.
5. No currency allowed: People will get away from money, away from bitcoin, away from the grid and simply find ways to help each other.  
Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo by Victoria Pickering / Flickr.

What Is So Bad About Being A Square?

"I wish that I could be like the cool kids, / 'Cause all the cool kids, they seem to fit in." - Echosmith, "Cool Kids"
I believe "American Horror Story(Season 1 free to watch online if you have Amazon Prime) has solved the bullying problem in America's high schools. 
All you have to do is go up to the lead bully, offer her cocaine in exchange for some peace of mind, lure her to your home, then have a friend induce the demons that live in your basement to attack her and gnaw off a piece of her cheek.
Now that's cool....right?
Because as the young bullying victim states, "I'm not afraid of anything" - not even the things that would scare the bejeezus out of a healthy normal adult.
A little bit of fear is normal. A little bit of normal is normal. Maybe startup businesses make millions this way, but ordinary people should not live life always pushing the envelope.
Everyone is talking about the horrific rape claim that recently emerged from UVA. While some claim it's a hoax (?!) the general cultural climate is a problem, as other students tell the media. And we know that campus rape is epidemic.
Who would voluntarily walk toward an attacker? Either somebody at gunpoint, or somebody who's been sold a false bill of goods - i.e., that going to frat parties is super cool, fun and won't get you in a bit of trouble.
Oh, man.
Parents fall prey to the cool craze themselves. What father or mother would send their daughter away knowing that she had a 1 in 5 chance of being raped? And that only 1 out of every 100 attackers would be punished?
But they might be worn down, and they might look away from the obvious concerns, if their daughter begged them enough, and invoked "what everyone else is doing":
  • Going away to college - "because you have to"
  • Getting drunk at dinner, at parties, in her room with friends -  "everybody does that"
  • Frat parties -  "it's the only place you can drink on campus" 
  • "Hookup culture" - "get with it, not a big deal" 
That elusive, desperate quest to be cool. It's fine for a Sunday at the mall - not so fine for most of the rest of our lives.
Imagine you're a CEO, of a Fortune 500 company. The staff wants a gigantic swimming pool in the lobby. Uh, that would be a No. 
You love your kids, and you want your employees to be engaged as well - but managing by peer pressure is crazy.
Let's hear it for the Squares.
"Mom, can we go out to the party tonight?"
"It depends, when will you be back?"
"It's a party, we don't know."
"Then the answer is No."
"Aw, Mom."
There is nothing uncool about setting limits. 
 is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo by Mike Mozart via Flickr (Creative Commons).

5 Laws of Branding You'd Rather Not Hear

1. Branding is about making money - not making you feel good.

Last year's "The Lone Ranger" was a box-office flop. Its star Johnny Depp commented,
"They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that. I never do."
Maybe Depp doesn't care, but Disney surely does, having lost $160-190 million on it! Nevertheless, they'd hire Depp again. He is a reliable moneymaker, having starred in 58 feature films and with a total worldwide box office gross of $7.6 billion.
They'd hire Mark Wahlberg too, sight unseen, I bet. He's done 40 movies and they've earned $3.5 billion globally.
Kim Kardashian is a reliable moneymaker as well. She gets $29 million a year from her various branded activities and endorsements.
People may gravitate to brands for emotional reasons, but branding itself is a very unemotional and even scientific activity.

2. You'll have to give something up every day.

People often think of a brand as something you "get." The truth is that branding is something you do, in the hope of getting it right, and in the process you'll be giving up quite a bit.
If celebrities can undergo grueling workouts, multiple plastic surgeries, and humiliating debates over how they should behave and where they should be seen - then you can agree to use a single logo, tagline and set of brand messages all the time. It's not that difficult if you have the discipline.

3. You can't keep changing your mind.

Speaking of discipline. Business owners tend to have irrationally fixed ideas in their minds about certain things - like how to run the company - but to change their minds frequently about others. One of those "others" is communication, because it doesn't feel like a very big deal to say different things over time.
That's a bad thing. Branding requires you to be consistent.

4. Everyone involved has to get onboard.

Normally there are some people who are very much on board with the brand and who support it all the way, and others who totally hate it. Then there's a middle "I don't care either way" group, which is willing to do what they superficially must but aren't deeply invested.
For a brand to really work, everyone must be passionately in love with it. Yes, you heard me - in love! They must love it! You must cradle it like it's your baby.
If you don't, it's going to fall apart and become a meaningless construct.

5. You can count on people to get in the way.

This is probably the most difficult aspect of branding really well. At some point there will be people who not only don't support the brand, but actively do things to take it down.
  • A competitor.
  • A partner with a different vision.
  • Employees who don't like change.
  • Negative public reaction.
Whoever the audience and whatever the objection, it is up to the brand owner to have a plan to manage human interference with respect to the brand, by:
  • Giving people methods with which to comply, such as templates for employees with guidelines for use.
  • Outreach to make people aware of the brand and what it means.
  • Creative engagement with constructive critics.
  • Adjusting course when you're getting accurate negative feedback.
  • Removing people from the team who can't get themselves onboard with the mission.
A crucial and often overlooked member of the brand management team is legal counsel. Lawyers help business owners effectively protect the brand and the company's reputation, which are in the end its most precious assets.
Photo by Steven Mileham via Flickr.

A Beautiful Woman

She was standing at the head of the line, irritating all of us.
What the heck is taking so long? 
I thought it and felt ashamed. Here I am at Caffeine Anonymous: a coffee junkie.
The guy in front of me was doing a strange, nervous dance. His toddler was impatient too, and he was holding her, trying to keep her settled.
Pointing to the display of giant cups, the kid warbled,
"Wa wa, wa wa." 
"Yes, I know you want one," he said. "But if you drank that much at once..."
There really was no good way to end that sentence and his voice trailed off. He was unconvincing.
I have to go. This is ridiculous. I'm late!
"What's her name? She's so cute," said another lady on the line, aiming her question at me.
Why do people automatically assume that men cannot take their children anywhere alone?
"I don't know, she's not my kid," I snarled.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you two were together." She shrunk away like a dying flower.
That's it.
I stomped to the front of the line. This is not a good idea, said my inner voice, which I promptly disregarded.
And without any kind of good way to ask the question, I uttered,
"I'm sorry to bother you, but is there some kind of delay?"
The Barista looked at me like a deer at whom a hunter was aiming a shotgun. Clearly she was new, and flustered. But also clearly, this transaction was taking way too long.
Then the customer turned to face me.
"It's my fault, I apologize."
She was an older woman, not elderly but older, somewhere in the realm of late-fifties to early-sixties. She had blondish-graying hair pulled back in a short ponytail and the ponytail holder couldn't quite capture all the wisps and strands. Her body was short and stocky, and she wore a red-and-white checkered blouse with a collar. Her pants were denim, not the type we would call jeans, and she had sneakers on her feet. She had short, stubby teeth and a little gap between them.
There was something about her.
"I am going to Afghanistan later today. I had to load up on some coffee first."
And there they were. Six or seven ground bags, scattered across the counter.
"There's only one more."
Starbucks. This brand, my favorite brand, the brand that was founded in the year I was born, the brand that has been my home since my children were young, the brand that held me through the years of my dissertation, the place I have gone to sit and write and read and kick back and listen to music.
If I were going to Afghanistan or anywhere, it would never occur to me to stock up in advance because I'm a poor planner. But it would certainly, that first morning be like having a giant, throbbing toothache if I had to miss it.
This woman. She was a woman headed to Afghanistan, an older woman. Her bearing was not that of a soldier, a contractor, or even any ordinary person that I knew.
And then I looked at her again, and the sense-memory overwhelmed me, because I had worked there and I felt it.
"Do you work for USAID?" I asked.
She looked surprised that I would guess. 
"Why yes, in fact, I do," she said.
Nobody on Planet Earth talks in that educated yet plainspoken, positive way that USAID people do. It's like a dialect you have to hear to understand but it was as plain as day. Of course! 
I was happy just standing there and talking to her. It brought all the good memories back. "I worked in the Management Bureau."
"Oh sure, of course." Everybody knew "M" because we kept the agency in line, making sure that dreams were tempered by fiscal responsibility.
"I save them from themselves," my brilliant boss used to say.  
Yes, I am loud and the conversation was loud and everyone was craning their necks to hear although pretending they were looking elsewhere.
"What do you do there?"
"I work for GenDev," she said. 
Immediately I knew that she really did work for USAID and that she was probably important. I have a sense about these things. "GenDev" is gender development, and it basically means going overseas to help women gain equal rights. A subject I am passionate about.
Look, it's a freaking dream. If you're a student USAID is the kind of place you give your eye teeth to work in. You want to change the world and they change the world. When you're there, if you have an idea they let you do it. It's got a crazy energy, that place, and you can burn out pretty fast because you want to work all the time. But in that way it is heavenly, too.
My favorite project there was the one they let me loose on toward the end of my tenure. We revamped their mission and values statement, which had gone through several iterations and which had become unclear.
The management problem was too much passion. Nobody was sure where the center of gravity was, and everybody - unsurprisingly, for people who had dedicated their lives to their respective subject matter areas - thought their program ought to come first.
One thing they did agree on was the life-or-death nature of their mission, and the unfortunate reality that overseas charity work can be unpopular. "We look to others to give us ground cover, so that we can go out and save the world."
I recall also that the issue of gender was huge, huge, huge at the time that I was there. I didn't know much about it, I wasn't involved in it, but the little I heard felt like one of the most important historical discussions I would ever witness.
...and my mind came back to the moment.
"I conceived of the program to help women in Afghanistan," the woman was saying. "It's called Promote, and I'm going over there to implement it. You can look it up. Raj was involved."
I remembered how everyone at the agency called the head of the agency by his first name, Raj.
I remembered how I could never get over that, how to me it would be Mr. Shah, or Administrator Shah, or boss. I was raised that way; I could never be an intern who dared to address such a senior person so informally.
Speechless - the group, me, even the restless child went quiet.
People routinely get killed over there.
And I am terrible at hiding my feelings, thoughts or questions.
"Aren't you afraid that you're going to get killed?"
"I'm not afraid of anything anymore."
Oh, and I am shameless too.
"Can I take my picture with you?"
Startled, her body jumped a little bit off the floor. And then,
"Oh no," she replied, looking down at the floor, her pants, her shoes, surveying her blouse and finally looking up at me. "I look terrible."
Terrible? I thought. You are a most beautiful woman. Human.
And she was. She had a holy glow, like a light coming out of her face. It was unbelievable, something I cannot even express in the limited framework that words have to offer.
It also occurred to me that the agency does very dangerous work and I should not put her face or her name out there so obviously. Foreign aid workers are a target.
She knew what I was thinking. She laughed.
"If I survive this, I get to retire."
It's a day later now. I imagine that her Starbucks-laden plane has landed by now.
May this unnamed person make a real difference in the lives of these women.
May she come back home and be a living testament.
May she teach us something about real human beauty. It comes from passion, unselfishness, dedication.
Beauty can't be bought. You can mix chemicals in a lab, but you can't put human goodness in a tube. 
Dannielle Blumenthal (@thinkbrandfirst) is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo by Denis Collette via Flickr.

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