Social media profile pictures. I avoid them. Why? Because they don’t age, but I do.
In a way, posting a profile picture starts the countdown to a lie. Only on the day that the picture is taken does it represent the whole truth. At one year old, your profile picture becomes the seedling of a little white lie. At two years, some legitimate signs of falsehood begin to sprout. While your profile picture remains frozen in time, the real life “you” has changed. You now have longer, or shorter, or greyer hair, or perhaps that bifocals horizon line cutting through your new glasses wasn’t around when you took your photo two years ago.
My could-be future series of social media profile pictures, first days on the job, to traveling so much I had to have my hair done on the job, to baby days, and beyond. The final three are, from left to right, my mother, my grandmother and my great grandmother. I should be so lucky as to someday have such wise wrinkles and such proud white hair!
When your profile picture reaches three or more years of age, it’s officially an historical archive. It’s not a true representation of you today. We’ve all become expert managers of our personal brands thanks to the many ‘brand of you’ talks we’ve had to endure in conferences over the years. What we sometimes forget, however, is that heavy-handed image manipulation can get in the way of what makes each of our brands unique and desirable. While we should work to put forth a relatively consistent and likeable appearance, we are neither icons nor avatars, nor are we forever our shiny selfies from many years ago.
If we are selling a brand, we must remember that the essence of what others want to buy is not a glossy image. Rather, people want to buy in to something they feel they know; they want a reliable understanding of who you are, what your drivers are, and how you are likely to respond to people and challenges. They want to know our style, more than our look. Our brand is a collection of all our past day-to-day interactions. It is about the way we impact others’ lives and support their businesses goals through a consistent and authentic series of interactions.
You are your experience, your expertise, and your ability to influence, and so you are also your wrinkles, your war wounds, and your lessons learned. You are the valuable advice you now have to give, advice that helps your current company, client or friend avoid the costly mistakes because you are willing to share your own learnings from the past. So your profile picture just needs to be you, the same you that your contacts will easily recognize on the street, today, not five years ago.
But tell this sage message to me and I cringe. I can’t swallow my own advice. I struggle to accept that if I’d been maintaining my profile picture updates every two years since I was 20, I’d now have made at least 10 updates. What would those ten updates look like? How would they have changed? What could be worth torturing myself by deleting my ‘fit and working out every day’ picture and replacing it with my ‘baby weight’ era? And though I then progressed into a photogenic period in California thanks to my great tans, it was closely followed by darker days of emerging wrinkles and sun-damaged skin. Who cares if LinkedIn’s data says I’ll catch more clicks with a picture. I don’t want to endure that new form of pain!
Some would say this is Seinfeld-esque narcissistic neuroticism. It is. But it’s the deepest level reality and it drives behaviors. And I’m not the only one. I have friends who are no longer spring chickens who still cling to their original profile pictures from 2002. There’s a good chance that of your 700 contacts, you won’t see 500 hundred of them in person for many years. So in their minds you’ll be 26 forever until they pass you in an airport and either don’t recognize you at all, or they drop their jaws to the floor trying to make the connection between what they were led to believe was you, and the real you. I’d rather under-promise and over-deliver by posting a current and mediocre picture online, so that when they see me they can keep their jaws off the floor.
Oddly, looking to the future makes me cringe a little less. As a cancer survivor, and someone who lost a parent when he was only 50, I’m ever-thankful for the chance to grow older—there’s only one alternative and it involves snout-bound pinochle-playing worms.
I’m kind of psyched about someday rocking a sweet blue-white hairdo in my LinkedIn profile. From where I stand today, I have some clear models of how my future profile updates will look: I’ll become my mother, then my grandmother, then my great-grandmother, if I should be so lucky.
I’ve made it this far without posting a profile picture. But I’ve recently moved to a new area and have been meeting a lot of new people. I greatly appreciate those colleagues who have profile pictures posted because it helps me simply put a face to a name. So I’m beginning to feel a duty to reciprocate. But if I do post my profile picture, there’s no wimping out. I’ll commit to updating it every two years. It may be painful for a while as I forage through my forties, but I hope by the time I’m 50 I’ll be balls out and shameless about posting pictures that show I’m more and more wrinkled and grey. Because I’ll also be more and more knowledgeable, more proud of my kids and my family, and more rich with memories to look back on.
Mary Heckert is a corporate communications consultant who blogs on the side for BizDecoder.com, a collection of straight-talking explanations of how businesses and careers really work.
For fun or posterity, I’ll keep updating pictures below. Count the wrinkles as they grow through the years!