An interview with Isaac Schlesinger
For Curiosity Breadcrumbs’ fifth issue I interviewed Isaac Schlesinger about navigating the muddy waters of personal branding and presenting a coherent narrative about the sum total of all that you are. Isaac is a brilliant writer / brand strategist / chef and staunch idealist (slashes my own) who frequently makes me splutter my coffee with his incredibly candid, sharp-witted comments. He spoke to me from his new home in Hamilton, Ontario.
Let’s start from the beginning. What do you do? How do you describe yourself?
First of all, I make no distinctions between who I am and what I do. My distinction, instead, is between my public life and my private life.
Privately, I’m like everyone else. I’m a living, breathing human being. I have friends, I take care of myself, I work on my new home, and I take my dog for nice long walks.
However, when it comes to my public life, I don’t think of myself as a human being. I think of myself as a brand. I think of myself as a business. This gives me a certain distance from my work, which is extremely useful when it comes to decision making.
Can you talk us through this brand?
My primary brand, my “holding company” if you will, is I SCHLESINGER. Everything I do–all of my ventures–are built upon this foundation. It’s personality driven, which seems a bit egotistical to me, but it’s what the market craves right now. So I’ve turned it into a bit of a comedy act, and I try to have fun with it–going totally over the top and being utterly self-congratulatory for the most ridiculous reasons. Also: Exposing way too many personal details about my private life. It’s all an act, but it’s also the total truth, and I find that paradox endlessly fascinating–as I’m sure Madonna, James Franco, and Milo Yiannopoulos do as well, which is why they play with the same basic tensions.
I call I SCHLESINGER a holding company because it holds a variety of brands or businesses. I don’t give each one the same amount of time nor energy. For example, I might find myself completely obsessed with one of my practices for up to six months at a time, while the others remain on hold. In general, when in doubt, I always prioritise making money, and I have zero problem admitting that. Money is power, money is freedom, and money is–yes–creative.
VERY EDITORIAL is the name I use to describe my editorial writing: the blogs, the essays, the articles, et cetera.
CITY RHYTHMIC is the name of an organic skincare collection I’ve been slowly developing for over a decade. My plan is to sell it direct to consumers, without any middlemen. Of course, there will be an ecommerce site, but I really want a brick-and-mortar studio/showroom/boutique as well. The world is too virtual; I want to live, work, and play with all of my senses stimulated.
HUMAN AGENCY is reserved for branding, marketing, strategic consulting, organisational management, and commercial copywriting. This is what I’m spending most of my time on nowadays. That said, I have to say, over the course of the past year, the nature of assignments seems to be shifting. There are fewer writing and branding projects coming in, and more inquiries from creative people looking for me to work as their business manager. It’s a very old-fashioned kind of relationship, one that’s been made new again by the complexity of the marketplace.
COTTAGE INDUSTRIAL is my personality/lifestyle brand. Of all the work I do, this is the easiest. But of course it is; it’s a systematic packaging of the way I already live. I tend to focus upon the parts of my life that cause friends to pay me compliments and ask for advice–and I steer clear of anything and everything that I’m not good at and that I haven’t figured out yet. Today, I provide interior-decoration advice, prepare frozen farm-to-table meals, offer advice for successfully integrating digital technologies into one’s life without going into one’s life without going crazy. My ultimate goal for COTTAGE INDUSTRIAL is for it to become an artisanal department store where all products are made, and all services are offered, on-site–right in front of the people buying them.
“It’s all an act, but it’s also the total truth, and I find that paradox endlessly fascinating.”
Not many people package themselves in such a commercial way. How did you come to this?
May I be candid?
For a long time, all I did was the work I just described under HUMAN AGENCY.
CITY RHYTHMIC and COTTAGE INDUSTRIAL were dreams I never really worked on. And there was no I SCHLESINGER as a brand, just Isaac representing himself on Linkedin and all of the other typical ways.
About a year ago, my marriage started to fall apart. I needed something to keep me grounded, something to remind me of the real world, beyond my troubles of the moment and the social-media obsessions of my various clients.
So I started cooking farm-to-table meals for myself. Then some friends asked me to do the same for them. Then some of their friends did as well. For a while, it was enough to keep me going. Whenever I got really irritated with a client insisting that we use yet another pointless, soul-crushing project-management app–or when the drama surrounding my divorce got to be too much–I could just go to the farmer’s market or mash some potatoes and I’d be fine.
After a while, though, even that wasn’t enough. My work, as I practiced it, was really starting to grate on me. I needed some sort of escape. So I starting visiting Hamilton, Ontario, on the weekends. For Canadians, it’s kind of like our Berlin or Brooklyn. So many entrepreneurs! So much innovation! Such hunger for hand-crafted everything! Very special. Very important. Very much what the world needs right now. I fell in love with Hamilton–and, just a couple of weeks ago, I moved here.
Let me tell you what it was like to pack. Normally, I hate packing–but not this time. I let my mind wander. I kept notes about the sort of work I could do there that I couldn’t do in a global alpha city like Toronto. I dusted off sketchbooks with packaging concepts and moisturiser recipes that I had forgotten about. I asked myself how to best ride the wave of Hamilton’s zeitgeist. The result is the description I provided above. It’s not that it’s all new. It’s not that I just kind of cynically manufactured it. It was all there! I just named and organised things in a different way–a way that would work in my new market. I suggest your readers do the same.
“Whenever I got really irritated with a client insisting that we use yet another pointless, soul-crushing project-management app–or when the drama surrounding my divorce got to be too much–I could just go to the farmer’s market or mash some potatoes and I’d be fine.”
How do you find ways of communicating about all of yourself?
I’ve always found that very easy. To me, the world is Byzantine: scattered, fragmented, multilayered, hyper-competitive. And human psychology is even more complex. Most schools of psychoanalysis, for example, posit not one personality for each of us but rather three. Freudians use the terms id, ego, and superego, for example. But there are many different names. It even bubbles up in Christianity’s holy trinity. And now evolutionary biology is starting to catch up, with its emphasis upon the reptilian, mammalian, and neomammalian systems.
So the only answer to living inside this tumult is to insist upon branding. In other words, for each individual and organisation to define itself–one way–and to live it everywhere, without exception.
It’s extremely uncomfortable for some people–I occur as too formal in certain contexts, too intimate in others–but how else can I (or anyone else) hold centre?
The complexity of the planet is really, truly not a problem. The problem comes from our unwillingness to determine who we are and to insist upon it at all points of contact.
If I may get political and potentially controversial for just a moment, let’s–very briefly–bring up identity politics. You know: viewing ourselves and others primarily in terms of sex, race, ethnicity, orientation, et cetera. This is an attempt for us to find and maintain identity.
This is why it’s the dominant mode of the global left.
Unfortunately, it’s also tribalising. It’s also suffocating. It also creates fundamentally adversarial relationships. And I speak as someone who, until very recently, viewed himself and the world around him in these identitarian terms. But now I see that, however well intentioned this impulse, this is not a smart road down which to travel.
What’s better is branding. What’s better is every entity taking time to conceive, build, refine, and maintain a coherent look, feel, and narrative. And to do it relentlessly. It’s the only sensible response to a world of instantaneous global exposure.
“The complexity of the planet is really, truly not a problem. The problem comes from our unwillingness to determine who we are and to insist upon it at all points of contact.”
Ok I really see the situation you are describing where everything is put into categories, filed by subject; yet how do we avoid the same pitfalls in our own branding? In the way we describe ourselves? Do we not still try to describe ourselves and what we do according to recognised categories in one way or another? I guess the difference lies between describing yourself and describing small parts of yourself that fit within recognised services or job titles.
In my view, the only way to describe oneself is comprehensively (in other words, all aspects of oneself, not just bits and pieces), coherently (in other words, like a mythological narrative–a story with themes, conflicts, characters, et cetera), consistently (without fail, and across all audiences), and compassionately (which means that all of this must be done with respect for what audiences, including friends and relatives, can handle–while at the same time being true to oneself).
Honestly, it’s not that genius, not when you look at what else is available. Do we want to live combative, adversarial lives? Do we want to suppress and minimise our humanity? Do we want to always be confused–and to confuse others? No, of course we don’t! So, what we must do is determine who we are–then build our lives around that. Not, I’m going to controversially state, our passions and interests.
Ok but how do we find bridges between who we are and what others see as ‘buyable services’? Although exceptions exist, many people need that explicitly explained.
I would argue that anyone who can’t solve these sorts of issues for themselves shouldn’t be attempting to deal with it for anyone else. (And, by solve, I mean not only come up with the story but make it saleable).
When creative types do find this sort of self-packaging difficult, there are a number of very expected reasons why–and those reasons need to be attacked. Not surrendered to. Not negotiated. Not even respected. Attacked.
The reasons are:
An inappropriate prioritisation of spontaneity. Spontaneity is not important. Neither is sticking to one’s guns no matter what. These are ideological positions, not practical ones. What matters is adapting to, and surviving within, the environments in which one finds oneself.
Also, a refusal to commit. That’s very understandable. It’s also completely unworkable. It’s not true that clients won’t respond to a new type of person or service. What they won’t respond to is one that’s half-baked. Or one that’s too accommodating. One must be strong and sharp in today’s business climate. One must know how to make tiny adjustments without compromising their narratives. And, like it or not, one must have the maturity and durability to recognise one’s own failure–if and when it happens.
“It’s not true that clients won’t respond to a new type of person or service. What they won’t respond to is one that’s half-baked. Or one that’s too accommodating.”
My question is, how do you get to that narrative? Does that journey not imply both spontaneity and fluidity until you find a list of services that ‘work’?
Hmmm. I don’t know how to answer that.
And there’s a reason why! I think a lot of artistic and creative people think of themselves as special–or, secretly, whether they’ll admit it or not, better. I’ve never seen it–nor myself–that way. I view creativity as a wonderful and necessary phenomenon. But I also view justice, security, and military as important. I view agriculture and architecture as important. I view plumbing and electrical work as important. I view both left- and right-wing politics as important. And, when I say “important”, I mean necessary for our collective survival.
So, really, when it comes to branding, packaging, communicating oneself… whatever you want to call it… I tend to approach it like I’m making dinner, or fixing a toilet, or dealing with a personality conflict at work.
Which is to say, I just look around, try to understand what’s happening, and then try to figure out the best possible outcome. Then I just fill in the blanks, making things up as I move along, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, until I’m done. Through it all, I find that placing physical/objective constraints on oneself–a budget or a deadline, for example–can be very useful. Freedom is highly over-rated; profound integrated awareness of one’s reality is highly under-rated.
But let’s not talk about me. Instead, let me give my advice to people who like what I’m saying but don’t know how to go about doing it for themselves.
First of all, be well-educated. Study the classics, the traditions, the basics of Western civilisation. Other civilisations as well–but one should start with one’s own, then spread outward. Without a comprehensive entry-level knowledge of art, history, religion, philosophy, archaeology, and psychology, it’s extremely difficult to understand–much less thrive—in this world.
Second of all, have a religion, or a philosophy, or a world view, or something to guide you. Just don’t be rigid, literal, or exclusive about it. The goal here is to offload some of your processing power to something older, larger, and greater than you so that your nervous system has the power it needs to do its creative work.
Third, be physically and emotionally healthy. In the absence of health, nothing else works–not for long.
These probably aren’t the answers you were expecting. And these are the answers no one wants to hear. But they work. And they don’t have to be pursued in a linear manner!
One can follow all three tracks–ongoingly- while building their narratives and careers.
“Freedom is highly over-rated; profound integrated awareness of one’s reality is highly under-rated.”
To this end, I can offer something very quick and practical. There’s a writer, professor, and clinical psychotherapist working out of Toronto right now. His name is Jordan Peterson, and in my opinion, he’s the planet’s greatest living intellectual. Certainly its most important. His work involves myth, religion, psychology, political theory, and everything else that could possibly explain the mess in which we currently find ourselves.
He was asked the same questions you’re asking me now, by a university, in relation to its students, who were soon to graduate and unsure what to do with their lives. This was leaving them de-motivated and sometimes not getting the best of grades. Over the course of a few years, with the help of other practicing educators and psychologists, he developed an online autobiography app.
It basically asks you question after question–about your past, present, and future- and it takes HOURS to finish. Then, when you’re done, you tap or click a button, and BOOM. You’ve written your own autobiography–established your own mythology–without realising it. So you read it, you get reminded of who you are, and from there, this whole question of how to package and describe oneself to clients–which seemed so daunting before–shrinks in significance and difficulty.
It’s available online, the cost is very low, and I make no money from this recommendation, nor do I know Dr Peterson.
“If you’re asking these questions, if you do this kind of work, if these are the things that are interested in, then you need to be self-realised–and that’s what really counts.”
One last question: Do you see yourself fitting into a job role again? I had the experience this month of trying to fit myself into a highly restrictive role that had extremely rigid boundaries and felt like I was about to explode.
Why not? In fact, this weekend, I’ll be completing a very traditional job application. Here are the requirements for me: Conceptually, does the job and the company offering it fit inside the conceptual holding company I’ve established? Second, does it make sense in a line-up, alongside my other brands? Third, is it more money per hour than my other ventures are earning? If the answers are YES!, YES!. and YES!–and if the work’s net effect is better for the planet than it is worse–then of course I could do it. Otherwise, no, I couldn’t.
You’ve really managed to describe how I feel about that! Any last comments? Burning remarks waiting to escape?
It’s more important to understand the world than it is to understand oneself. If you can’t figure out how to be a slashie quite yet, then don’t. Keep a roof over your head, and food in your mouth, in the most brain-dead way possible so you have a lot of mental energy left to work it all out in your free time. Also, don’t take a lot of advice from me, nor anyone born in the past hundred years. Instead, study history and psychology, from every ideological point of view possible. When you do that, everything else kind of comes to you on its own.
Finally, nothing’s permanent.
Businesses fail. Brands evolve. We all die. Furthermore, you’re not that important–not yet. So just get over your feelings–every serious psychiatrist will tell you the same exact thing–and do what there is to do.
And, if it doesn’t work, stay in bed for a weekend and start over the following Monday.
“Also, don’t take a lot of advice from me, nor anyone born in the past hundred years. Instead, study history and psychology, from every ideological point of view possible. When you do that, everything else kind of comes to you on its own…And, if it doesn’t work, stay in bed for a weekend and start over the following Monday.”
This interview is part of my monthly email publication, Curiosity Breadcrumbs. To subscribe to forthcoming issues, click here.