I Didn't Want To Be An Influencer: how traumatic experiences pushed me towards my purpose
I’m not big on claiming titles for myself. I’d rather do the work first, and let the chips fall where they may. The process of growing into a career as a social media influencer has felt foreign to me at times. The term feels very presumptuous. It’s one thing to say that you’re an active social media user, but to be a self-proclaimed “influencer” feels like a stretch.
Culturally speaking, the word “influencer” reeks of inauthenticity. I’ve seen a lot of people gain access to huge opportunities within the culture that I love due to their perceived popularity, regardless of whether or not they love the culture they claim to influence.
On a personal level, I have a lengthy history of being afraid of using my God-given skills to the best of my ability, for fear of making others around me feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it started in grade school, when I was always in the “gifted” classes but just wanted to fit in, or if it truly manifested as I began to make strides as an entrepreneur in such a public space. I felt like people were overly congratulatory of me when I hadn’t even “made it” yet. Regardless of the source of my discomfort, it added to my distaste for the occupation of “influencer.”
The thought of choosing to call myself any form of the word “influential” reminded me of the people who put “CEO” in their biography before they even had an LLC. I didn’t want to put the word in social media bios, refer to myself as one in conversation, or add it to my resume.
"I’ve seen a lot of people gain access to huge opportunities within the culture that I love due to their perceived popularity, regardless of whether or not they love the culture they claim to influence."
Yet, here I am, actively making a living in the very industry I wanted to avoid publicly acknowledging - and, I would do it again.
Toward the end of October 2016, found myself in a situation where I was legally required to put that word in my social media biographies. I had to recognize it as a real thing.
I had just signed a contract to join an agency for minority influencers called SHADE. Their goal? To empower black and brown creatives like me - people who knew that they had a big enough follower count to turn it into an income stream, but didn’t understand how to bring that income stream to fruition. I didn’t magically feel comfortable with the word after signing that contract. I still had plenty of misgivings. I still do.
The marketer in me knows that every form of advertisement is profit driven.
The creative in me refuses to let my need for money compromise my principles.
The entrepreneur in me understands that monetization is a key to survival.
The little kid in me is scared that focusing on profit will turn me into the villain, instead of the hero.
These different voices are constantly at war in my head. It’s my job to figure out which perspectives to prioritize, which principles to cling to the tightest, and what type of path I want to chart for myself. I don’t have any role models, because I have the audacity to believe that I can do things that no one before me has accomplished. When it comes to my career aspirations, the voices in my head outweigh the voices of my real life friends and family.
I’m an experienced content marketer, but I’m relatively new in the realm of social media marketing. All of us are. Even if we’ve been building our audiences for a decade or more, the industry of social media influencer marketing’s wild inconsistencies, largely unregulated dynamics, and lack of transparency make it an intimidating field to navigate.
I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve a degree of success within the field. In the past six months or so, I’ve made more money directly off of Instagram posts, Facebook posts, tweets, and blog posts than I previously imagined was possible. I’ve paid rent off of an Instagram post, and I didn’t have to sell flat tummy tea to do it.
How did I get to this point? Haphazardly.
I knew that there was value in building a social media audience before I knew what I wanted to do with my audience. Before I knew about social media strategy, I ran a hip-hop blog called Artistic Manifesto and sought to gradually build a bigger readership through social media.
I started Artistic Manifesto in 2009 to serve as a creative outlet during my time at the United States Military Academy. For years, it was my only creative venture. I started to share new music on the site every day - in class, in my barracks, whenever I had time. It felt satisfying to have my own creative outlet when so much of my life revolved around being a military cadet. The academy, which is created to prepare military cadets for leadership in combat situations, does not offer cadets en environment conducive to pursuing creative ventures.
What do you do when you realize that you’re developing interests that almost nobody else around you can identify with?
Do you try to ignore them, and focus on the priorities dictated by your current situation? Or do you continue to search for an outlet?
I don’t know what the correct answer is, but I know what I did. I followed my passions. I couldn’t ignore them forever. I turned to the internet. Social media - particularly Twitter and Facebook - was my window into the outside world, where I could connect with people from back home, and people within my extended network, who I could actually relate to - people who thought the way I did, not people who were placed in my life due to convenience and shared hardships.
"What do you do when you realize that you're developing interests that almost nobody around you can identify with?"
After spending four years at the United States Military Academy trying to fit into a pair of shoes that wasn’t my size, I was expelled and sent back home to my parents’ house in Woodbridge, Virginia. I was accused of breaking numerous West Point regulations, and lying about the details of what I did under oath. The entire affair felt like the saddest movie ever, and my mind couldn’t even absorb that this terribly sad movie had become my actual life.
By the time I was officially sent home, I felt relieved - despite the fact that I was leaving under such negative circumstances. A military academy treats “trouble cadets” like black sheep. Rank demotions are visible when you’re in uniform.
You’re in uniform for the majority of the time you spend at the academy. Classmates, military officers, and mentors distanced themselves from me, because nobody wanted to be tied too closely to the “trouble cadet.” I wasn’t entirely alone during my last days at the academy, but I definitely felt that way.
I’ll never forget a conversation that I had with the man who was supposed to be considered one of my mentors, only weeks before I departed. He called me into his office to talk about the various tasks I had to complete before departing the academy for good. Before I left his office, he looked me in the eyes, saw how broken I was, and smiled at me. He told me, “you know, Michell, I had a classmate who got expelled from school before we graduated. Kind of like you. He didn’t finish school, but he’s doing well. I think he’s working as a mechanic now.”
I had fought to push through four years at The United States Military Academy - one of the most grueling four year college experiences in the country - and this man was sitting in front of me, telling me to quit during the lowest moment of my life.
I don’t know how much of the hatred that I felt towards him was reflected on my outward facial expression, but I will not hesitate to tell you that I harbored very dark thoughts towards a man who could so easily sit in a position of authority over me, smile at me during one of the worst moments of my life, and continue to twist the knife that had already been plunged into me. I left his office and silently vowed to prove him wrong.
When I left the gates of West Point in May 2012, I entered into a different world that offered me a degree of freedom that I hadn’t felt in my entire life, up to that point. I entered that world with a lot of baggage, to say the very least.
I was 22 years old, with a world of opportunity at my fingertips, and a huge chip on my shoulders.
I was angry at myself for getting into the situation that led to my expulsion. I was angry at former friends at the academy who cut all ties with me as soon as I got into trouble.
I was shocked that mentors, church leaders, and other adult figures in my life at the academy had nothing more to say to me but some half-hearted form of “good luck” when it was time for me to depart.
I was scared at the prospect of moving back home and falling completely on my face. I was scared that I’d never fully recover from the fall that I was in the midst of navigating.
I was disappointed in myself for not being able to graduate from the academy, after four years of hard work.
I was ashamed to talk to my parents about what I’d done that strayed so far from what they had taught me.
I was determined to prove that this was a speed bump in my story rather than a dead end, but I didn’t give myself the time to decompress before pushing forward.
I took all of these emotions and channeled them into making amends for my mistakes the best way I knew how - graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree. Despite leaving West Point literally less than a month before I was supposed to graduate, they told me that I would not be allowed to finish my last semester.
I went to the University of Virginia for a summer, but was told that I wouldn’t be able to graduate for another two years, despite already having three and a half years of class credit from West Point. I went back home and worked as an IT administrative assistant at my church until I could go back to school, six months later. Everyone else working there was over forty. I also struggled to trust anyone at that church because of the way people at my church at West Point had vanished when I needed them the most.
Eighteen months after my expulsion from the United States Military Academy, I graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology.
I was too hungover from a night of drinking to make it to my formal graduation ceremony, much to the delight of my parents, who had traveled about 80 miles to see me walk across the stage. I was still dealing with a lot of unreleased anger in regards to my expulsion, which had manifested itself in a number of different ways, including excessive drinking. Thankfully, they were still able to see me receive my actual diploma during my departmental ceremony.
To my credit, I had made a significant amount of progress in the realm of social media. I started to think strategically about how to use social media to amplify content I shared on Artistic Manifesto, and grew to understand the power of my own voice, personality, and ideas on social media platforms.
I managed to plant seeds for the future during my year spent at VCU, but I had yet to heal from my West Point experience, and it wasn’t hard to tell.
Until you allow yourself the time and space to heal from severely traumatic experiences, they’re a part of you. They affect the way you deal with people in your life and the way that you view yourself.
Until you allow yourself the time and space to heal from severely traumatic experiences, they’re a part of you. They affect the way you deal with people in your life and the way that you view yourself. I graduated in December 2013. I contemplated sending a copy of my diploma to my former West Point mentor who had suggested that I go to trade school instead of finishing my undergraduate degree. I didn’t, but I considered doing so because of the way that my expulsion continued to weigh on me.
In March 2014, I finished up my term working as an intern for my state delegate. Soon after, my lease in Richmond wrapped up, and I found myself back at my parents’ home in Woodbridge, Virginia. I spent five long months working temp jobs for an agency, while searching for a full-time job so I could get my own apartment. I continued to remain active and engaged on social media. I didn’t have a plan in regards to how I would use social media to create an income stream, but I knew I was onto something. Media outlets were starting to pick up my tweets for news stories fairly regularly.
That had to mean something...right? Not really. I was starting to build a lot of notoriety for my tweets, but for some strange reason “exposure” had yet to pay any of my bills. Go figure.
I got the job I wanted. I called my mom as soon as I happened. I was going to be a Territory Manager for The Princeton Review. In more easily understandable terms, this meant that I was going to get a job with flexible hours and a competitive salary.
It happened in September 2014, a grand total of nine months after I graduated from VCU. I wasn’t in love with the work, but I was thrilled to have my financial independence. I worked for The Princeton Review for just under two years, until I was blindsided during what I thought would be a regular monthly progress meeting with my boss. In short, I was told that I would likely be fired within three months. I didn’t quit until about a month later, but I decided that I was going to quit as soon as I left that meeting. I couldn’t picture myself “playing it safe” in corporate America anymore if it couldn’t even provide the stability that drew me to it in the first place.
I didn’t leave with a rock solid plan about what I would do next. I had some ideas, but I didn’t have enough clarity or experience to execute my vision. I came up short my first few months on my own, and if I didn’t have the support of my family, I wouldn’t have made it. I knew that I wanted to monetize the social media audience that I had built, but I still didn’t know how to make it happen.
"Owning my story and intentionally reflecting on it has pushed me towards my purpose."
This is what led me to officially signing with SHADE as an influencer, despite the initial misgivings I had about the term. I’m blessed to be signed to a black-owned agency that understands my story, my culture, and my purpose. I couldn’t have accepted anything less, if I’m being honest.
If you judge my value as an influencer by industry standards, I’m just one of many. Nothing special. It’s true. I have just over 60,000 followers if you include Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and my email subscribers. Who cares, right? Well, I have to. The only reason I’m even mentioning this number is because companies look at these numbers when determining how much money to pay me for a social media campaign.
My career hinges on public perception. Most companies aren't researching much beyond the numbers.
Because my career hinges on public perception, I have to focus on those numbers. My friends and acquaintances make a lot of disconcerting comments about it. They view my following as “fame” or “clout,” while I see it as more leverage to build my dream career. It's a very strange dynamic to navigate. Regardless of how I feel, I accept that a lot of people automatically assume I'm some sort of popularity-hungry attention whore due to the audience that I actively cater to. I choose to deal with those assumptions, because of the incredible opportunities that my audience has allowed me to create. Those opportunities are more important than what anyone thinks of me.
I use the audience I’ve built to help me attract the opportunities, clients, and customers I need. “Influencer” is not my occupation. I am a writer, social media coach, event architect, and cultural curator. Being able to build and maintain the attention of an audience is a skill that I use to supplement every facet of my entrepreneurial career. Being expelled from West Point and thrown out of corporate America pushed me in ways that a life of comfort would not have.
I’m not ready to say that I’m “thankful for my darkest moments” yet. I have too much negative emotion attached to the situations that I've endured to claim that I’m “thankful” to have experienced them. I will say that my West Point and Princeton Review experiences were pivotal periods in my life that turned me into the man that I am today.
These dark moments forced me to develop the grit that allowed me to succeed as an entrepreneur, and pushed me towards the dream career that I’m starting to bring to fruition. Owning my story and intentionally reflecting on it has pushed me towards my purpose.
I’m dropping an e-book, very soon. It’s called On Your Own Terms: Developing A Social Media Strategy Without Sacrificing Your Individuality.
If you are seeking to gain clarity in regards to your social strategy, this is for you.It will include worksheets that will facilitate the creation of a long term social media strategy that won't compromise your values or place limitations on you. I'll be sending this out to all of my email subscribers at some point over the next few weeks. You can subscribe via the form below!
Who am I? I'm Michell. I help brands and entrepreneurs to position themselves for longterm success through thorough, value-focused social media planning.
Why should you work with me? Because I've learned enough from my failures to help people achieve success more quickly than I have thus far. Because I'm only teaching the things that I know will get you results. Because I'm not here to just tell you things you could have googled yourself - I'm focused on making a plan that you believe in enough to execute to the best of your ability. I've been building my online presence for 8+ years, and making a full time living off of it for over a year. I'm ready to help you achieve your goals on your own terms. Click here to learn how I can help.