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In my early twenties, I worked in an independent bookstore in a small American town. The owner, Richard Howard, was a Mississippian who had learned the book trade in Washington D.C. and returned to his home state to recreate a bookstore that would serve the community and be a place for people to gather. For 20 years the bookstore thrived, until one day big box retailers began encroaching on the neighborhood. Who do you think survived?

The independent bookstore!

Richard did what the big box retailers couldn't do, which was create a brand that authentically reflected who he was. Naturally, people wanted to support him and his vision. Had Richard followed the lead of the big box stores by selling only mainstream books or hosting big-name authors, maybe he would have sold more books initially. Instead, he took a risk and nurtured a brand that reflected who he was: someone who supported unknown Southern writers who he believed in! And the result? Today, people pilgrimage to his magical, literary world.

Understanding who you are is an important step in visualizing your brand. For Richard, he liked the charm of the old Square, so he retained the historic design of the building. In a nod to the bookselling world, he used fonts in his packaging that recalled the text of old books. His sense of humor too was reflected in the space; framed author photos plastered the walls the same way starlets might in a Hollywood restaurant.

Beyond design, Richard considered the style of customer service he would provide, one that would "under promise, and over deliver." Even though people can easily order books online, they still go to the store to order their books.

What we can learn from Richard is that the design of a brand requires an understanding of who we are first and foremost. The most effective brands distill the vision and hearts of the people running them. The connection people authentically make with them ensures their longevity.

Next year, Square Books will celebrate its 40th anniversary. It continues to hold court on the town's square as the heartbeat of the community.

Trying to figure out what next steps to take? Not sure how to move forward in your professional development? There are dozens of self-evaluation tests out there, though one of the best is one that requires only a pen, paper and the investment of time! Curious? Here are the instructions:

Step 1: Position your paper horizontally on a flat writing surface.

Step 2: Draw a straight line the length of the paper.

Step 3: Plot all of your proudest moments on the line.

Step 4: Plot all of your perceived failures on the line.

Step 5: Plot all of the major pivot points in your life.

Step 6: Add details! Who was with you during all of these events? Where were you? What skills were you using? What was it about those moments that made you feel proud/sad/ready for a change? What were you doing really well at that time? What did you need to work on more?

Step 7: Review and spot the common factors in all of the events on your timeline. You WILL see what I like to call your "golden threads" running through all of your proudest moments.

This Golden Sankofa bird is an African symbol that reminds us of this exact process! The bird's feet, planted firmly in the ground and facing forward, while the head is turned back, remembering the past. Consider the Sankofa as you try to navigate your way forward.

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