By Clay Chandler

Clay is an author, editor and fellow at Hult International Business School where he follows technology, economics and global business. He is a former Asia editor at McKinsey & Company, and has held senior editorial roles at Fortune, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter @claychandler

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So call me old-fashioned, but I find the idea of having to “sell yourself” a little creepy.

For centuries, civilized societies everywhere have shunned showoffs—and rightly so. At school, work, parties, or even the local pub, nobody likes a blowhard.

And yet, for nearly a decade now, American branding and marketing gurus have bombarded us with the proposition that, in the digital age, our professional success demands relentless self-promotion. The experts aren’t just selling us on the idea of salesmanship, which after all is as old as the serpent hawking apples in the Garden. What’s new is the suggestion that the digital revolution requires us all to flog our very identities as a product.

Suddenly it’s not enough to be smart, work hard, do well in school, develop valuable skills and expertise, and toil diligently in the service of a large and prestigious corporation. The new wisdom is that we must all transcend the stodgy old “Organization Man” and step forth as proud free agents able to “chart our own course,” and cultivate a curious new thing called a “personal brand.”

“Living is selling,” intone Harry Beckwith and Christine K. Clifford, authors of You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself, and among the many new evangelists for the gospel of the personal brand. Selling yourself, they advise, must be at “the heart of every transaction.” In The Art of Selling Yourself, Adam Riccoboni and Daniel Callaghan, agree. “In the modern world, it is paramount that you know how to promote yourself no matter what job you have.”

But before you clamber aboard the personal brandwagon and join the multitudes agonizing about SEO ranking and how many people are looking at your LinkedIn profile, a bit of context is in order.

This idea that the digital age obliges us all to get in touch with our inner P.T. Barnum is often traced to a 1997 Fast Company cover story by uber-guru Tom Peters. In a manifesto entitled “The Brand Called You,” Peters exhorted knowledge workers of the world to disunite—to unshackle themselves from old ideas of lifelong employment, loyalty to a single employer and job security.

“Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding,” Peters declared. “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”

In the proto dot-com era, Peters’ argument had irresistible appeal. The digital revolution was liberating, allowing individuals to go it alone, advertise their skills, connect with customers and reinvent their lives. But the dark side of the revolution was that the new technologies also made it easier for big companies to throw expensive white-collar middle-managers off the sled.

Peters played perfectly to aspirations and anxieties. His sermon offered a message of hope in which the personal brand was the straight and narrow gate through which all must pass to attain salvation. In the new world, he warned, because anyone could have a web site, everyone would. The key to winning clients, he prophesied, was creating a site that stood out from the competition. “Starting today,” he declared, “you are a brand. You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop.” Go thy way and sin no more!

Peters’ message was prescient. After the dot-com crash, the tech revolution picked up where it left off. Corporate layoffs gained speed in the wake of the global financial crisis. As Millennials—the new generation of workers who reached adulthood after 2000—entered the labor force, they embraced Peters’ every-man-for-himself mantra with fervor.

It helped that Peters, a former McKinsey consultant and co-author of the management blockbuster In Search of Excellence, had a pretty compelling personal brand himself.

Today, a host of new personal branding evangelists has arisen in Peters’ wake. Amazon is awash in titles on the subject. There is: Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success; The Brand Called You: Create a Personal Brand that Wins Attention and Grows Your Business; You Branding: Reinventing Your Personal Identity as a Successful Brand; You, Inc: Build It, Brand It, Be It…and a Whole Lot More!; and (inevitably) Personal Branding for Dummies (which is actually one of the smarter titles on offer).

I plowed through more than a dozen of these volumes and discovered much that’s potentially useful—but also a lot that’s obvious and silly. (See “The Five Principles of Personal Branding”) Much of what passes for insight in these books is little better than platitude: Think big! Leverage your network! Make eye contact! Smile warmly! Dress well! (No, I’m not making any of those up.)

Many authors invoke the same clichés (“God gave you two ears and one mouth to remind you to listen twice as much as you talk”), and trot out identical lists of personal branding “successes” (Oprah, Tiger Woods, David Beckham, Richard Branson, Martha Stewart).

One of our big gripes with the personal branding literature is how rarely its proponents heed their own advice about focusing on a specific target audience. Most authors offer generic guidance they hope will be useful to everyone. But if you’re a recent college graduate just starting your business career—as I assume many Bento readers are—your goals, concerns and resources will be different than those of someone who has been in the workforce for ten or twenty years and is looking to strike out on his own.

Our second complaint is that much of the personal branding literature seems to suggest that a smooth elevator pitch and the right type-font can make up for lack of experience. The reality is your personal brand won’t work unless it’s credible. If you are just starting a career and have yet to accumulate experience and skills, no amount of clever marketing will compensate. So unless you’re planning to launch a startup or become the next PewDiePie or Kim Kardashian, agonizing over a personal brand will have less payoff for you as a recent college grad than for mid-career consultants.

I also think you can overdo it. Recruiters and HR directors can be put off by candidates who work too hard at selling themselves, especially if they’re looking to fill an entry-level position in a large organization where employees must work effectively in teams. It’s important to project an air of confidence. But there is a lot to be said for humility. Donald Trump may have a distinctive personal brand. But if he weren’t already the boss, would anyone actually hire him? (For a recruiter’s take on personal branding, see our interview with an expert from executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.)

Which brings us to our final caveat to the personal branding craze.

Perhaps because personal branding gurus are themselves full-time marketers, many tend to lose sight of the fact that the rest of us aren’t.

We can’t afford to spend all our time broadcasting our skills because we’re too busy using those skills to earn a living. In a separate article, I’ve offered some pointers for young workers about which personal branding tactics are essential.

For example, I don’t think it’s crucial for you to maintain a personal blog, which can be an expensive and time-consuming distraction to keep current. But I do recommend thinking carefully about your LinkedIn profile, which doesn’t have to be updated constantly and can work for you in the background with minimal fuss while you get on with your career. (For more on LinkedIn, see this essay by EF’s Chief Culture Officer Ming Chen.)

A century before Peters, another brilliant guru, German sociologist Max Weber, argued that modern capitalism as we now know it was an unintended consequence of the Protestant work ethic. Weber was struck by the fact that, while Catholics could be assured of salvation if they accepted the teachings and authority of the church, for Protestants, the criteria for salvation were far less clear. He theorized that Protestants, especially the Puritans who settled America, came to believe that those saved by grace could be identified by accumulation of wealth. In the modern age, personal brands seem to function something like that, reassuring all and sundry not only that one is employable, but among The Chosen.

Fear not, pilgrim. Thou art a person, not a brand, and there are many paths to redemption.