I guess I'm a jackalope: a story discovery and rebranding

Back in June, 2018, I launched my personal brand, Data Poetry, with the post Why Data Poetry? Relatively speaking, it was incredibly successful - a first post that got some attention from some pretty big names in the data viz space, and currently has 738 views. For someone with no name in the online data viz community, that's a pretty good success.

My analogies between poetry and data viz were appreciated, and I further explored some poetic paradigms applied to data viz with posts like Visual Cadence, But isn't art subjective? (Refrigerator-note visualizations), We are out of coffee: Watch your enjambments, and Visual Rhythms parts I and II. Each of these demonstrated ways poetry can teach us to make better visualizations.

However, I grew — professionally, personally, socially. I found unique value in some of my other perspectives and talents, and was interested in and encouraged to share those. But, the more I dove in to other topics, the I felt a sort of "brand" dissonance. I'm the poetry guy, I need to make sure I post something poetry-ish. I ended up backlogging a ton of topics that I felt were interesting and relevant, simply because I felt that I had to stick to my namesake.

It's not that data poetry was bad — but, I realize now that I had created a personal brand based off an interest, and not my identity. Data poetry captured some of who I am, but a very limited aspect. It covered a small part of what makes me good at my job, but it left out the fact that I'm equally comfortable in generalized linear modeling and principal components analysis as I am in aesthetics and the arts.

Essentially, data poetry was a topic, but failed to capture my identity. I realized that I haven't shared enough of myself with all of you.

Identity

The first step in branding is figuring out who you are. Many businesses, in a rush to feel like the new Apple or Google, rush to colorful, catchy images, but fail to explore their identity. As a result, their brand doesn't feel authentic. 

So, I went to my resident expert in both branding and me: my wife. Bekah has spent years working in corporate brand training and development, and we've been married for nearly 8 years. Clearly, she's a qualified expert on both fronts. 

We reviewed what makes me unique. We reviewed why I was successful as a data visualization consultant in my last job. We reviewed why my boss called me with an offer the very day his non-solicitation agreement ended with our previous employer. We reviewed what my clients have felt was the unique value prop I brought to the table. We reviewed my convoluted and nomadic story of how I came to work in data viz. 

We also explored the parts of me that I find really important, like the fact that I grew up in the rural midwest on a tree farm, or the fact that I've been frequently described as "small but scrappy", or the fact that I strive to never take myself too seriously. 

And then we started thinking of metaphors that capture who I am. We explored a lot of pretty cliche stuff, like trees and foxes and owls. We tried to incorporate my youth on the lumber farm with ideas like "lumberhack", or "datajack, but-it's-josh-not-jack". I'd say we cycled through a ton of terrible ideas, with Bekah being the the guiding force that steered me through a bunch of bad concepts I tossed out.

Fast forward to what I thought was an unrelated conversation about an interesting folk tale I heard growing up: the jackalope.

Image sourced from Legends of Americahttps://www.legendsofamerica.com/wy-jackalope/


The jackalope was created by taxidermist Douglas Herrick in the 1930's when he grafted deer antlers onto a jackrabbit. People loved it, and it became a novelty purchase that eventually turned into a mythical creature with some fantastic stories, and a sort of cultural representation for parts of the rural US. 

As I was telling her about some of these tales, she stopped me and said, "That's it. You're a jackalope."

The jackalope brand

I'll admit that, at first, I thought the idea was terrible. But she laid out a brand that I felt really aligned with my identity:

  • A graft of very different things; a hybrid; a chimera. I've pursued the arts and the hard sciences in my educational and professional careers. I've done consulting in data science and design strategy for data visualization. I'm equally comfortable with machine learning and C.R.A.P. design principles. My honors thesis was in behavioral economics, and I've published poetry and a folklore study. One of my strongest talents is bridging the metaphorical left-brain right-brain divide. I'm a hybrid of skills that conventional thought often describes as opposites (although the data viz community is a space where you'll find more of this).
  • Rural American. A huge part of who I am today is the result of growing up in Appalachia on a lumber farm. My work ethic can be traced back to the Saturday and Sunday pre-dawn mornings helping out on the farm. I've adapted well to an urban lifestyle and career, but ultimately I acknowledge that I'm really just a country boy that got a shot with higher education. It shapes my interests and hobbies and habits and work ethic and even my approaches to problem solving.
  • Small but fierce. One of the things I love about the jackrabbit is all the tales of how dangerous this tiny little creature is. I'm slightly taller than average height, but I've definitely been described as "wiry" more than once. My thinness made me a target for bullying when I was growing up, so standing up for myself and facing bullies is a huge part of my story (incidentally, this is also how I learned enough boxing to teach it later on in life). Also, my personal and professional story includes a number of major, life-changing obstacles I've had to overcome, some of which I'm working with This Underdog Life to share around chronic illnesses, invisible disabilities, and how I have to fight past that every day.
  • Casual and comical. I'll admit that the idea of the jackalope turned me off at first simply because it's so...silly. If we want a hybrid, why not the elegant and strong Griffon, or the clever and wise Sphinx? But if I'm honest with myself, I'm not that cool. And, per above, one of the things I continually strive for is to never take myself too seriously.
  • Folk-y. The jackalope is a folk tale. It's not from any sort of a formalized, religious or historical text - it's something of the "ordinary" people. My [first] graduate program was an MA/PhD in Folklore (this was where I was working on a secondary specialty in creative writing). Although folklore typically calls to mind mythical tales, the academic discipline is really about studying the way communities express and share their culture and traditions. I love communities and the [sometimes bizarre] ways we connect with each other, with a focus on the "informal" and "ordinary" people. The jackalope as a folktale brings in an important aspect of my life, both topically but also temporally, as that graduate program was a time when the trajectory of my career, and my life, dramatically pivoted — leading me to where I am today.

So, there you have it

I'm a jackalope. I'm shedding the data poetry brand, although I'm not discarding the concept. I still think there's a lot to harvest from there.

But this exercise of re-branding my presence is really aiming to give myself the freedom to share more of who I am. Who I am isn't as graceful as an eagle, as wise as an owl, as clever as a fox...I'm a weird rural creature, hybridized from completely different disciplines, into something that could be construed as an attempt at humor - but, something that my professional career can attest to, something that brings a very different value to the organizations I work for and the clients I serve.

So what should you expect from here on out? I don't know, and that's why this is so freeing. You might see some Tableau how-to's. I might do some posts on the statistics behind some of my work. I might even toss out some stories from my consulting background (both the good and the bad). But you're going to start hearing from more of who I am.

And still a bit of poetry.

Love y'all.


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