Taking Stock of My Life and My Brand, or How I Followed My Heart

Heart Maze

I’ve had incredible highs and lows this year that have made me reassess my life and my brand. What is my brand? I’m a corporate and personal branding strategist, author and speaker who is passionate about helping others reach their brand potential. I have been known for my high energy and productivity. But things got a bit out of hand this year as you’ll read below.

The Highs

The year started out with a bang. In January 2013, I launched my book, BrandingPays: The Five-Step System to Reinvent Your Personal Brand. The book has taken off and is now an Amazon business bestseller.

During a multi-city book tour, I garnered more than 40 media hits, including BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Working Mother, Forbes.com, WSJ Radio and interviews on television network affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX.

In June, I was thrilled to learn that Boston University School of Management selected BrandingPays as a required text for its four-year career management course.

During the year, I could barely handle the volume of requests for speaking engagements at companies, professional groups and universities.

The Lows

I was riding high. Then, in mid July, my whole world crashed. I had chest pains, and before I knew it, I was in the operating room having open-heart surgery with two cardiac artery bypass grafts. As a non-smoking vegetarian who had good cholesterol numbers and who exercised daily, I thought I wasn’t a high risk for heart disease. But, family genetics trumps clean living. My dad had quadruple-bypass heart surgery and sadly died of a stroke at the age of 49.

After months of working nights and weekends to promote my book and deliver on client deadlines, my body stopped me (almost dead) in my tracks. I was lucky that I got sent to the Emergency Room at Stanford Hospital before I had a heart attack. Thanks to a great surgeon and medical team, my surgery went smoothly.

In the dark of night in my hospital room, I thought of this heart warning as a blessing. The universe was telling me that I needed to make some changes in my life. Although I ate a healthy diet and exercised, I decided to be even more vigilant about eating plant-based foods, lowering cholesterol and sodium intake and working out regularly with a cardiac rehab group. I am also trying to lower stress by not taking life, deadlines and achievements so seriously. For goodness sake, heart surgery can be life and death but blogging and book sales are not.

Coming Back

While I recuperated for the first couple of months, I spent my days listening to the birds and watching my flowers grow in my back garden. A librarian friend of mine likened my state to the peaceful garden scene in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where a friend reads poetry to a convalescing young heroine. Taking it easy in my garden restored my soul and helped me to regain my health. I also surrounded myself with family and friends who are the keys to health and happiness.

I began to wonder if the former, energetic Karen was ever coming back. I seemed so content doing nothing.

Like tender shoots emerging after a cold winter, there are signs that my interest in business is coming back. I have resumed my presence on Twitter, I’m following the progress of my book sales, and I am doing client work.

But, I am also reassessing what I want to do versus what I think I should do. What my heart surgery has taught me is that life is short and it’s OK to be picky. It’s also OK not to live someone else’s dream. My definition of success is all that matters.

Moving Forward

Reimagining our lives and rebranding for a different work style and lifestyle is possible.

I often talk about cake and icing being a metaphor for brand, with cake being the rational value and icing being the emotional value. My cake, or rational value, is being a corporate and personal brand strategist and author. My icing, however, is changing. I am still optimistic, caring and passionate. But I’m throttling back being overly intense, deadline driven, and eager to please, especially when it is detrimental to my health (like saying YES to impossible deadlines).

With the year about to come to a close, what is your heart’s desire, and what are you doing to achieve it? You don’t have to have a health crisis like me to take stock of your life and your brand. Your goal may be to create a new brand or to tweak an existing one, but you’ve got to know yourself and what you want. Have a goal and make a plan. It’s as simple as following your heart.


24 Responses to Taking Stock of My Life and My Brand, or How I Followed My Heart

  1. Rashell says:

    Hi Karen…wow you have had an extraordinary year. I’m glad you are on the mend and have come through it all even better and wiser. I appreciate the time we were able to work together and wish you continued success and blessing.

    Happy Holidays!
    Rashell and the Maxwell team!

  2. Miriam Hyman says:

    Hi Karen,

    Reading about your experience made me think of John Lennon’s expression about life happening while you’re busy making plans. I am so sorry to hear about your ordeal, and so happy to hear about your recovery. Success shows itself in ways you don’t think of sometimes. Have a wonderful Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year.

  3. Karen,
    I’m very glad to hear you are OK and getting better on all fronts.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    I think your previous reality reflects the current reality of most executives and entrepreneurs, myself included. It is one of the casualties of this highly connected and productivity driven era. Dealing with it in a healthy way requires a new mindset, and lots of courage.
    It is not easy, but your story will help, thank you.

    • Karen Kang says:

      Thanks, Rogerio. The siren song of workaholism in Silicon Valley is strong. I have to remind myself daily of what is important in my life.

  4. Corinne says:

    Thank you for sharing your story so that a warning for you can be a warning for others. Self-imposed stress is just as detrimental to our indoor plumbing as high cholesterol and elevated glucose blood levels.

  5. Kathy Keenan says:

    True wisdom of the heart, Karen! We need you here with us.

  6. Hillary says:

    As always Karen, VERY well thought out and written. Thank you for the gift of YOU!

  7. Amy Greene says:

    Beautifully written message, Karen. Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year!

  8. Mary Edmunds says:

    Thank you for this letter. So sorry to hear about your health problems. It seems you have another lesson to learn and to teach. Good luck with your recovery and long health to you.

  9. Toni Toland Stanhope says:

    Dear Karen,
    Dear, dear Karen…..I had no clue of your health emergency. My thoughts and prayers are with you as you recover and possibly redirect your energies and life. You are bright, brilliant and have mastered your success in this life beyond comprehension. I will pray for you as you enter this new chapter in your life. I am so happy…..happy you are healthy and on the road to recovery….
    Much love,

  10. Brian Haberly says:

    Karen – Thank you so much for sharing your personal highs and lows and your “heartfelt” message! I was unaware of your health challenges and am glad to hear that you are both recuperating and reassessing what you want to do with the next “chapter” of your own personal story. I enjoyed hearing you speak in person earlier this year, and I know that you will come back at the proper pace to best meet your own needs, and your loyal fans will be patiently waiting for you on whatever terms you are able to share your insightful and caring message.

    Wishing you a full and speedy recovery!

    • Karen Kang says:

      I think my next “chapter” in life will be evolutionary. It’s actually happening now and it feels right so far. Thanks for reaching out, Brian.

  11. Amy Peterson says:

    As always a role model, you continue to bounce back bigger and better than ever! Thanks for continuing to teach and show balance. Love you and love to your family !

    • Karen Kang says:

      Amy, thank you. The way you give back and your positive approach to life are inspiring. You seem to have struck a wonderful balance in how you work and live. XO

  12. Cathy Holmlund says:

    Dear, dear, Karen. I’m so sorry to hear of your health crisis. But glad to know that you are on the mend and adjusting your life and goals to maintain health. You are so beautiful and accomplished – an inspiration to your old pals from your childhood. Wishing you all the best in 2014. With love sent your way, Cathy

  13. Joseph says:

    Hi Karen,
    I am so sorry for your health problems and very glad to see you have recovered. Your story is a wake up call for many of us . It is always a challenge to have a happy balance in life,and I hope you stay on course with your new approach to work.I decided to slow down a year ago and reduce my stress, its difficult to adjust ,but I am happy I did it. After all nothing is more important than staying healthy.

  14. Alan Gair says:

    In 1990 I retired on a full pension after being one of the local British Managing Directors in Interpublic-one of the world’s top advertising agencies, for 20 years. Now looking back I see that it was all just for fun and the lifestyle! I had been working in senior management in manufacturing and retailing and that was really hard work. So from the vantage point of my advanced age I commend you on your decision to turn down the pressure.
    It turned out that my recent work on the environment and getting the right people elected in local politics has been much more important than all the stressful internatonal advertising campaigns i helped to run.
    Have a Happy Christmas and don’t get fully aboard the consultancy band-wagon. LIFE IS TOO SHORT!

    • Karen Kang says:

      So true. Good for you, Alan. We need more folks like you to take an interest in their communities and the environment.

  15. Marian Hirsch says:

    Dear Karen–

    Wishing you very good health and happiness in the new year. Glad you are recovering and hope you can find balance in your life. This year has been a wakeup call for me–I was a caregiver for four months after my sweetheart was in an accident, my synagogue disintegrated, I have been having health issues, and my job is near implosion. The future is uncertain right now (both scary and exciting), but I want to be more than a brand–I want to be a full person, whatever that turns out to mean.

    • Karen Kang says:

      Marian, your brand should reflect your full person. I’m sorry to hear about your challenges, but if you look toward the future and see possibilities, then you will move in a positive direction. I wish you all the best in the new year. Thanks for reaching out.

  16. Kate Purmal says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this personal story. I am relieved to know that you’re recovering well. It is an important reminder to pay close attention to my health and to be true to myself — especially so for those times I say — or should say — NO.

  17. anisha says:

    Karen, wishing you and the family a peaceful and healthy new year. Big hugs, Anisha

  18. Melanie Dulbecco says:

    You are a remarkable woman and an inspiration, Karen. And how fittingly clever to entitle this story “following your heart.” Sending much love and happy heart wishes xo – Melanie