Mess it up — your audience might not be able to articulate this but they are looking for someone who gives them permission to be MORE themselves. So, if you show your weird, your mess, your vulnerability…you are signing the permission slip for them to go on that field trip for themself. That is an incredible act of generosity you can give to your community and one they won’t soon forget.

We often use the term “Influencers” to describe people with significant social media followings on platforms like Instagram, Twitter TikTok, Youtube, Linkedin and Facebook. Influencers have become today’s media titans, sought after for everything from product placements to timely trends. What’s the difference between influence and impact? Fans and followers? Sizzle versus staying power?

In this interview series, called, “How To Cultivate Community In A Click to Connect World” we are talking to influencers about how they define success and what we all need to discover about the true nature of influence. As a part of this series I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Schuman.

Justin is a Broadway actor (Tina: the Tina Turner Musical), owner of his own headshot photography studio (Jshoots), a content creator across multiple platforms, and a Human Creative Director, helping people human better every day. A TED speaker, with a following of over 200k across multiple platforms, he empowers people to break out of their boxes and practice authenticity in a conscious and purposeful way. Graduate of Northwestern University, based in NYC, you can find him on all platforms @JustinSchumanOfficial

Thank you for making time to visit with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. How did you discover your career path and what got you to where you are today?

Of course! I’m so glad to be here with you, Karen. I like to say that I have three-and-a-half full-time jobs. I’m an actor on Broadway in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and I own a headshot photography studio in NYC (Jshoots.) I’m also a Human Creative Director, helping people human better every day, and this is what’s got me to jump on social media in a meaningful way.

The journey to where we are right now started probably 30 years ago but we’ll skip most of my childhood and teenage years for efficiency’s sake. All you need to know is that as a young kid I saw a world that would rather me put many things about myself in a box. The world has a way of doing that — letting you know what’s shameful about you (what it thinks is shameful about you?) even though you probably had zero issues with any of it until pointed out. We all have a box, the version of self we present to please others. I just found mine early on in life.

The title of Human Creative Director was born out of the pandemic. Broadway had shuttered, there were no photography clients, and I had absolutely nothing going on. I had time to relax, which is atypical in my schedule, but also time to think. Eventually, the relaxation gave way to a feeling of malaise and I knew it was time to pick myself up and forge a new path. I’ve always loved helping people lean into deservingness and take up space. Since I’ve gone through (or Since I went through) most of my life apologizing for who I am, I’ve always loved helping people lean into their deservingness and take up space. I wanted to show up for others as the version of myself that I needed when I was young(er).

I started musing on the philosophy of ‘human as a verb’ — something we must actively and consciously do every single day, positing that our purpose here is to just human as well as we possibly can. This idea brought me onto social media, and through my presence on social, I was able to hone and refine both my thoughts and how I show up and talk about my ideas.

I realized, in utilizing social media for my own business purposes, that it’s an incredible tool for exploring one’s authenticity and catalyzing self-discovery in a genuinely potent way. This is what I talk about on my TikTok and Instagram these days. While most of my private clients are content creators, CEOs, startups, and businesses, my content is geared towards anyone looking to take up more space in their life and practice being themselves…in the exploratory journey to find how they human best.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned along the way that influences how you operate now?

I think that the idea and rhetoric of BEING yourself, while idealistic, is largely unhelpful. If someone has little to no access to the ‘YOU’ in ‘yourself’ then this contrived advice will have them stuck in a mental loop, reflecting on what kind of person they are. Instead of focusing on WHO am I, focus on HOW do I…HOW you walk through the world is much more helpful. Honoring the idea that you’re less of a noun and more of a verb opens up the possibility that you’re always in the playing and exploring phase…you’re not expected to be a finished product. In fact, part of the human experience includes that you will always be evolving and changing. What served you yesterday might not work as well for you today. That’s not your failing. That’s one of your many strengths.

All of this amounts to how you human through the world. Human as a verb. Once I considered the way I human it became immensely easier to feel what in my life was working for me and what wasn’t serving me. We only have so many hours in the day and a finite amount of gas in the tank…even though I wish my energy supply was unlimited. So, we need to focus on what serves us most and what gets us closer to our biggest goals and dreams.

We’re all searching for some good news. How are you using your platform to make a positive social impact?

I am using my platform to help people shed their people-pleasing habits. These habits are born out of our desire to protect ourselves as we walk through the world and effectively remain hidden in plain sight. If you can please everyone around you you’ll never disappoint and you’ll never stand out for the wrong reasons…but you’ll also never take up space or stand up for the right reasons either. And I find there are thousands and thousands (probably millions) of people who have been made to feel small in their lives and have shrunk themselves down to nothingness. If I can give every single person the experience of feeling truly seen for at least one second then I believe I’ve done my job.

Many of our readers are influencers as well. Others have tried and have yet to succeed. What words of advice would you offer to aspiring influencers, knowing what you know now?

This is a great question. In my day-to-day as a consultant, I work primarily with other creators and influencers, and one of the biggest pain points I hear is — “Why would anyone care what I have to say?”

My response is usually…”Well, do YOU care what you have to say? Because if you’re concerned that other people might not care about your thoughts/feelings/ideas, what you’re telling me is that YOU don’t even believe that strongly in yourself…so, when exactly did you make the decision that you weren’t deserving of being seen and heard?”

Mic drop.

YOU need to insist that you matter and deserve to take up space. No one, and I mean NO ONE, is going to do that for you.

Success is often a matter of perspective. I’ve always resonated with Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” How do you see success — or define success — for yourself now?

Mmmmm you’re really making me think with these. Success, to me, is about having the means to do whatever I please whenever I please. Now, this isn’t entirely realistic given the insane schedule of my life. However, since I know it’s something that I want, I am working hard to create a life where one day, my time, my most precious resource, is what I have a surplus of. I know that the path to that life, though, requires a great deal of work. I happen to love every single thing I do for work, though. Which, I suppose, is also a huge marker of success. Do you absolutely love what you do for work?

What are your strategies to make room for who and what matters most?

Honestly, my schedule dictates who I see and what I do lately. It’s not necessarily my preferred method of filtering my priorities but it’s certainly effective! Really though, when I think about it…I ask myself does this person, event, thing, opportunity, etc. ADD to my life? AND do I feel like I’ll be in a position to be 100% my entirely authentic self? If the answer to either is no, chances are it doesn’t earn a way into my day or my life.

How do you reduce or mitigate stress?

Hahahah. Oh! You’re serious. Well, I listen to a lot of spa music. I also take hot yoga once a week which is unbelievably rejuvenating. I have some rituals here and there, too, that I rely on to keep me going. I realize that we can’t always be SUBTRACTIVE with the things in our lives that cause stress. So, we need to be ADDITIVE with the things that help us feel renewed.

I’m going to try a few of your tips, and I’m hopeful our readers will, too. Now it’s time for the big reveal — the moment our readers have been anticipating. What are your “five strategies to cultivate a large & engaged social media community?’ Please share a story or example for each.

Ooooh, drum roll please! Spoiler alert: these five strategies will probably be unlike any you’ve ever heard before. My approach to building a large and loyal community is backward to most I’ve seen.

  1. Create from the inside out — The idea of creating FROM the outside (constructing your persona in a superficial way) made me uncomfortable from the moment I jumped on social media. I was faced with all this noise saying that to grow a following you need to create expressly with your audience in mind — put yourself in their shoes and make the content that you think they want to see. For me, this felt just as confining as the box I felt I’d put myself in for 30 years trying to please others. I think when you create from the outside in you deprive people of the opportunity to know the real you…instead, you are performing a false version of yourself, supported by the assumption that you KNOW exactly who your audience wants you to be? Does that give you a headache? SAME.
  2. Set your terms & conditions — I work with a lot of creators and influencers who bemoan the lack of engagement on their content. I will usually ask — “do you tell your community exactly what you expect of them?” This is usually met with confusion. If you don’t set the expectations for what you want your followers to do you can’t be disappointed when they don’t read your mind! I regularly ask my followers to comment and leave their thoughts or questions. I also video reply back to comments regularly so that my community can see that, in some form or another, I’m always in conversation with them. Set the terms and conditions for your account and let your community know how THEY can support YOU!
  3. Don’t niche down — Oof. This one. You will hear again and again why niching down is the only way to build an audience on a social media platform. You know what? The people who say this aren’t wrong. But what they aren’t telling you is that niching down is almost guaranteed to eventually burn you out AND the following of a niched down account will know nothing about the creator they’re following. They are merely there for the value you can provide. While not niching I am not advocating creating with no specificity! I just believe that the specificity behind your account should come from the inherent specificity YOU possess as a person. Post under the umbrella of YOU. Yes, it may take you longer to build a following but I promise you the long-term benefits FAR outweigh the vanity of short-term growth.
  4. Post consistently but not overwhelmingly — there’s a lot of language (especially on TikTok) that the more you post the more you grow. Basically what these “experts” are saying, without saying, is that every single post has the potential to build your audience and although MOST won’t…perhaps that ONE will. So, the more you post the better chance you have at posting that ONE. I, however, believe that you should post as much as you can CONSISTENTLY. A reminder that content creation is not supposed to feel like a slog. It might even be *gasp* fun! The latter part of this piece of advice has nothing to do with your audience and everything to do with you. If you become unbelievably stressed and overwhelmed in the process of trying to build an audience…what are you really doing all this for? Social media is supposed to be ADDITIVE, not a stressor.
  5. Mess it up — your audience might not be able to articulate this but they are looking for someone who gives them permission to be MORE themselves. So, if you show your weird, your mess, your vulnerability…you are signing the permission slip for them to go on that field trip for themself. That is an incredible act of generosity you can give to your community and one they won’t soon forget.

What do you do to create a greater sense of connection and community among your fans?

I think there is this overarching belief that value paired with entertainment is the magic that makes a content piece soar. And while that’s true, oftentimes what your community is looking for, really, is compassion. They aren’t always looking to be educated or made to laugh. Sometimes they just want to feel seen and acknowledged. I make sure to do this regularly so that my community knows I’m not just there to vomit value on them but that I also want to prioritize their well-being. I check in regularly, I show up constantly, and I make it clear that I want them to let me know how they’re doing.

As an influencer, you are, by definition, a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Karen — I am on a mission to spread the idea of human as a verb. I think that authenticity is not merely ‘being yourself’ but instead the PRACTICE of being yourself. It’s an incredibly purposeful balancing act that we must work on daily. And the active performance of your authenticity is how you human. When you consider ‘human’ as a verb it opens up the possibility that it’s something you can learn how to do better, improving your technique and refining your approach. It also makes the act of finding yourself far more active…less an activity for reflecting on and more a doing to figure it out.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He, she or they might just see this. 🙂

A lunch with Kim Kardashian would certainly be something! I know some people reading this column will have a strong reaction to that answer. While I don’t really need to defend why I picked her, I don’t mind mentioning that I think she’s a genius businesswoman. No one knows how to monetize a personal brand like Kim. I appreciate that every single thing she is willing to attach her name to is scrupulously quality-checked by HER. I think her love for her kids is fierce and real. I find her recent journey to study law and pass the bar is admirable. And I love that she rides on the waves of controversy and polarizing to her benefit. I think she is fascinating and it would be very cool to form a friendship and business relationship with her.

What is the best way for our readers to further follow your work online?

The best way to follow me online is on TikTok and Instagram! My handle on both is @JustinSchumanOfficial

Thank you for these thought provoking insights. Here’s to your continued success!