You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.
I was sitting in a project update meeting and noted the difference in how much detail people put into their various updates. Some people wanted to walk the whole group through all the details to show all the work they've done. Others said "Everything's on track" and left it at that. And it got me to thinking about where the right balance lies. This is something I constantly struggle with. I don't want to be an arrogant jerk and brag about my accomplishments. But instead I end up deprecating myself all the time and never talking about anything I've done. And that doesn't seem right either.
In the latter case, I'm relying on other people to be interested in what I'm doing and asking me for details. I guess some might call this a passive-aggressive approach to life. On the other hand, I don't want to take an aggressive-aggressive approach to life where I'm shoving my life into the face of everybody I meet; we all know and hate the type A personalities who flaunt their wealth and their BMW, tell everybody about the major deals they closed, and the top university they went to. But sitting back and waiting to be asked doesn't work either, because you need to unveil enough about yourself to entice them into asking more.
I think that part of the problem is that I have pretty high standards for myself. I have friends that do all of these amazing things so my life feels pedestrian in comparison. I didn't help run Howard Dean's Internet campaign. I haven't gone backpacking around the world. I didn't try out for the U.S. Olympic fencing team. I haven't had my artwork discussed in the New York Times. I haven't discovered a minor planet. In fact, I've accomplished basically nothing with my life. Or at least that's how it sometimes feels, relative to the people I know.
So I don't really understand the impulse to announce my mediocre deeds to the world the way some people seem to. That's part of why I've resisted the temptation to turn this blog into a diary type journal. I did that for a while on a different site, but I got bored with it. My life isn't interesting to me, so I can't imagine it being interesting to others. And maybe that's the key. If I were truly invested in what I was doing, I would enjoy talking about it, and that investment would be apparent to others and would spark their interest. Hrm...
Another reason I think that people exhibit self-promoting behavior is as a form of validation. To stereotype it harshly, it's "Look at what I did! Isn't it neat?" Since I'm relatively secure in the work that I do, I don't feel that need. I do my work, I know I do it well, and that's good enough for me. Well, most of the time. Sometimes, it would be nice if some of the management at my company had some clue as to what I did. And that's where being more aggressive about presenting my accomplishments would be more useful.
It's the all-too-normal phenomenon where only the jerks get ahead, because only the jerks press their case. It's also why the jerk is always the one who gets the girl, because while us self-effacing types are sitting in the corner thinking "She'd never be interested in me", he's going up to the girl, and telling her how wonderful he is. And since she doesn't have any way of knowing what the geek in the corner is like, she goes off with the guy that's promoting himself.
The thing is, I don't want to be that jerk. I don't want to assume that everybody I meet is enthralled with me. I'm actually often embarrassed by my life, because the things that impress people are the things of little significance to me (e.g. "Oh, you went to MIT?! Wow, you must be smart!" *sigh*), so I downplay them ("I went to school in Boston"). But on the other hand, I'm still ambitious. So I need to figure out how to be more aggressive in self promotion without crossing that line, wherever it is.
One last thought I had on the subject was that I think I make the mistake that Lakoff refers to of believing that "the truth shall set you free". In other words, I believe that my accomplishments speak for themselves. But Lakoff's First Law states that "Frames trump facts." I need to learn to frame my accomplishments in the most complimentary way possible. This is what people mean by crafting one's resume. In the past, I tended to view such framing as cheating. I'd think something like "People aren't really that dumb, are they?" In fact, I used it as an intelligence test - I had more respect for those who could figure out my contributions without it being shoved in their faces.
But Lakoff has observed it's not a matter of intelligence. It's a matter of winning the battleground at the preconscious level. It's setting up the context so that other people can even see the facts. I can't just assume that people will take the time to figure out what I'm doing, even if I'd like them to. I have to make sure that my accomplishments fit into their worldview, fit their frame. Or accept that I'm not going to get ahead without selling out in that fashion (which is a whole separate article that I've been mulling, on how to reconcile life when one's personal values don't mesh well with an organization's values).
Back to the original question. What's the right level of self promotion? As always, it depends. It depends on what you want to get out of the self promotion. On what level of it you feel comfortable doing. On whether it's part of your natural personality. There's a balance to be found between the overly aggressive jerk and the self-effacing passive geek.
From my personal perspective, I think I need to be more aggressive. I need to get away from my dogmatic pursuit of an idealistic world, and try to work more within the parameters of the world we live in. I also need to spend more time doing the things I find interesting, like writing this blog, and less on the boring things, so I can actually answer enthusiastically when people ask me what I've been up to. And I need to figure out if there's a way in which I can actually make a difference. I am ambitious. I want to do cool things that other people talk about in hushed tones of awe. I just need to figure out where to try to make my mark, a mark that I think is worthy of self promotion. If I could do that, I think the rest of this stuff would sort itself out. Alas. If only it were that easy.
posted at: 21:39 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Paul Graham on essays
Paul Graham wrote a new essay this month about the process of writing an essay. Some interesting observations about the essay form, and why he writes essays. I particularly liked this nugget:
An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.That's why I'm writing this blog: to take things I'm thinking about and try to flesh them out a little bit, and see where the process of trying to make my thoughts coherent takes me. I don't know if I'm successful towards that end, but I think it's good for both my thinking and my writing. Hopefully the process is also of interest to the reader...
Figure out what? You don't know yet. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside.
Bush and Rove
A couple links about Bush and Rove today.
Link 1 was that I happened to catch Fresh Air on the radio today, and Terri Gross was interviewing Wayne Slater, co-author of the book Bush's Brain : How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. Slater was apparently based in the Austin bureau for the Dallas Morning News, and covered Bush from the beginning of his political career. There were some interesting anecdotes about Rove's tactics, and how he planned Bush's path to the presidency from day one, even before he'd convinced Bush to run for governor of Texas.
Which brings us to link 2. A friend of mine had heard about a tape of the debates between George W. Bush, master of malapropism, and Ann Richards, when they were running for the governorship. I've heard Ann Richards speak on the radio, and she comes across as a very bright person, intelligent and articulate. And apparently, Bush destroyed her in the debates, outarguing her, and generally demonstrating a level of intelligence that most nationwide voters would be surprised by. My friend tracked down this report on the web which indicates the same thing - James Fallows, author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, which I quite liked, wrote an article in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly reviewing a tape of that debate, and talking over the implications with my favorite professor, George Lakoff. It's fun to speculate about the change in image that Bush is projecting now from then.
Also recommended to me recently was the book The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. It traces the rise of the conservative movement over the last few decades. The friend of a friend that recommended it says that the authors claim that the conservative think tank movement is a reaction to the liberal university environment of the 60s and 70s. Since conservative thinkers had no place in the university, they created their own, one specifically geared towards politics. And, unsurprisingly, since they were oriented towards politics, they grew much more effective at turning thought into action than the liberal thinkers remaining at the universities. Lakoff is starting to fight this with his RockRidge Institute, but they've got a big lead.
Whee. Too many books to read. And that's not even counting the 5 books I currently have checked out from the library, the three books I bought from a used bookstore recently, or the 10 books sitting in my shopping cart at Amazon, not to mention the 81 books on my Amazon wish list. Argh. But Bush's Brain sounds really interesting, y'know, for studying up when I open my political consultancy. Yeah, right. I only wish.
posted at: 00:16 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal