In the spirit of Paul Graham, I’m going to start this entry with a question that re-occurred to me a couple days ago: What is the right balance of self promotion to do?
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.