Self Promotion Without Guilt!

Last Monday I gave a workshop at the Media Lab Festival of Learning on self promotion and how to do it without feeling totally icky about it.  The workshop went great, and I had lots of requests online and off to share my materials.  So I will!

The Platonic ideal of self promotion is something along the lines of Austin Kleon‘s “Do good work and share it with people.” But I think a lot of the time people view “self promotion” or people who are seen to be good self promoters with a mix of admiration and squicky distaste.  It just feels so awkwardly self-centered to talk about your work and how awesome it is (even if it is TOTALLY AWESOME).  Maybe this is because as a culture we discourage people from declaring their own awesomeness independent of outside confirmation. Maybe it is because people (especially women) are socialized away from drawing attention to ourselves and our own achievements.  Maybe it’s because we don’t think our work is that interesting or useful, and don’t understand why people would want to hear about it in the first place.  Or maybe it’s because we don’t think we should be speaking publicly about something unless we know EVERYTHING about it because if we don’t know EVERYTHING about it we’re obviously not experts and only experts get to speak in public about things, right?  Or maybe it’s a totally different reason.

Whatever the reason is, the result is that horrible squirmy feeling in your guts whenever someone gives you a compliment, that stops your from posting that story or applying to that program or talking to that Kickass Person Whose Work You Admire or something.  It is getting in your way. It is Impeding Your Awesome. So I’m going to offer you some tips on how to defeat the squirmy guilty feeling, and some strategies you can use to share your work with the world.

HERE IS YOUR GUILT-DEFEATING UTILITY BELT!

1. Trust other people’s ability to decide what is awesome for themselves.  You may not think this thing you did is so great. Maybe it was just an experiment or a doodle or maybe it’s unfinished or you’re unsatisfied with it.  That’s fine. You can totally have those feelings about your work. You can even be straight up conflicted about your work. But if someone else really really likes that ugly duckling of yours? Trust them that they really like it! Trust them that they can figure out what they really like for themselves! Don’t try to talk them out of it. Just say, “Thank you, I’m glad you liked it.”

2. Don’t be held back by wanting things to be perfect. Things will never be perfect.  You will never be perfect.  If you wait for things to be perfect before you put them out in the world, you will never actually produce anything.  Someone (maybe Da Vinci?) once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”  Other people (I think Voltaire started this train) say, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  Make stuff, and put it out there.  If it’s not perfect, don’t feel bad. Neither is anything anyone else is doing.

3. Recognize other’s goals and how you can help themSometimes people will ask you for advice or help or a quote for a story they’re writing.  You first instinct may often be to shy away from that attention because you feel you’re unqualified or not the best person for the job.  But, similarly to trusting other people’s ability to decide what is awesome for themselves, trust that other people are asking you for help or input for a reason: because they think you can help! When I was younger, people used to ask me for computer help, not because I was super awesome at computers, but because I *was* super awesome at explaining how to operate computers in an accessible, approachable way.  When, for example, a reporter emails you looking for a quote on Something Related to Something You Work On, they’re not necessarily looking for the World’s Greatest Expert On That Something. They’re looking for a quote because they have to make their deadline. You could provide that quote! After all, they emailed *you.*

4. Have a friend read the comments. People can be jerks on the internet (NOT NEWS). So if you are shy about putting yourself out there because you’re concerned about the negative attention you could attract, ask a friend to screen your comments for you. They can tell about all the nice/constructive ones while at the same time protecting your from that one pointlessly negative ad hominem attack that would have distracted you for a week to no purpose.

5. Be generous! There is so much awesome stuff out there! Promote other people’s work! Amplify people who don’t think are getting enough attention, and give shout outs to the work of established practitioners who inspire you.  And if you see other people promoting your work, say thank you, because that would make your mother proud. There are lots of forms this kind of generosity can take, like blogging people’s talks at conferences, in depth book/movie/game reviews, or just simple tweets and shares.  Do whatever feels right to you at the time.

I DON’T FEEL GUILTY ANYMORE! SO WHAT ARE SOME THINGS I CAN ACTUALLY DO????

1. Be visible! Before you can go about showing people how awesome your work is, you need somewhere for them to find your work! Have a website, have a Twitter, have a Tumblr, have all three if you like.  And for the love of god, please keep them updated.  Try, if you can, to have a consistent handle across all your internet presence.  Make it easy for people to find you. (As long as you don’t try to do this all at once, it is way easier than it sounds.)

2. Own your achievements – don’t deflect praise. When someone compliments your work, your instinct can be to minimize your awesomeness: “Oh, I did in an hour, it’s not that great,” “That’s not finished yet,” “That could have been longer/funnier/faster/better.” Don’t do this! Own your achievements! You did them, you deserve to feel good about them. If this is still hard for you, try saying, “Thank you, I’m glad you liked it” and then stopping. That’s all you have to say!

3. Ask for things. For the most part, people are nice, and will try to help you if they can. The trick to this is that they can’t help if they don’t know what you need.  These things can be jobs, publishing or speaking opportunities, links, references, advice, damn near anything. Be specific with your ask, be gracious if the person says no, say thank you if they say yes.  Seriously, it is totally ok to ask for things. Don’t let yourself be held back by the fear of the Worst Thing in the World, because the worst thing that can logically happen is that the person you’re talking to will say no. And then you’re no worse off then you were before you asked! So ask for things.

4. Don’t be an asshole. I think the fear of being seen as an asshole holds most people back from doing more self-promotion. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution for this: Don’t be an asshole! Really, it’s as simple as that. You probably spend most of you life not being an asshole anyway. So promote other work you think is awesome in addition to your own. Follow up with people who say nice/constructive things about your work. Own your mistakes as well as your triumphs. Be gracious. Say thank you. Don’t be an asshole.

5. Share, don’t sell. Chances are, you are doing what you are doing because you think it is awesome and it makes you happy. So don’t think about promoting your work as “selling” or other awkward capitalist metaphors that make you feel like you are somehow taking advantage of the people around you.  Think of it as sharing this thing that you enjoy because you hope others will enjoy it too.  This is a good philosophy to have even if you are ultimately hoping to exchange the fruits of your labor for money. Promote your work with a spirit of sharing, not just a spirit of having to pay your rent.

Post Script: In Defense of the #humblebrag

When I was working on this writeup, my friend Nathan pointed out the shaming culture that is associated with the #humblebrag hashtag, and asked me to address it.  Recently, #humblebrag has started being used in some parts of the internet to call out what some people see as inappropriate self-centeredness or bragging or self-promotion, and to shame those people engaged in those activities into silence.  A mirror-related point came up during the workshop I led: some of the attendees were really pushing the idea that the most “appropriate” or “best” way for your work to be promoted was if *other people* were doing the promoting.  While I think it’s great and gratifying when other people recognize your work, the philosophy that this is the only socially acceptable to promote your work has an air of magical thinking about it.  How exactly are these people supposed to discover your work in the first place if you don’t show it to them?  Similarly, the #humblebrag shaming tactic promotes the idea (in a sideways way) that success just *happens* and that working for it (because let’s face it, getting your work out there can be fucking hard) by promoting yourself is crass.  This is dumb. It’s bad for communities and it’s bad for practitioners.  It smacks of the toxic myths of the Lone Genius Struggling Virtuously In A Vacuum and Lana Turner Discovered at the Soda Fountain By Magic. Neither of these myths are particularly effective ways to either get attention for your work or to promote the existence of vibrant creative communities.  Creative communities should be encouraging folks to talk about the neat things they work on, not shaming them into hiding and hoping to be “discovered.” I love it when popular blogs make a space for self promotion (John Scalzi over at Whatever calls these Open Pimp Threads).  I believe people should be encouraged to take pride in good work, and to have good feelings about that pride, not shamed into thinking that those good feelings can only come from other people.

HERE ARE SOME HELPFUL LINKS!

The concept of “Stock and Flow” as articulated in this Snarkmarket post is great for how to plan your work flow to be steadily producing things of interest
Ze Frank’s “An Invocation for Beginners”, and “How to Public Speaking” are great pieces of advice for how to get over fears of working and speaking in public.
Ill Doctrine on how to overcome nasty non-productive thought cycles: Beating the Little Hater
Vi Hart’s Guide to Comments
Biella Coleman on the challenges on working in public: Anonymous and I
Nathan Matias with more on working in public: Tinker Marker Enquirer Expert
John Scalzi on how he sold his first (completely amazing) first novel: The Offer on Old Man’s War
Ethan Zuckerman has a great guide to conference blogging, which is a great way to promote other people’s work.
Diana Kimball is amazing at creating communities of interest around her work and the work of others (she was also super helpful with the planning of this workshop – thanks, Diana!)

Do you have any thoughts on self-promotion? Leave your tips, stories, and helpful links in the comments!

  • Cesar Hidalgo

    Good post Molly! Congrats! A pair of things I like to distinguish among are the self-promotion of the work and the person. If the self-promotion involves sharing something that a person has done, I think it is actually great, but when it is a deliberate attempt to gather attention without actually sharing anything, I find it shallow. There are circles outside of the Media Lab where the later form of self-promotion is utterly common, and probably this helps contribute to the shame of self-promotion. Ultimately, attention is scarce and we all need to be strategic about when to share things with other people. Because of that, I am all in favor of having people share work and ideas, specially their own, and even if these are not very good, but I am not in favor of having people promote themselves when they have nothing to share (purely political) Hope this distinction is useful. Great post and thanks for sharing!

  • jmreagle

    “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great” ― Golda Meir. That’s one of my favorite quotes from one of the few things I’ve read on this topic: Rosenburg’s chapter 13, “Expressing Appreciation in Nonviolent Communication”.