Call to mind, for a moment, that brief but unmistakable loathing you get when you are scrolling through your social media feed and you see someone being boastful — the picture of a perfectly composed meal or the announcement of a prestigious promotion. Even as the feeling passes and your attention travels on, the negative impression registers somewhere in your subconscious.
On the one hand, self-promotion seems like a necessary part of having a healthy career these days, particularly if you are in an industry that often hires based on relationships rather than resumes. I haven’t gotten a gig — writing or consulting — in the past decade that wasn’t the result of some sort of personal introduction.
Does that mean I am a great writer or a killer self-promoter? I’d like to think the former. After all, despite the ubiquity of messages about how important it is to “build a platform” via your own website, your own social media presence, or at the very least, your own LinkedIn profile, we also still think anyone who becomes obsessive about these things is at least a little narcissistic, don’t we? It’s professionally astute to self-promote in most industries, and yet it’s also seen as gauche.
It’s a total catch-22: if you don’t self-promote, you won’t be known to those who hold the keys to whatever kingdom you’re interested in unlocking. If you do self-promote, you might catch the gatekeepers’ attention, but pray they don’t read your self-promotion as needy or navel-gazing. Pray you don’t violate some unwritten code of class conduct or seem too eager. You have to appear to have a lot to offer without appearing to need anyone to take it. What a strange psychic and social predicament we’ve put ourselves in.
Researchers even have a name for it: “the self-promotion dilemma.” It’s official: social scientists have found that people who are modest about their qualities are better liked, and yet, there are many situations in which we must make “claims of competence on our behalf” in order to get hired.
As someone who has accumulated a few proverbial keys to the kingdom myself, I’ve been studying my own reactions to other people’s attempts at self-promotion. Case in point: I’ve worked as a consultant for TED for many years now — researching TED Prize candidates, curating, coaching, and hosting TED sessions on occasion. So, as you might imagine, I get lots of people asking me how they might go about getting a TED talk.
I can smell it a mile away by now. I’m having a conversation with someone, and things start to turn in a particular direction, or I start to read through a general, friendly introductory paragraph on an email and then the prose narrows and aims. They’ve got their bow drawn and the arrow is heading straight for the red circle. They think I might be the force that can get it there.
The questions I should really be asking myself when I field these inquiries are these: is there a timely, fresh idea here? Can this person deliver it in a compelling way? That’s about it.
Instead, I have a ticker tape of semi-conscious judgment playing in my head: Is this person using me? Is she cheesy? Does she get the TED brand? Do I know anyone who knows them? Would my TED colleagues think this recommendation was helpful or would it be annoying? Do they really have an idea or are they just trying to further their own careers?
It’s not that the ticker tape questions aren’t valid to varying degrees, but many of them are loaded. What does cheesy even mean? Why should this person know what the TED brand is all about? Can’t they be furthering their own careers and a really useful idea?
Here’s the tough truth: self-promotion works best when it’s done by people who already have a lot of power and influence. Not only do they know the unwritten rules of the game (how to sound genuine, not pitchy, how to perform humility, i.e. the “humble brag” etc.), but they simply don’t need it as much.
I’m reminded of something my dad used to always do when I was flustered over some social dynamic. He would take a napkin and put two arrows on it, one pointing down and one pointing up. He would then write the words NEED and POWER on each arrow. “They have an inverse relationship,” he’d say. “Those who need the most, have the least power. Those who need the least, have the most power.”
In some ways, it was a cruel lesson. I have built a career on the belief that needing others — interdependence — should be seen as a virtue, not a weakness. And yet, I know there is something very real in what he taught me all those years ago. When I pretended I didn’t care if some guy liked me, he inevitably got more interested. When you act like you’re too busy for yet another invitation, people are all the more eager to get you to show up to their event. If you don’t need a job, you are a more attractive candidate. It’s basic, screwed up human psychology.
It’s enough to make you want to return to the most foundational question: self-promotion for what end? One of my favorite organizations, The Op-Ed Project, teaches participants in its foundational workshop to reject the notion that self-abnegation is entirely virtuous. After all, if you were sitting on the potential cure for cancer, and you didn’t speak up for fear you might be wrong and look stupid or cause unnecessary suffering, you’d stall progress on one of the world’s most pernicious diseases. Self-abnegation taken too far, in other words, is selfish. Being able to signal to the world just what you know that might be of public value is a critical part of being an engaged citizen. In direct contrast to my dad’s Machiavellian arrows, we all need one another. There is power in admitting that.
So perhaps the rub is really in accurately assessing what you know that might be of use to others and then promoting that, rather than the macrobiotic lunch you had at the spa or the half-baked opinion you decide to throw out on Facebook. Striking an authentic tone of sharing, rather than bragging, obviously makes a huge difference. Working well and being likable in a simple, straight-forward way, rather than a highly strategic one seems sound. Karen Erlichman, a psychotherapist and facilitator, writes:
“Self-promotion is not like trying to sell a used car. Rather, self-promotion is telling the story of what you are most passionate about. In a culture of narcissism and scarcity, self-promotion becomes corrupted.”
So yes, it would do us all good to check the intention and tone of our own signals to the universe — am I sharing or bragging? Is it coming from a place of truly wanting to be useful to others, or am I hoping to prove myself worthy through clicks (a fool’s errand, existentially-speaking)?
But those of us with some power ought to check ourselves, too. How do we interpret self-promotion when it comes from men versus women, white people versus people of color, friends versus strangers, young versus old? Might social faux pas during self-promotion actually signal someone you should pay attention to, rather than someone you should pass over? In a “culture of narcissism and scarcity,” as Erlichman puts it, how can we be a force for altruism and abundance?