Bullish: Marketing Yourself Without Being An A**hole

Jennifer Dziura writes Bullish, a career column, for The Grindstone on Fridays and Bullish Life, a life coaching column, for our sister site TheGloss on Tuesdays.

Dear Jen,

You mentioned in an article recently that becoming a person who achieves special snowflake things involves networking, marketing, and project management. You also mentioned that those things are learnable, so I would like to ask how one goes about learning to be excellent at networking and marketing. (I can already manage a project just fine.)

I am a person with a lot of advantages in life. I took every AP class, got As in them without any undue stress, and still had time to be a varsity athlete, star in plays, be president of three clubs, and watch an irrational amount of television while hanging out with my friends. College was much the same; I went to an Ivy and graduated with honors and a job in my artistic field. But I appear to be terrible at self-promotion, because advertising that sort of thing just seems tacky. It’s like boasting about SAT scores.

In general, I just hang out in my area and do my thing very well and let other people figure out how good I am at things on their own. The people who’ve hired me have a tendency to act like they’ve won the lottery because I exhibit basic competence. I’ve never been fired or left a job without having another lined up, but I have the feeling I could be making a lot more money and have a lot more respect or significance in my field if I were better at effectively communicating my awesomeness to people instead of sitting quietly in the corner waiting to be discovered.

I’d like to be able to market myself and get more attention for my career, but in a way that wouldn’t make me roll my eyes and pantomime gagging if I were someone on the outside watching me. Is there a way to learn to market oneself without being an asshole?


The Girl Wesley Crusher

Dear The Girl Wesley Crusher, named after the young Star Trek ensign who magically knew how to save the day, all the damn time. I’m sure your SAT scores are very nice, and I’m also sure this is a question that a lot of Bullish readers can relate to.

Why Do Some People Market Themselves Like Douchebags?

I think about this a lot. I don’t make a lot of money writing Bullish. I do know how I could make more money doing this, but I make good money in my other professions, and as I always say — Don’t take business advice from people whose only business is giving business advice. That is what we call a pyramid scheme. (I do plan to publish a book. Other plans are in the works.)

Here are some things other coach-type people have been doing: Stretching every one-sentence piece of advice into a five-minute video; posing on a hardwood floor, wearing a bandage dress; trademarking phrases like “Trust Yourself,” as in, “This webinar will teach you how to Trust Yourself!”

These make me want to “pantomime gagging,” as you say. But they do work on some kinds of audiences. Some people want exactly one piece of advice, and they want five minutes of video so they can get to know the person giving the advice and decide whether to trust that person. Of course, I’m speculating. I can’t imagine the kind of person who enjoys a level of information density that low: ONE USEFUL FACT PER 800 SPOKEN WORDS.

So, those people are not my audience. That’s totally okay. I have often remarked that many business and lifestyle gurus are just saying the same thing for different aesthetics. What the ladies call “work-life balance” is often called “lifestyle hacking” by dudeblogs. It seems everyone wants to work less for more money, while enjoying life more. Who knew?!

Just as some people want their career advice from a lifestyle hacker and some want it full of unicorns and financial details, some people enjoy hiring and working with self-promotional extroverts, and some people enjoy the quiet and stable competence that you provide. (See Bullish: The Nerdy, Reflective Person’s Guide to Networking.)

I once read an anecdote about some invited to a very wealthy person’s house who made the mistake of complimenting the food. How is that a faux pas? It turns out that, among the very affluent, the food is just assumed to be good, so to mention it is rather gauche. To get seriously fucking snotty: understated competence is really rather Ivy League. (See Bullish: Social Class in the Office).

Who do you want to hire you (or give you a raise)? There’s probably some large group of potential employers or clients, among whom are numerous people who share your communication style and distaste for overblown hype. Laser-target those people.

That very likely means meeting them and cultivating an intellectual working relationship with them. Distinguish yourself from other people who are just in your industry to promote themselves and make money; you are genuinely intellectually interested in what it is you do, and attend conferences and read journal articles and explore the latest technologies because you can’t not do those things; it is in your nature. In practice, this often means emailing links to articles along with an insightful comment or question, or running into people at industry events, or volunteering to speak or lead something, or asking a thoughtful question about something that is not, at the moment, pressing. Sometimes you ask people out to lunch to ask them those questions.

On this score, see Bullish: Using Your College Skills to Succeed After College. Here are some more practical suggestions for marketing yourself without being an asshole.

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