Excellence and Self-Promotion

I grew up in a time and a place where blatant self-promotion was deeply frowned upon.  My father made a number of observations on the subject, such as “Don’t go blowing your own horn; let your work speak for you” or “The big promoters all lived fast lives with big mansions and died broke and forgotten.”  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that promotion and self-promotion have always been with us, dating back at least as far as Ramses II, who, at the very least, gilded if not falsified, in stone, no less, his achievements in battle.  And to this day most people who know American history [a vanishing group, I fear] still think that Paul Revere was the one who warned the American colonists about the coming British attack on Concord – largely because of the poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which promoted Paul Revere, possibly because Longfellow couldn’t find enough words to rhyme with Samuel Prescott, the young doctor who actually did the warning after Revere was detained by the British.

Still… in previous times, i.e., before the internet age, blatant self-promotion was limited by economics, technology, and ethics, and there were more than a few derogatory terms for self-promotion.  And who remembers when the code of ethics of the American Bar Association banned advertising by attorneys?  Lawyers who tried to promote themselves publicly were termed ambulance chasers and worse… and disbarred from the profession. The same ethics applied to doctors and pharmaceutical companies.  Of course, there were never many restrictions on politicians, and now, unsurprisingly, there are less.

Unhappily, in field after field, excellence in accomplishment alone is seldom enough for success any more.  For more than modest success, excellence also requires massive promotion and/or self-promotion, even among authors. Some of us try relatively tasteful self-promotion, by attempting enlightening and hopefully entertaining websites, such as this.  Others go for a more sensational approach, and for some, no excess is too much.  From what I’ve observed lately, massive promotion and mere marginal competence in writing, along with cheap wares, results in sales that far outshine good entertainment or excellent writing that does not enjoy such promotion. One of the associated problems is that promotion or self-promotion takes time, effort, and money — and all detract from time, effort, and resources an an author can devote to the actual writing

Several years ago, Amazon embarked on a campaign to persuade people rating books to use their real names, rather than pseudonyms, because authors [yes, authors] were using aliases or the aliases of friends to blatantly praise their own work, and in some cases, to trash competing works. I have no doubts that the practice continues, if slightly less blatantly.

In today’s society especially, my father’s advice about not blowing your own horn leaves one at a huge disadvantage, because amid the storm of promotion and self-promotion  all too few people can either finds one’s unpromoted work or have the time or expertise to evaluate it… and if someone else blows a horn for you, it’s likely to be off-key and playing a different tune.


5 thoughts on “Excellence and Self-Promotion”

  1. Tim says:

    In my experience of the corporate world, people are trained and actively encouraged in self-promotion in order to get jobs. There are even CV companies out there to help this. Whether they can hold down the job they get is another point. Interviewing has had to develop new techniques to see through the mask.

    In another post to your thread on competitive models, I stated that. Performance management is now the norm in many companies – in England at any rate – and I believe these follow a US model.

    At appraisal time, HR require people to enter in their achievements into an online system and they are encouraged to self-promote. The problem with this is that everyone says they are wonderful, so managers have to ignore the hyperbole.

    In England we do not generally self-promote (this is actually true in my experience, whereas when I worked in the US it was the reverse as they have had to do this for longer) and so my teams have real difficuly following this model. A lot of time is spent encouraging people to be upbeat about their achievements.

    In an ideal world, we would be reward on what we actually do, and not what we say have done. I remember one meeting on remuneration, when eight managers had claimed they were responsible for a business success. I happen to know who the engineer was who made that success possible and he only worked for one manager; the other 7 had a peripheral involvement but were very quick to claim credit.

    Your mention of American history was interesting since when I was young, the teaching in England about the wars of 1775 were peripheral to the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough in Europe. The war of 1812 did get a mention however, with special attention to the demise of the White House. (I am reading the Spellsong series at present, and thought I would have some small response to the comments on England….)

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      @Tim: the one place where a major emphasis on writing your own promotion material would make sense would be an ad agency – the whole point there is how deep can you pile it without outright lying.

      But there are still people who are not comfortable with that – who do not work in advertising, and have little desire to sell anything other than the occasional idea as part of their job. It seems they’re at a disadvantage.

  2. Alan says:

    This is very true in most areas of the working professional in the States these days. Government, civil service and the military, holds it’s own unhealthy share of self-promotion. Every year employees are rated, there are forms to fill out and other documentation. But the bottom line is thus: The employees are rated, evaluated by groupings. Those groupings are attributed to their supervisors, who are then rated in their own groups, all the way up the food chain.

    The individual at the top does not want to sound poor to his boss, so he tweaks the write ups of those below him. Inflating their efforts and numbers. Making them sound more impressive while claiming much of the credit for their success.

    Having read a far larger number of these sorts of evaluations then I ever wished to, I recognize there is a kernel of truth to what is written. But most of the wording is fluff to make the person sound better, so their boss sounds better.

    The culture this breeds does result in a growing number of poorly trained, incapable individuals holding jobs they are not ready for in any aspect. They are not fired or replaced because they sound good on paper. And when you try to give an honest review of the individual, those above the rater will rewrite the evaluation to prevent throwing themselves in a bad light.

    More over, the people who are the true driving force in most organizations, who really accomplish things, tend to get run roughshod by others. For a variety of reasons. They are termed to have a bad attitude, because they don’t communicate well. Those above do not know who is truly accomplishing the work, because the worker doesn’t like to wave his hand in the air to take credit. He merely wishes to produce a quality product and move on with their work. They don’t follow all guidelines as set out by the organization, preferring to produce results instead of reams of paperwork. My personal favorite is that they are simply too honest in their appraisal of those above, below and along side of them.

    All of these difficulties, and more, keep the real excellence in people from shining.

  3. Joe says:

    Amusingly my father said the same thing… and so, I assumed, did everyone else’s. Unfortunately, I’ve since realized that it takes competence to ascertain quality, and since that competence takes work to develop most people lack it. They substitute listening to each other. As they have no basis for independent judgement, they are easily conned into believing others’ self-promotion. It’s unfortunate since this further robs them of opportunities to learn. So while our fathers’ advice was probably incorrect in terms of making more money, it probably was good in that it gave us more opportunity to learn.

  4. Ked says:

    Self promotion and advertizing only go so far. Word of mouth will always dominate ultimately. Only where the servicrs or product are nearly equal will self-promotion likely give a competitor an adge. I bet most readers of Modesitt or other popular authors did not pick his books at random in the bookstore. I bet most did not do so as a consequence of an ad either. Rather, most probably began reading Modesitt’s works upon the recommendation of a friend. I first started teading sci-fi after my parents recommendedoo ‘A Wrinkle In Time’. I continue to read sci-fi baded on friends’ or family’s tips!

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