Grandiose Self Promotion?
December 7, 2008 7:47 AM   Subscribe

Grandiose Self Promotion. Is that the way to get ahead in the long term?

I am a young PhD student in a large field (for example: "health care policy"). I consider myself pretty intelligent and disciplined. I do good work and people are slowly but surely taking notice. I try to let my work speak for itself (and me).

Two years ago I stumbled upon this 21-year-old guy (Lets call him Mark) at a mid level US university. Over the past two years he has become a relentless snake at self-promoting himself. Some examples:

1) He takes basic theories created by other researchers and twists it into his own work by adding a bunch of neologisms he creates. For example, "smoking causes cancer" becomes "Horizonless Biological System Shifting".

2) He blogs and twitters at least 20 times a day, making intelligent sounding but completely glib statements. For example: "Health hacking creating new paradigms for social media bioshocks". When pushed, he does not seem to have more than a basic grasp of the field (which he has been a part of for less than 2 years).

3) He gets into controversies by arguing for the exact opposite of the scientific consensus. The first time he did this I thought maybe he really felt that way or was providing a devil's advocate service to the field. But after the tenth time I realize he is just being controversial for the press.

4) To use an analogy: If he was a company, he would be spending 90% of his funds on advertising himself and 10% on actually producing a good product.

But despite this, his career has been on the fast track. While I have spent the last few years in a graduate program, he has gone from an undergrad to an analyst at a top think tank in the field.

Is Mark's strategy to road to long term success? Should I be more like Mark?

Note: I am not competing with Mark for jobs. I am not angry or jealous. I am just sincerely interested if every industry has people like Mark and if their grandiose personal branding (what I consider snake-like level of self promotion) is the path to success?
posted by Spurious to Work & Money (29 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
You should take him to lunch and find out for yourself.
posted by phaedon at 7:56 AM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

You shouldn't be the opposite of Mark, if that's what you're asking... You should be genuine and intelligent, but self promotion and networking are important for career development. Sometimes you'll have to speak for your work instead of the other way around -- even bestselling authors do readings and book tours.
posted by kaudio at 8:09 AM on December 7, 2008

Maybe you're misrepresenting and/or misunderstanding Mark. If he really had a very shallow understanding of the field, it seems unlikely he'd be doing so well.

And yes, everyone should be a little more like Mark- self-promotion is always a good thing, provided you do it well.
posted by xmutex at 8:14 AM on December 7, 2008

I think there's a difference between acting like he does, and promoting yourself. In short, you don't have to say absurd or needlessly controversial things to promote yourself.
posted by Nattie at 8:25 AM on December 7, 2008

Yes, there are people like that in every field. Sometimes it leads to success; sometimes it doesn't. But it's a much better idea to be solid, capable, and engage in non-grandiose self-promotion and networking. There are a number of people I can think of who aren't necessarily the best in their (eg, my) field, but because they have (well-written) frequent blog posts/tweets/etc on various topics, they end up being quite successful because being high-profile gives them networking success and opens them up to new opportunities.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:26 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is Mark's strategy to road to long term success? Should I be more like Mark?

In college and grad school, there are lots of bullshitters who spout their bullshit with tremendous confidence and bluster. If you've never been "in the real world" (i.e., worked for an extended period of time, at least a few years) in a real professional job, you don't really have the perspective or experience to know whether that bullshit-with-bluster is the way to success.

It isn't.

When I was in college, I was tremendously impressed with a handful of people who seemed to have a lot of zest for life and confidence in what they did ... and only in retrospect, I can see that it was all bullshit.

There were people I knew whom I was convinced would be great artists --- by "great" I mean, world-class, famous --- whose whole schtick, in retrospect, was obviously bullshit, and they have gone nowhere.

By contrast, I knew several earnest, plodding, decent but never brilliant people who have become extremely successful. I'm thinking of one guy I went to college with (we were both writing senior theses the same semester) who was a real goofy goody-two-shoes without a spark of intellectual inspiration that I could see; I read his senior thesis and it absolutely sucked; and he is now a widely published tenured professor at a top university.
posted by jayder at 8:27 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Relentless self promotion is not the path to success. It's a path to a certain kind of success, for a certain type of personality.

Yes, they're in every field. Yes, the real experts in those fields tend not to respect them very much. But yes, it is certainly possible to build a career out of two parts glib plus one part obfuscation.

Would you enjoy having that kind of career? No? Then don't be like Mark.
posted by ook at 8:36 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

At some point - probably tenure review - the stuff on your resume that other people will judge you by will have to include lead authorship on substantial research work/publications. You can't fake that, no matter what your self-promotion route (showboating or wallflower). 'Mark' may be glib, but whether or not he (or you) succeeds will come down to whether or not your peers (and not just those on 'think tanks') judge your work to be solid.

You want to get hired after your Ph.D.? Get your research into some good conferences *now.* That speaks volumes on a resume, no matter what your self-promotion style is.
posted by carter at 8:42 AM on December 7, 2008

Yes, it can be a path to success in fields lacking hard criteria for quality, if he is lucky, has a lot of energy and charisma plus a good memory and a high level of emotional intelligence, and he is highly selective about who he turns into an enemy with his schtick. Re your company example, there are entire industries which just create perceived value via promotion and image-crafting while keeping production costs to almost nothing.

Being great at your job, working hard, and just doing a healthy amount of self-promotion on the basis of what you've actually done is a more predictable path to success, and it doesn't require you to be on all the time if that isn't your thing. Moreover, if you aren't shameless, emulating the shameless is liable to backfire on you because at the exact moment when they'd be in the zone, you will be experiencing doubt and shame at the unbelievable things which are coming out of your own mouth and you'll be a lot more likely to choke.

Tune him out; it's just noise. Be protective of your best ideas around the dude and don't give him any extra legitimacy by engaging his 'ideas' the way you'd do with a serious thinker, or even if his career stalls, you'll be on the record later on in your career making very serious arguments against things which are silly, which will make you look silly.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 8:43 AM on December 7, 2008

he has gone from an undergrad to an analyst at a top think tank in the field.

This may sound snarky, but really, aren't think tanks by definition lairs for bullshitters? Do they really produce anything?

It is a way to get ahead, but fortunately not the only way. If your own work is good, and you keep at it, it will eventually make its mark. Whether in time to help your career is in the hands of the gods, but self respect counts for a good deal. Mind your business, as Franklin said, and don't worry about others.

As to Lets call him Mark, trust me, you're not the only one who has doubts. As the years pass, and if his career continues upward, you will find more and more people exchanging more and more astonishing anecdotes about what a tool he is. And when one day years from now he gets appointed to a future washington administration, you will laugh and laugh....
posted by IndigoJones at 8:48 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you define "success" as "societal acceptance" then yes, you should be focusing your energies on how to win attention and notice from others. There are certain personality types that are naturally adept at this; they are not "smarter" or "better" in anyway (as if those terms necessarily had meaning), they are simply skilled at fast-talking and talking to everybody. They simply have a remarkable socially-aggressive instinct that propels them to the top. Society, after all, exposes itself to considerable risk everytime it gives a particular position or function to an individual. Inasmuch as it is entirely unclear that there is any "objective" way of ranking human beings in competition for a given position (in the way say we can objectively rank height or weight) effusive self-confidence will win everytime. Society will be more comfortable betting on he who has no self-doubt. It is simply a personality phenotype that has evolved with the evolution of collectvist or statist survival. We are all dependent on our institutional social structure for our very survival. In such an ecology, measurable mastery of the environment is simply a function of the amount of people that one can convince to bet on him. Contrast this with pre-institutional ecologies in which mastery of the environment involved more directly survival related problems such as hunting, navigation, tool-making, etc. In that environment a certain phenotype thrived, in an institutional environment a different sort of phenotype thrives. Sure it sucks but just play the hand you're dealt. It's really all you can do. Also drugs.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 8:49 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

You should make yourself a Douche Hat. See here and here.

A Douche Hat is something we invented when we needed to write down things like "Horizonless Biological System Shifting" and use words like paradigm and innovate and blah blah for work. I asked my friend how the heck she comes up with that stuff, and she says "easy, I just put on the Douche Hate." And immediately we had to go and make one.

If you want to be more like Mark, I suggest making yourself one.

Sorry, I got no useful input, but this was just the perfect post for this.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 8:51 AM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Mark will be a CEO. A rich and reward CEO.

I recall a study; across all the CEOs studied, they were found to be really good at talking.

All the CEOs I've met were great at talking.

Same thing works picking up women or leading men or selling patent medicine: just keep talking, talking, talking, someone will end up buying.

I hate it, because I hate talking, but there it is.
posted by orthogonality at 8:51 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

This may sound snarky, but really, aren't think tanks by definition lairs for bullshitters? Do they really produce anything?

This is an excellent point. Think tanks (and policy NGOs in general) are at least as much PR machines as they are idea machines. A glib blogger who is adept at getting press attention is a perfect candidate for a lot of think tanks/policy NGOs/op-ed pages, but probably not for academia. (Think Thomas Friedman...) As I understand it, though, academia disdains this kind of popular press in favor of more serious, peer reviewed forms of publication.
posted by footnote at 9:08 AM on December 7, 2008

Me thinks most of us can relate examples of people we've encountered who partook of GSP (and/or played politics well, didn't exactly leap to correct people when given credit for work they didn't do, etc.) and moved forward nicely. It definitely can work. My father relates seeing it in academia, my sister relates seeing it in science and I've seen it in various capacities.

While in a job where its nature made it abundantly clear who was doing well in terms of quality and quantity of output (or so I thought), I related to a boss that it seemed other people were getting more fruits of less labor. He said flat-out that some politics-playing is a reality. I said I'd like to think my work spoke for itself. He said, "To be honest, that's naive."

This is a shades-of-gray thing and when GSP starts to get near or beyond crossing lines, some people simply aren't real comfortable in or near that realm. As such, for good or ill, they aren't good at it, don't do much of it.

Dunno, maybe people who aren't oriented in that direction can more decide, "I'm a gonna be GSP wo/man," and pull it off?
posted by ambient2 at 9:08 AM on December 7, 2008

The mere fact that you're asking this question leads me to believe you aren't one to do this naturally. Think about it this way, N years down the line do you want to be the head of a thinktank/company/institution knowing in your heart you bullshitted your way there and are adding no value __OR__ do you want to be at aplace where you know whatever you've done (large or little) you are comfortable with, know well and are damn proud of?

Your answer will tell you whether grandiose self-promotion is the way forward.

Also, I've found, through observing my peers, excellence does not require much self-promotion at all. The people who have a use for you, will find you, and will respect you a lot.
posted by gadha at 9:20 AM on December 7, 2008

Relentless overpreparation is the key to success.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:36 AM on December 7, 2008

I cannot speak to the academic side of things but the answers so far seem to come from an alternate reality, so I'll throw in my two cents.

In private industry the success that gratuitous self promotion plays is inversely proportional to company size. Large companies are full of people like this, and for reasons that should be obvious, it is a very successful approach. Simply put, no one takes the time to compliment/promote (in the outward-facing "look how awesome this guy is" sense) a quiet, productive thinker. Why stick your neck out? The guy is quiet, so he wont notice either way, and why would the manager or peers expend any energy on them?

People who do their own promotion end up _getting_ promotions. They are the people who aren't particularly good, but since their name is really well known, they become the go to guy for everything. Losing them would be a terrible tragedy, much worse than losing some unknown cog who you've never interacted with.

A friend who started at Google a year or so ago was told by his manager that he's not having lunch with the right people and so he's not likely to get promoted. As jaded as I am this floored me, since I had assumed that they would be the closest thing to a meritocracy in this industry and are apparently anything but.
posted by rr at 10:21 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I am just sincerely interested if every industry has people like Mark and if their grandiose personal branding (what I consider snake-like level of self promotion) is the path to success?

Yes, every industry has them. But they can't succeed in every industry. There are some fields, like science and law practice, where you simply cannot fake excellence.

In law, you become successful by winning cases, and you win cases by the painstaking work of learning the law, marshalling your proof, anticipating the evidence the other side will seek to introduce and try to keep it out, and anticipating the objections the other side will have to your evidence and try to overcome those objections. Then, once you've brought it all together, you try to tell the story persuasively at trial. It's impossible to fake the hard work of preparing for trial, and it is impossible to fake a winning trial record.

Similarly in science --- due to peer review, you can't get away with faking your results for very long.

In areas like think tanks, punditry, politics, etc., it is easier to fake your success, because most of the job is actually bullshitting. If you're at an ideological think tank, your job is basically a rhetorical one, making arguments that accentuate proof that supports your view while downplaying proof that doesn't support your view. In journalism, bullshitters like Tucker Carlson actually make very good money just by uttering glib pronouncements. In the business world, you've got bullshitters like Seth Godin who aren't actually held responsible for any results; they just say stuff people like to hear, and get paid for it. A Seth Godin or a Tucker Carlson will never have a big failure like a lost trial or a failed scientific experiment. They are talkers, and talk is cheap, and there are no consequences because there's no such thing as failing when all you do is talk (unless you're Bill Kristol).
posted by jayder at 10:24 AM on December 7, 2008

Yes, there are people like this in every field.

In my field, there is one such relentless self-promoter who also knows what he's talking about and has a deep understanding of the field. He's still managed to piss off so many people that he can't get a job.

What you should do? Yes, self-promote. But promote when you're right, when you know what you're talking about, and consider the small ways of promotion (talking to other people at conferences, responding to others' papers on subjects you know about, etc). Make sure people know about your results and know who you are, but do this without being an ass.
posted by nat at 10:29 AM on December 7, 2008

In my field (engineering) one sees people like this quite frequently. For a certain amount of time they are -pulled up- by their management. When it comes time to deliver something, they have to either do it themselves or gather others to help - which is tough because others are well aware of the situation.

In that case, when the pull exerted by upper management ceases, there is a long way to fall. I have seen this happen many, many times.

Long-term success in my field comes from building a base of support. It is not that you climb -over- the people supporting you - they see you as a way to move their own careers forward, so they get behind you and help push. To get this working you have to clear a path for yourself, which involves selling your ideas to upper management, and showing the path to those who are inclined to help you. Therefore you have to sell, and encourage, and hold hands. It's the kind of selling you do that matters in such a situation.

In my field the half-life of one of these bullshitters is about five years. You find them, after a while, selling something like real estate or "representing" a sloppy collection of suppliers and trying to take advantage of previous contacts. In some fields the half-life might be much longer.
posted by jet_silver at 10:33 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

A friend who started at Google a year or so ago was told by his manager that he's not having lunch with the right people and so he's not likely to get promoted.

Yes, bullshit seems to be very effective in the tech field, too. When I worked in the tech field around 2000, it was dominated by people who treated bullshitty Tom Peters books as scripture. (Tom Peters really seems to be the patron saint of grandiose self-promoters, the relentless spokesman for "branding" yourself and trumpeting yourself to your colleagues. He's been saying the same vacuous shit for the last twenty years. The kind of self-discipline it must take to preach this stuff so persistently is mind-blowing.)
posted by jayder at 10:33 AM on December 7, 2008

A subject close to my heart. I'm in a small academic field and within that field I know people who are relentless self-promoters. People who seem to focus the best part of their energy on self-promotion rather than work. These people seem to get some success very quickly but invariably they sink like a stone in one of two ways: either by making everyone hate them or when people realize that there's no real substance to them. I still have to work at being better at self-promotion but I feel that you have to strike a balance between promotion and working hard at what you do. Seeing promotion as the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself seems right.
posted by ob at 10:47 AM on December 7, 2008

Since you started the post with a point about "thinking about him as a company," why don't you continue the metaphor in your head.

He is a company that is shouting at anyone who will listen about self-proclaimed new ways to do and think that aren't really different than whatever anyone else is saying, and if people take the time to look further and pay more attention, they'll realize that the underlying product is not really all that relovutionary, has just as many problems as anything else and is in fact more driven by the shouting and the people who buy into the shouting than the quality.

In short, he's Apple.

People who do a good job building their personal brand (yes its a marketing thing, but its applicable everywhere) do so by being honest, transparent (i.e. little artifice) and by bringing value to their interactions with other people.
posted by softlord at 10:47 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

In short, he's Apple.

i.e., successful.
posted by mpls2 at 11:21 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

It sounds like he's perceived by you similarly to how Sarah Palin is perceived by many people. She's had some success, but I guess the core issue may come down to the people who will be evaluating your colleague Mark, and whether they use the same criteria as those (voters, supporters) who have supported Ms. Palin.

That is, how do the people who can affect your career think? What's important to them? And how can you find out? Is general popular opinion important for your own career?
posted by amtho at 11:22 AM on December 7, 2008

There is nothing wrong with self-promotion

There are many kinds of endeavors where people who aren't self-promoters can't advance.

There are plenty of lines of business where 90% promotion, 10% product is a perfectly valid way to play, among others. There are a few kinds of things -- fashion, anything aimed at teenagers -- where that's a necessary ratio. Soft-science or -economics think-tanking is not a bad place to start looking for an intellectual field where that kind of ratio could easily work.
posted by MattD at 3:10 PM on December 7, 2008

He takes basic theories created by other researchers and twists it into his own work by adding a bunch of neologisms he creates. For example, "smoking causes cancer" becomes "Horizonless Biological System Shifting".

Malcolm Gladwell is a millionaire off the back of this sort of technique (with credit given, of course).
posted by wackybrit at 3:13 PM on December 7, 2008

Watch Terry Gilliam's film Brazil (get the director's cut, not the bastardized original USA release). It will put Mark in perspective.
posted by flabdablet at 4:37 PM on December 7, 2008

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