The Age of Self Promotion

When a person’s image and/or reputation is inflated, sometimes people lament, “Big hat, no cattle.” A lot of people today, like the President of the United States, excel at promoting themselves more than anything else. Thanks to the public’s allegiance to valueless media, we’re making a mockery of merit.

A case study. My July morning routine entails working out, eating breakfast, making a green tea latte, and then settling in to the day’s Tour de France stage which I spend about thirty minutes fast forwarding through.

This year there are three cyclists from the U.S. in le Tour, meaning about 1.5% of the total peloton. One of the U.S. riders is barely surviving the mountain climbs, just making the maximum time cuts. But because we’re living in the Age of Self Promotion, that same rider is starring on the U.S. television coverage, dropping daily broh-heavy “behind the scenes” video segments that add nothing to the event. He seems likable enough because of a goofy personality. And maybe the fact that both of his parents were professional cyclists and he’s bounced back from a horrific accident a few years ago contribute to some of his faux-fame as well.

But even accounting for those extenuating circumstances, the fact that he’s in damn near last place would only matter if we were in an Age of Meritocracy, but we’re not. Increasingly, we’re surrounded by people with really, really big hats. Which makes it tough to see the front of the race.

Self Promotion‚ÄĒThe New Normal

My trial run as a university administrator is eleven months old. My experience has been mostly positive. On good days I even think about taking on more administrative responsibilities. Increasingly, it seems, demand for capable School of Ed leaders exceeds the supply. Meaning opportunities are aplenty.

But as I read vita after vita of my peers applying for higher administrative posts, with an eye to how I compare, I’m more and more¬†convinced that I am at a disadvantage¬†because of (at least) one glaring shortcoming. Relative to my peers, I’ve failed at self promotion. That’s not quite the right term because¬†failing implies having tried. Probably because of my dad’s Eastern Montana, Depression Era¬†humility that I¬†hope has shaped me, I haven’t even tried.

An administrator friend recently told me she was working on a reference for a faculty colleague who was applying for a teaching award. I would never¬†think to apply for an award, which may be one (among others of course) reason I’ve never received one.¬†One peer’s vita I read recently¬†included a list of 16 awards. Odds are that required some serious¬†hustle.

I can’t help but think that the most eager self promoters¬†have narcissist tendencies, but since it’s become the norm,¬†maybe I¬†should be more understanding.¬†Maybe self promotion is more savvy than it is morally questionable. Maybe I need to get with the program. What do you think?

Unless you convince me otherwise, my plan is to be true to my dad, my uncle, my mom, and myself, and sit this trend out, even if it limits my professional opportunities. Despite that, I acknowledge everyone needs to be affirmed, appreciated, recognized for their efforts on behalf of others. Whether in their personal or professional lives. Myself included.

And that’s¬†the thing. I’ve been blessed beyond measure to have been affirmed and appreciated by¬†a steady stream of students. Including, one glorious day many moons ago, when I did a guest teaching stint in my daughter’s third grade classroom. Showed slides of bicyclists in China. Led a discussion. Felt pretty good about how engaged everyone was. “How was it?” I asked Alison afterward. “Dad,” she beamed, “it was perfect!” Hell yeah.

The Good Wife has been a continual source of personal and professional encouragement. A very Good Wife, loving daughters, appreciative students, more than enough fuel for my fire.

It’s at this point in the story that¬†somewhere in Northwest Indiana, my head shaking older sissy thinks to herself,¬†“It’s not about YOUR fire!”

Dad lives in sis. Thanks for the telepathy. Case closed.


The Art of Self Promotion

Everyone that’s ever written a resume or had a job interview has engaged in self promotion.¬†I’m bad at it. Always have been, always will be. And I’m blaming my dad, Donald J. Byrnes, who ¬†opted for hard work and humility.

Despite my DNA, I know skillful self promotion when I see it. Saturday night I found myself on the campus of San Luis Obispo (SLO) University in Central California. In the university’s beautiful Performing Arts Center more specifically. As I flipped through the program for the evening’s concert, I realized Zuill Bailey, the guest cellist, knows self promotion.

“The funny thing is,” I whispered to my date, “when most people read these artists’ profiles they think they’re biographical, that someone writes them for them, but the artists write them themselves.” “Then,” I added, “get a load of the guest cellist’s opening paragraph. It’s an award winner.”

ZUILL BAILEY is widely considered one of the premiere cellists in the world. His rare combination of celebrated artistry, technical wizardry as well as his engaging personality has secured his place as one of the most sought after and active cellists today.

At first glance, that made me want to puke, but the more I thought about it, my stance softened. Here’s why. Let’s guesstimate that there’s 5,000 truly spectacular cellists in the world and approximately 500 opportunities to make a good living playing cello. Nine out of ten are underemployed not because they’re not as talented as the “sought after” tenth, because they’re not as skilled at self promotion. Artists that want to make a living practicing their art have to promote themselves.

Wild guess. I would not enjoy ZB off stage, but I don’t begrudge him swinging for the fences when it comes to his description of himself. The problem of course is when people exaggerate their accomplishments. When they’re better at self promotion than they are at their jobs.

In the mid 1990s I was working educational magic (Channeling ZB!) at Guilford College, a small liberal arts college in Greensboro, North Carolina, when the President decided to retire. He wrote a letter of explanation to the community, the bulk of which was a list of his accomplishments (my favorite, he bragged the endowment had doubled, but failed to note that the market had tripled during his tenure). My dad, the chief executive officer of a major company at the time, was always interested in my work, and so I shared the letter with him. Disgusted he simply said, “Incredibly self-serving.” I didn’t realize it until I re-read it through that lens. He was right, it was embarrassingly self-serving.

My dad’s “road less traveled” philosophy was work hard, care about those you work with, don’t track your accomplishments, and maybe someday, people will respect you and say nice things about you.¬†Too many of those nice things were said after he suddenly died from a heart attack on the way to work at age 69. Yesterday he would have been 87 years old.

Eighteen years later and I still miss him and his countercultural ways.


In Praise of Anonymous Giving

We’re living in the Age of Self Promotion. That’s why this recent headline, “Secret Admirers Give University $100m,” is so refreshing. Thank you to the anonymous “Kalamazoo Promise” donors.

The magnitude and¬†non-Ivy League nature¬†of their generosity are both inspiring, but their counter-cultural selflessness even more so. Appears as if the donors were honest about a few strings or conditions that accompanied their gift. “If you accept this gift, you can’t name the medical school after us, you can’t allow us to influence your construction and operation of the medical school, and you can never reveal our identities to anyone.”

The Intrapersonal Conundrum

Recently I advocated accepting and adapting to people’s irritating behaviors rather than trying to change them. But what about our own irritating behaviors? How do we know when to accept them versus when to commit to trying to change them?

Of course, not everyone is introspective; as a result, some people lack self understanding. Ask them which of their behaviors most irritate the people they’re in relationships with and they draw a complete blank. I’m probably too reflective for my own good, regularly engaging in self-assessment. One limitation I’m keenly aware of is an aversion to personal networking. Closely related to that, I suck at self-promotion.

Among other ripple effects, this blog has a small readership and my professional successes exist mostly within my classrooms. A colleague of mine is the opposite, a brilliant networker and self-promoter. A mediocre teacher, she’s developed a national reputation as an expert in a very specific sub-category of education. She travels all the time and speaks to large groups for lots of money.

Am I envious? Not on a personal level, but maybe professionally. I would enjoy more consulting opportunities than the one or two a year I average. But not enough to change. I understand that there’s a perfect correlation between my lack of networking initiative and the number of consulting gigs I get.

Even though social and professional networking skills are more important than ever, I’m perfectly content not being a networker or self promoter. In fact, I don’t want to get better at networking or self promotion. I’m an educator, so I’m not anti-social, I just have no patience for the phoniness on which so much of it seems to rest. “Here’s my card.” “Who cares.”

Another limitation I’m keenly aware of is a deeply rooted counter-cultural propensity for saving. My dad grew up during the Depression, and it left an indelible mark on him, and so I blame his hyper-frugal modeling. But unlike my aversion to personal networking, this is a limitation I want to change.

Here’s one of millions of examples of my often irrational economic behavior. One day in Chengdu, China I argued at length with a Carrefour manager about socks I purchased. Despite being on sale, the socks were rung up at the regular price. Our language differences, the store’s employee hierarchy, and my stubbornness made for a combustible, and in hindsight, hilarious combination.

In this area of my life, I want to act more rationally, so I’m working on loosening up.

What explains my markedly different way of thinking about these two personal limitations?

I’m not sure.