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Can you be successful without self-promotion?



Growing up in Asia and living in the UK and a number of British ex-colonies, one of the core tenets I learned for how to operate in society is to be the opposite of boastful.


As a child, when an Auntie bragged to my mum about how amazing her children were, or how her husband was God’s reincarnation, we’d go back home and agree that this behavior was offensive and abnormal.


“Above all, be humble,” says my mother to this day.


I’ve spent most of my life operating in this mindset: talk about yourself only when absolutely necessary. Be self-deprecating when you do. Better still, turn the conversation to the other. (It felt natural to become a journalist.)


So it was a huge culture shock for me to move to the United States ten years ago this month and find that what constitutes healthy self-confidence and self-promotion here would be downright boastful anywhere else I’ve lived.


This cultural expectation has a material impact on many immigrants, like myself. We either learn to assimilate and incorporate this behavior (call it confidence/self-promotion in the positive or boastful/always selling in the negative) or we lose out on promotions, advancement, and recognition for our efforts.


Add in other marginalized identities into the mix and we may as well pass out resumes to everyone we meet or risk being rendered invisible.



But this is not an “immigrant issue.” During a call with another author (an American woman of Indian immigrant heritage) she shared her list of upcoming podcast appearances and media reach-outs, and I thought, she sounds so excited. But I’d rather eat glass than do what she’s doing. Even with our shared identities, our comfort level with self-promotion differs.


It’s also not a self-confidence, self-doubt or (heaven forbid) imposter syndrome issue. I deeply believe that the work I put out is meaningful and valuable. When I’m asked to create anything for public consumption, I put 110% into it. I do not need validation. If I am invited to be heard I will gladly take the opportunity. But to ask to be invited to be heard? No thank you!


It leaves me with some questions:


How much of my discomfort with self-promotion is nature or nurture? I can trace the influence of nurture from my family and culture of origin, but it doesn’t apply across the board. There must be a component of nature. Perhaps some people (especially introverted or shy people or those who like to process internally, but even the ambiverts like me) are more at ease being reserved about their accomplishments. It’s simply what feels right and authentic to us.


What are the systemic implications? In the United States at least, people who are comfortable promoting themselves are rewarded. The Internet and books are abound with advice to improve your self-advocacy; make sure your boss knows how you’re earning that promotion; proactively communicate your success. And it’s worth noting that much of this advice is aimed at women (even synonyms for “humble” like modest or demure are more traditionally associated with and expected of women.) But it’s oversimplified to conclude, “self-promotion is good and humility is bad.” Self-promotion is rewarded not because it’s “better,” but because it’s expected.


(The same is true with negotiation. You've probably seen the recent recruiter post about a low offer to a female candidate — I responded here.)


Which brings up this point:


How can we be inclusive of those who aren’t inclined to self-promote? Can we create an inclusive workplace that equally rewards self-promoters and those who don’t? Imagine a culture in which the onus was on managers to ask their employees about their wins. That’s just a small example, but I hope it sparks your imagination to consider how we could practice this kind of inclusion.


My discomfort with self-promotion leaves me in a strange conundrum:

As a soon-to-be traditionally published author, self-promotion is pretty much the second reason any publisher takes a chance on you (after the fact that they think you have a good idea for a book.) Their belief in your marketability is literally why some first-time authors get six or even seven figure advances and others get almost nothing (that, and racism.)


I came into the book proposal stage essentially writing out exactly how (and how often) I would tell everyone I know to buy my book when it was published, two years later.

Well two years later is (almost) here. And my comfort with self-promotion has grown by…exactly zero. Every time I have to do it, I need to lie down afterwards.


If anything, the advice I’m getting now that my book release date is round the corner —send people you know multiple emails on how they can support your book, be on 300+ podcasts, hound journalists and influencers to cover your book, drop that you’re an upcoming author in every conversation — honestly makes my stomach churn. I’d rather have my work speak for itself.


So here I am, with my book coming out next month (!) Do I follow the author's self-promotion playbook? Do I market myself like it’s a full-time job? Do I say yes to every podcast, blog, Instagram Live etc that comes my way?


Or is there a way to balance my authentic self, my genuine aversion to self-promotion, with being a successful author?


I don’t have the answer — and that’s why I’m asking you! I would love to hear your perspective in the comments. Have you struggled with this? Have you seen examples of humility being rewarded? What are ways we can be as inclusive to and celebratory of non-self-promoters?



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