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How to Take the “Self” Out of Self-Promotion, Yet Still Grow Your Brand

Get started and see what you gain from selfless promotion


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Suzie Glassman

3 years ago | 5 min read

Selflessness equals success

Our world is noisy. It’s chaotic and intense. Ninety-five million pictures and videos are posted to Instagram every day. Five billion comments are left on Facebook pages every month.

Want to be heard? We practically have to shout relentless, shameless self-promotional messages over and over again to attract customers. One marketing website advises posting at least once per day, every day.

We carefully curate our images to gain the most attention possible. Marketing gurus say we need to relentlessly craft a personal brand to succeed. Who are we if not our public image?

What would it mean to stop self-promoting in today’s transparent world?

Could we benefit from anonymity at times? Is it time we reevaluated the benefits of a less conspicuous life — one where we don’t fight for insta-fame?

The Invisibles

In his book “The Invisibles,” David Zweig offers this test.

Pop quiz: does this sound like someone at the top of her field?
Doesn’t seek attention
Prefers collaboration to competition
Is quick to give credit to others on her team
More interested in the end result and in the challenge of the work than in promoting herself

I’m willing to bet most people say no. When I first read it, I saw this person as someone in the background. She may have a nice career, but she’s not at the top of her field.

According to Zweig, I’m wrong. He found all of the traits above correlate closely with success.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you never make your work known. There are times when it’s valuable to speak up. Being an Invisible doesn’t mean you’re a wallflower. He notes,

“…the Invisibles I’ve profiled reached their elevated positions not by focusing on self-promotion but by doing excellent work and seeing themselves and their work as part of a larger endeavor.”

They are not competing for social media likes or touting every accomplishment to a newsletter of fans. They use “we” far more than “I.”

They didn’t succeed in spite of their propensity to avoid the spotlight. They succeeded because of it.

Motivation and Altruism

Studies looking at whether intrinsic (personal desire to do well) or extrinsic (reward-driven) motivation spurs creativity and faster decision making repeatedly show those who are motivated by external factors don’t perform as well.

Extrinsic motivation blocks creativity and narrows focus. Perhaps if you’re only thinking about what will generate more “fans,” you miss out on the bigger picture. Your brain seeks to stay within a set of limitations to avoid the dreaded “unsubscribe” button.

However, when the work you’re doing drives you because you get immense personal satisfaction and serves a greater purpose, you’re free to stop caring and start creating something truly original.

In his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King says,

“Do you do it for the money, honey? The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it… I have written because it fulfilled me.
Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side–I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”

The Invisibles also showed higher degrees of altruism — the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

Researchers using data from 49 different countries discovered a direct link between helping someone at work and a person’s happiness levels. This link also goes on to prove altruistic people have more job satisfaction and often rise to leadership positions faster.

This fact doesn’t mean you’re always helping others with no direct benefit to yourself. Altruism creates stronger bonds among the team, allowing everyone to up their game.

When you’re putting out great work, and you’re helping others do the same, you’ll get noticed without having to beg for attention.

Examples of Invisibles

Zweig mentions the famous perfumer, David Apel, as an excellent example of an Invisible. He’s responsible for several best-selling smells, yet he prefers not to receive public attention.

He also offers Dennis Poon, the lead structural engineer for the Shanghai Tower, as another example of an Invisible. Zweig writes,

“When the tower is complete, he won’t get nearly as much attention as the architect. Instead, he’ll feel rewarded when the skyscraper withstands strong winds and earthquakes because he isn’t in it for the fame.”

If you think hard, I’m sure you can name an example from your life. I worked for a CEO of a large pharmaceutical corporation who was constantly surprised anyone wanted to hear him speak.

Even when he made it to the top position, he continually credited others as being smarter, better at business, and more creative. His humble attitude endeared him to the entire corporation, as well as stockholders.

How to Take the Self Out of Self-Promotion

Let’s be honest. When we hear people bragging about themselves, we tune out. Our bullshit radars pick up on it faster than a used-car salesman sensing a new customer on the lot.

How do those of us in business for ourselves or large corporations let others know about our work without sounding self-centered?

An article in Forbes recommends talking purely about the work and the purpose it serves. Who did it help? What was the outcome? How did you help someone achieve an objective?

In a job interview or sales pitch, don’t spout off a list of accomplishments. Your resume serves that purpose. Instead, find out the goals of the organization or individual. How can your work contribute?

What is your value proposition? Paint a picture of what your work has to offer potential buyers: less ego, more humility.

Here’s an example of a great value proposition:


Note, it doesn’t say it’s the best email platform or brag about the number of users — it doesn’t have to.

How does it work for an individual? Check out top writer Tim O’Reilly.

See how he says, “helping the future unfold.” Brilliant. In less than 160 characters, I know what he’s all about.

Final Thoughts

Embracing invisibility as a superpower in this sense isn’t about entirely retreating from the digital world or never sharing your work. Humans have an innate desire to be seen, heard, and acknowledged.

Problems arise when cultures, genders, or classes are made to feel invisible to societal forces. Oppression and dehumanization happen when people in power refuse to respond to the voices of those weaker than themselves.

It’s about choosing to go unseen on purpose at times and focusing on merely creating good work vs. relentless calls to action. Work for the joy of what you’re creating, and your mind may open to possibilities it never knew existed.

Going unseen in today’s environment can signal self-assurance and decorum. Does it require a tremendous amount of trust? Absolutely.

Here’s where to begin:

  • Research the people you admire not for how many followers they have but for the work they do.
  • What do they say about themselves?
  • What do others say about them?
  • Craft your value proposition, focusing on how your work benefits others.
  • Get to work on what motivates you, and let the external reward be the side effect, not the driver.

Get started and see what you gain from selfless promotion. You may be surprised.

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