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Unravelling my “schtick”

The search for authenticity in the online world 

‘Schtick’, noun, the automatic persona you put on to the world to avoid having to engage with it in a real and vulnerable way. It’s part of you, but it’s not the whole you. — Rachel Hills

I often say to clients that while I think I’m a good writer/strategist/person, I am certainly not the best. I’ve got some game, but the differentiator that’s allowed me to be a successful entrepreneur has not been my expertise, but my confidence in selling it. Said confidence is sometimes shaky and uncertain, but mostly, I know that my work is worth what I charge. And, I have learned to talk about who I am and what I do in a way that supports me to sell those skills.

But, I’m tired of selling. The perpetual self-hype makes me seasick. It’s not that my pitch is inauthentic or false. It’s a curated, professionally presented version of what I do, and frankly, I’m rather bored with it.

There are no career gatekeepers anymore. You don’t need a publisher to write a book. You don’t need an editor to publish an article. You get to decide when your work is ready for consumption. It’s a process of self-selection, based more on self-esteem than the innate quality of your work. Success is based as much on appearance as substance. You can present your life in one way, and live it entirely differently. Whether it’s intentional or not, we all mould our online personas to create the desired impression. We edit out the unappetizing bits. We capture photo-ready moments and tint them with filters. We minimize the struggles we’ve had on the road to success, partly because it’s inelegant to moan and partly because we want to appear perpetually competent. Psychologists argue that this is a normal part of growing up, we try out alternate versions of ourselves to see what fits best.

Is it fueled by narcissism, insecurity or a desire to connect with others? I suspect it’s a combination of all three. It’s partly an affirmation — we want our lives to be full and interesting and adventurous, so we curate our online personas to reflect that. By doing so, we do ourselves and our communities a disservice. The various shades of grey make life authentic and interesting. By editing the drab nuance out of your life, you loose your relatability.

If you took a cursory look at my Instagram account, you’ll notice that:

  1. I spend a lot of time eating and drinking (usually with other people suggesting sociability)
  2. I snap what I’m watching/reading, in an attempt to seem both intellectual (“working on my thesis”) and accessible (“loved the Richard Curtis movie”).
  3. I enjoy sunsets (& therefore seem “soulful”)
  4. I was recently in Malawi (as evidenced by classic “I’m on a plane” shots)

Nowhere do you get a sense of my perpetual uncertainty that I don’t *really* know what I’m doing. You don’t see that most days I spend sitting at this desk, pushing words around on the screen, scheduling the occasional “leave the house” activity to break the monotony. I have the same thing for breakfast everyday and work in my sweats. And I love this normal life, even though it’s not particularly instagram-able.

Nkhata Bay, Malawi

I don’t wish to present my life aspirationally, though sometimes that happens. Recently, in Malawi I posted this image which aroused envy. It’s captures the stunningly beautiful view from my room. The reality of that experience, which I later documented, was pretty horrendous. (Sex tourists + stoners + compost toilets = ugh)

My life is much more complicated and ambiguous than my social media feeds suggest. International travel is stressful and exhausting. I’m sure the romantic idea of backpacking through the African subcontinent might appeal if you’re stuck in an air con office, but the idea of it rarely lives up to the lived experience. I’ve spent many days of my life on sweaty, slow buses traveling over dirt tracks with chickens and goats who don’t stop shitting just because we’re in motion.

In my experience, the real determiner of success is a willingness to do the emotionally uncomfortable thing; to take a risk for love, to ask for more money or to be do what needs to be done even if it’s unpopular. This messy, uncomfortable awkward icky emotion is the very thing that’s edited out of photographs.

This PR-version of myself is no longer serving me.

When I’m busy trying to get people to hire me, spinning the story of my awesome-ness, there’s less space to be bad at things. It’s a fine balance. You need to have the confidence to pitch and stretch in new directions, but equally, you need the humility to put in the hours mastering a craft. You need to accept the reality that you might not be as good as you think.

When you’re selling, you cling to every quasi-success and magnify it. The focus shifts from doing the work to talking about it. You want to get a book published, so you can say you have (hey, I’m guilty too). This self-created, self-perpetuating hype distracts from the core message and purpose of the work which, for me, is to say something of value that will make you, the reader, think.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition or lofty goals. But, the focus should remain on the impact of your work rather than the ego-boost that comes from penning that perfect Facebook status update and watching the ‘likes’ trickle in, like a performer on opening night who doesn’t know when to leave the stage. I get more pleasure from positive reactions to my writing than I’d like to admit. I have refreshed the page to watch the stats rise and sank luxuriously into the positive comments on social media. That buzz is both highly addictive and distracting. It’s natural to want to write something that’ll be well-received, but if you want to write things that provoke thought, you have to be OK with silence or negativity too. (If you believe the positive, you gotta believe the negative too.)

We all live in an era of reinvention, and amidst all the website facelifts and instagram-able moments, we loose the core of our work. The pleasure that comes from years of hard graft toward a goal, the passion it takes to fuel a 5am work session and the joy that comes from producing something that is good, rather than just looks good.

Extras for experts:
Danielle Meder: “The Self Project
Rachel Hills: on “Schtick” and “Pics or It Didn’t Happen
Gala Darling: “Why I turned off comments
Sarah Von Bargen: “Let’s not pretend it’s always easy