How to get yourself noticed if you hate self-promotion

Reading time: 6–8 minutes

I came across Austin Kleon’s work (’Steal Like an Artist’) for the first time while browsing the bookshelves of Borders in Burlingame, CA in August 2012 waiting for my friends to finish shopping. In about an hour, I ended up reading the whole thing while standing between the shelves without even buying the book (I bought the Kindle version later that year). All before my friends would return. This March I really enjoyed Austin’s talk at SXSW where he talked about his new book, ’Show Your Work’. Here’s the summary of the book I initially wrote for myself, but decided to publish it in case someone will find it useful (or time-saving) [0].

0. A New Way of Operating. How do you get your stuff or yourself noticed? What to do if you dislike self-promotion? There’s an easier way and that’s about showing your work. Instead of useless networking, hiding what you’re working on as a secret, you embed the act of sharing in your work. Behind the scenes, drafts of your future essays, prototypes of the apps you’re building.

1. You don’t have to be genius.

  • Find a scenius. Lone genius is a myth. If you look at the most creative individuals, they were part of the creative group of collaborators. Good work isn’t created in vacuum. To be a part of the scenius, you don’t have to be smart or talented, it’s about the ideas you share, the connections you make, the conversations you start.
  • Be an amateur. If you look at the original meaning of the word ‘amateur’, it’s someone who is doing something for the love of it, and not seeking fame or recognition. That’s a huge advantage amateurs have over professionals. They aren’t afraid of experimenting, making mistakes, trying something new. Pick something you want to learn and share your apprentice’s journey with others.
  • You can’t find your voice, if you don’t use it. If you want people to know what you do and what you care about, you have to share.
  • Read obituaries. Remembering that you’re going to die is a great way to realize that you have nothing to lose, you’re already naked. Obituaries are near-death experiences for cowards. Get inspired by people before you and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

2. Think process, not product.

  • Take people behind the scenes. This idea is insane for pre-digital age creatives, but human beings are interested in other human beings and what they do. Audiences want to be part of the creative process too, so let go of your egos and share your process.
  • Become a documentarian of what you do. Just like an astronaut Chris Hadfield posted pics he’d taken of Earth, recorded music, filmed YouTube videos of clipping his nails, brushing his teeth in the pace, start a work journal. Write down you thoughts. You’ll start to feel you’re making progress looking back at your early work.

3. Share something small every day.

  • Send out a daily dispatch. Forget about decades, years, months, they are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. After you’ve done your work, find one little piece of the process you can share. A daily dispatch is better than resume or portfolio, because it shows what you’re working on right now. Facebook: ‘How are you feeling? What’s on your mind?’. Twitter: ‘What’s happening?’ Dribbble’s tagline is better: ‘What are you working on?’ Don’t show your lunch or latte, just show your work.
  • The ’So What?’ Test. Ask yourself ’So what?’ before sharing anything. Don’t overthink it. The act of sharing is one of generosity — you’re putting something out there because it might be helpful or entertaining.
  • Turn your flow into stock. Flow is the feed, posts, tweets, a stream of daily/sub-daily updates that remind people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff, the content you produce that is interesting in 2 months (or 2 years) as it is today. Maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background. Your stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your flow.
  • Build a good (domain) name. Social networks are great, but they come and go. Nothing beats owning your own website — a world HQ where people can find you. Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine.

4. Open up your cabinet of curiosities.

  • Don’t be a hoarder. We get into creative work because we have good taste. But for a while there’s a gap — between your taste (what you perceive to be great) and the quality of work you produce. Initially your work has potential, but isn’t good. Before we take the leap and share our work with the world, we should share our tastes in the work of others. Your influences clue people in to who you are and what you do.
  • No guilty pleasures. When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel guilty about it. Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things, too. See:
  • Credit is always due. If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that creators of this work get proper credit. This way you leave bread-crumbs trail that follow back to your source of inspiration.

5. Tell good stories.

  • Work doesn’t speak for itself. You might think that pleasure from a painting comes from its color, its shape, its pattern. If that’s right, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s an original or a forgery. But our brains don’t work that way. We want to know the story behind the object, where it came from, how they were made, and who made them.
  • Structure is everything. Author John Gardner said the basic plot of nearly all stories is this: ‘A character wants something (you get a great idea), goes after it despite opposition (going through the hard work of executing the idea), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw (releasing the idea out into the world)’.
  • Talk about yourself at parties. Just because you’re trying to tell a good story about yourself doesn’t mean you’re inventing fiction. Stick to nonfiction. Tell the truth with dignity and self-respect. Keep your bio sweet and short: just two sentences. Unless you’re actually a ninja/guru/rock start, don’t ever use any of those terms in your bio. Ever.

6. Teach what you know.

  • Share your trade secrets. Out-teach your competition. What do you do? What are you ‘recipes’? What’s your ‘cookbook’? What can you tell the world about how you operate that’s informative, educational, and promotional? The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. When you share your knowledge with the world, you receive an education in return. It connects you with people you should have canvassed before.

7. Don’t turn into human spam.

  • Shut up and listen. If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first. Human spam are everywhere, they don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right here, right now. They don’t want to listen to your ideas, they want to tell you theirs. If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community.
  • You want hearts, not eyeballs. Stop worrying about how many followers you have. Stop reading articles on how to get more followers. If you want more followers, be someone worth following. Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person? If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested. Don’t waste your time making connections instead of trying to get good at what you do.
  • The Vampire Test. If after hanging out with the person, you feel worn out and depleted, that person is a vampire. If, after hanging out with someone you still feel full of energy, that person is not a vampire. Should you find yourself in the presence of a vampire, banish it from your life forever.
  • Identify your fellow knuckleballers. Knuckleball pitchers are the ugly ducklings of baseball. They form the brotherhood and share their secrets with each other. These are your real peers. Nurture relationships with them, collaborate with them.
  • Meet up in meatspace. Meet your online friends in real life by organizing meetups. The best thing about being online is an opportunity to meet up and exchange ideas offline.

8. Learn to take a punch.

  • Let ‘em take their best shot. When you put your work out into the real world, you have to be ready for criticism. Your work is something you do, not who you are. Keep moving. Every bit of criticism is an opportunity for new work.
  • Don’t feed the trolls. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do. A troll is someone who isn’t interested in improving your work, only provoking with hateful, aggressive and upsetting comments. You’ll gain nothing by engaging with these people. Block them.

9. Sell out.

  • Even the Renaissance had to be funded. We all have to get over our ’starving artist’ romanticism and the idea that touching money inherently corrupts creativity. Some of the most meaningful and cherished cultural artifacts were made for money (’Sistine Chapel’ by Michelangelo, ’The Godfather’ by Mario Puzo, etc.).
  • Pass around the hat. When the audience starts gathering around the work you produce and you’re confident that your product is truly worth something, ask for money in return and put a price that you think is fair. Think Kickstarter, Indiegogo.
  • Keep a mailing list. Sometimes, the most boring and utilitarian technologies are the ones which will stick the longest — email is one of them. Even if you don’t have anything to sell right now, you should always be collecting emails from people who came across your work (use MailChimp).
  • Make more work for yourself. If an opportunity comes along that will allow you to do more of the kind of work you want to do, say ‘Yes’. If an opportunity comes along that would mean more money, but less of the kind of work you want to do, say ’No’. Walt Disney: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies”.
  • Pay it forward. When you have success, it’s important to use whatever you acquired to help along the work of the people who’ve helped you get where you are. Be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to still find time to get your work done.

10. Stick around.

  • Don’t quit your show. Every career is full of ups and downs, and when you’re in the middle of living out your life, you don’t know whether you’re up or down and what’s about to happen next. The people who get what they’re after are often those who stick around the longest. You can’t plan on anything, just go about your work every day without despair.
  • Chain-smoke. A success or failure is not guarantee for success or failure in the future. The artists who achieved lifelong careers have been able to persevere, regardless of success or failure. The day Woody Allen finishes editing a film is the day he starts writing the script for the next one. Never lose momentum. When your project finishes, use the end of this project to light up the next one.
  • Go away so you can come back. Don’t burn out, the best time to find new inspiration is while taking a sabbatical. Take daily, weekly, monthly breaks where we walk away from our work completely. 3 ways to turn off our brain from our connected lives: commute, exercise, get outside in the fresh air.
  • Start over. Begin again. When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward. Have the courage to get rid of your old work and rebuild new things from scratch.

If you were limited to only one lesson, what is the single thing you took away from reading this?

[0] I was actually in the middle (25% in — to be precise) of writing the summary for Peter Thiel’s ‘From Zero To One’, but took a 2-day break and wrote this ☺

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