The Struggle between Self-Promotion and Humility

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to facilitate a Peer2Peer discussion at RSA. When I was accepted, they sent me this graphic to post on social media:

Yes, I used this to promote myself. Yes, that’s okay.

So I did. Posting stuff like that still feels awkward to me, even after I’ve become more accustomed to doing it. It just feels wrong — like I’m saying “look at me and how great I am!” In spite of that feeling, I suck it up and do it anyway. If I don’t promote what I’m doing, whether it’s on social media or at work, I can’t expect anyone else to do it for me. We are each our own greatest advocate.

I suspect many of you out there might feel the same way (I’m looking at you, women in tech), so I wanted to take some time to reflect on this struggle I’ve had and share how I cope with it. How can I promote myself and what I’m doing while also trying to maintain some semblance of humility?

First, let’s call it like it is: women are expected to be humble. In general (yes, these are generalities), women are taught that they shouldn’t “brag” about themselves. Based on women I’ve talked to, I firmly believe this harms us in our careers. For many years, I believed that if I put my head down and worked hard enough, everyone would notice this and opportunities would rain down upon me. I was fortunate to do fairly well in my career early on, but it’s been incredible to see what has happened once I really started promoting my work and what I bring to the table. (It’s been part of the transformation I talked about in my first blog post.)

You should still expect others to help you along the way, and I am where I am due to many awesome people advocating for me. You should regularly ask for advocacy from your leadership and those who have more “power” than you, particularly since research shows women often don’t do this. However, you can’t rely on your leadership to be your sole advocate. Leaders tend to be busy, and they may not have time to track everything you’re doing — so tell them!

It’s easy to say “go promote your work,” but it’s tougher to take this to heart and do it in practice. Here are a couple actions I take and would suggest to others:

  • Keep a personal list of my accomplishments throughout the year (great presentations, important meetings, “kudos” emails, etc.). At the end of the year, I share it with my boss to demonstrate what I’ve done. This list is also a great mitigation for impostor syndrome!
  • Tell my bosses and teammates when I’ve done something awesome. I’ll write a summary of what I did, why it was important, and the impact it made. Sometimes they already know, but it’s important to write it down so they remember and can send it to *their* bosses if they want.
  • Share what I’m doing on social media. If I get accepted to speak at a conference or publish a new blog post, I share it on Twitter and LinkedIn. I realize sharing publicly may not be for everyone, so consider how you might share your accomplishments with a smaller group.
  • Think about my personal brand and trying to make my actions and words align with it. For me, my brand is something like “a down-to-earth CTI analyst who brings liberal arts prowess to cybersecurity.” I want to be seen as a leader, a mentor, a public speaker, and an overall kick-ass woman in cyber. (If you need an example of personal branding, check out Cheerio! No joke, she handed me her own personal stickers at RSA!) I think someone has a strong personal brand when I can easily describe what they’re about in a short sentence.
  • Watch what others have done to figure out how you want to self-promote. For example, when starting this blog, I realized I should pull together a list of public talks and publications. So, I looked to someone I respect, Lesley Carhart, and followed her lead to make my own “About me” page. I liked her style, so I used it as a point of reference and modified it for myself. If you hate something that someone else does, make a note and don’t do it! If you love someone’s style, great, emulate it. I also apply this same philosophy of “watching and borrowing” to leadership styles.
  • Get someone to hold you accountable. I have a great colleague who tells me when I’m undervaluing myself. I walked out of a discussion I facilitated and he told me I did a good job. “Thanks, it’s easy when it’s a topic I like,” I said. He gave me look and said “no…you’re selling yourself short. The appropriate response is thank you.” And he was absolutely right. Sometimes our attempts to be humble only diminish our real accomplishments, and we have to watch out for that because it’s not fair to us. I know I have this problem. A teammate, boss, friend, or family member can help hold you accountable by pointing out times when you have awesome accomplishments to share or times when you’re diminishing them.

And how do I deal with that “icky” feeling like I’m bragging? Well, some people would tell you to just get over it, but if that’s not you, try thinking about these things…

1. Make it about those you’re sharing with

Instead of focusing on what you’re doing, focus on those you’re sharing with. For example, when I facilitated the Peer2Peer discussion at RSA, I posted this tweet:

It was more about them than about me

My focus here was on thanking the attendees, which was easy to do because there were 30 of them and one of me as the facilitator. They drove the discussion and shared their thoughts, and my role was to keep the discussion going. By phrasing it like this, I still shared with everyone what I accomplished, but I made it about the attendees more than about myself. Other phrases you can use to accomplish this might be “Thanks for coming…” or “If you care about X, you might be interested in hearing my talk about Y.” Doing this helps me feel like I’m still remaining humble. Whenever you share something about yourself, keep in mind that the information you’re sharing could help others learn something new.

Sure, I could have just posted “I just did an awesome job leading a Peer2Peer session,” but that’s boring and it also doesn’t feel like me. That brings me to my final point…

2. Do what feels authentic to you.

Above all, stay true to what feels authentic to you. If you suddenly start posting a bunch of tweets that seem like someone else wrote them, it’ll get weird and people will sense that. Yes, you should stretch yourself a little to make sure you’re sharing your work and accomplishments, but figure out what works for you. I’ve shared some of my advice on what has helped me overcome hurdles in the hopes that it will help you, but ultimately, do what feels right.

In closing

I’ve shared with you some possible approaches you can use to promote yourself and your work. This doesn’t have to feel sleazy or uncomfortable — you’re not bragging, you’re sharing. Even though I promote my work, I still consider myself to be humble. I don’t know everything, and I don’t pretend to. But if I don’t share what I do know, I’m not just selling myself short — I’m also selling everyone else short who could have benefited from hearing what I had to say.

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The author’s affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE’s concurrence with, or support for, the positions, opinions, or viewpoints expressed by the author.