On self-promotion, lies, and being a woman

I read with interest Clay Shirky’s post, A Rant About Women and a response by Tom Coates – Should we encourage self-promotion and lies.

Clay’s premise is that, “not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks”. Now I’d hope that most people, male or female, wouldn’t like to be described in that way, but lets get past that statement and look at the examples of the type of behaviour we are discussing. Clay describes how he got started in theatre design, and had to essentially lie about his abilities in order to get his foot in the door. However he then backed the lie up with hard work – running off to learn the drafting skills he knew he needed to be able to back up his initial statement that his skills “were fine”.

So here’s my story. Aged 20 I had quit dance and wanted to get into backstage work. I’m in the West End of London, I’ve got no money, no track record and the master carpenter at the show I want to work on says, “so you’ve crewed before then?”

I hadn’t, I had done a bit of rigging, a bit of stage management as part of my courses and while working for small theatre productions as a choreographer – in small teams when you aren’t on stage you are doing some aspect of the technical side of things. However something on the scale of a West End show, or even approaching it? No. I hadn’t even seen a West End show. However, I knew I was physically strong, a quick learner and I knew about theatre so I said yes. I worked that show for 18 months. A lie, one that got my foot in the door, but I worked hard to make sure I followed through with the skills to back it up – just as Clay did with his story of getting into theatre design.

I had the confidence of youth during that period of my life, however I can think of many examples all through my career where my decision to say, “I can do that” when I had absolutely no track record, has worked in my favour. When I got my first IT job, when I wrote my first book, when I started my business – I wouldn’t have got anywhere had I not looked at projects, knowing I had never done anything like it before but said yes, knowing that I could find out, that I could do a good job.

However while a lie or self-promotion without anything to back it up might work to get your foot in the door, I don’t believe it to be something you can build a career out of doing repeatedly. You will be found out. If you are found out at the point at which you have proved yourself, it is likely that people will forgive the lie, however if you get known for being the sort of person who will say anything to get the gig, who is all mouth and no action, you will find that pretty soon no-one will believe a word you say.

I also think that there is a difference between the ability to use a lie to get your foot in a hard to open door, and the kind of ongoing over-inflation of one’s abilities and skills that Tom describes in his post. If you get your foot in the door and then knuckle down and get on with the job in hand, contribute something, create something, then you have proved your confidence in yourself has substance and you will be respected for that. If your reputation is based purely on what you say about yourself, that is a fragile place to be in terms of any kind of longevity in your career.

Despite my ability to blag my way through firmly closed doors every so often, I’m no great self publicist. I prefer doing to talking and sometimes need a bit of a push to remember that self promotion to one degree or another is important in any career. However I’m not too worried about that, ultimately I’d rather be thought of as a doer than a talker, and perhaps that is because I’m a woman. If so, that’s ok.

Julianne on the 19 Jan 2010:

Thanks for a wonderful post. To me, it is essentially about confidence, particularly about ones ability to learn and grow…

Sarah Parmenter on the 19 Jan 2010:

Great post Rachel, I had to do a similar thing when starting my business, thankfully it all worked out for the best but they were nothing more than white lies about how old I was, at the time I was just 19 and starting a business, which never looks greatly professional to larger businesses.

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