Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

24 Mar 2022, 8:00 a.m.

A Pragmatic Truth About Self-Promotion

Some advice, deceptively, sounds great at first but then reveals itself to be maladaptive as one slides into different contexts.

When I was young, I got the idea into my head that I should not brag about my own achievements, because that would make me sound arrogant; instead, I ought to trust that peers would brag on my behalf, and that authority figures would notice and reward the achievements.

This does indeed make sense in some circumstances. It depends on whether the stuff you're making is easy for the intended audience to notice, evaluate, and appreciate. It can work okay if you have a defined group of peers who consistently pay attention to what you're doing and fairly assess your high-caliber work and speak about it, and if you reciprocate for them so it's fair. And it works if the rewards you want are gatekept by authority figures who consistently and proactively seek out and reward good work. In particular this is a fairly good fit for a lot of standardized school experiences and, more generally, for multi-year stints by a set group of people in a particular geographic area.

But most of my adult life has not worked like this. Certainly my work is not structured like this now, as I freelance over the Internet for and with many different folks over time in a distributed industry where folks mostly don't know each other across domain areas. Even when I worked as an employee at in-person companies it didn't work to just assume that my bosses would notice and promote me without me asking to move further; Julia Evans's brag document advocacy speaks to this gap.

Currently, the pragmatic truth for me, and possibly for you, is that if I do not make an effort to give my intended audience a chance to discover and appreciate what I make, then they will not think to seek it out, because the default streams of information they receive will seem full and will not indicate in any way that they are missing something. And so I need to engage in self-promotion.

I need to self-promote to alert potential clients that they might benefit from working with me. It's a busy world, very few people recognize how Changeset could help them waste less time and achieve more, and how are they supposed to know about it if I don't tell them? I can help people, but only if they know that I can, the same way that if the city's giving away free bikes people won't know unless the city puts public service announcements out over many media. And over time the screaming voice in the back of my head telling me that this is arrogant gets asymptotically quieter, because it is simply empirically true that there is no way most people can know what I can do for them, and that my services are valuable and worth considering, if I don't act to make that info discoverable.

And I need to self-promote if I'd like another form of appreciation: awards. I take inspiration from folks in scifi and fantasy, who have, in recent years, customarily started posting yearly awards eligibility blog posts (Julia Rios and FIYAH, for example). If you know of an award that has open nominations, and you're eligible to be nominated, I think it's reasonably graceful to publish a blog post along the lines of: "hey, so, people are talking about whom to nominate for AWARD. If you want to nominate me, that's delightful, and here's info about what I've been up to! [Optionally: Also, here are some other people I want to shout out to because they are also eligible and great!]"

I think this is a situation that is likely to change again as my needs and audience change. Marketing is an outbound chore that increases the frequency of inbound inquiries. Many high-end services don't need to advertise at all, as they get business solely through referrals. At that point perhaps it makes sense to switch to only doing the fun bits of marketing, whatever that means for me.


Jed Hartman
25 Mar 2022, 22:13 p.m.

Good points. I especially like this line: “the default streams of information they receive will seem full and will not indicate in any way that they are missing something.” Yeah. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but definitely.

…Even after one accepts the need for doing a certain amount of bragging/self-advertising, though, I feel like there are still a bunch of other factors mixed in—about who the person is who’s doing the self-promotion, and how they’re perceived by the people they’re talking to, and societal pressures and prejudices around who’s allowed to self-promote, and so on. …Also, social and technical and economic pressures around the visibility of self-promotion; presumably everyone who makes an ad for themselves wants relevant possible customers/clients to see it, so we have competition for ad space and so on… I dunno, I’m rambling, this is getting kind of far from what you were talking about; I guess mostly I’m just musing about there being other barriers after the one that you’re talking about here.