Should we encourage self-promotion and lies?

01/16/2010

A couple of days ago, Clay Shirky wrote a piece on his blog called A Rant About Women which took as its subject the comparative comfort with which some men are prepared to market themselves, mislead and lie to get ahead compared to women.

I’ve been reading responses to this piece on Twitter and elsewhere, and I’ve become increasingly horrified by what I’ve seen. Generally, it’s being viewed as a call to arms to create a new breed of women who are as self-important, self-promoting, shameless and arrogant as some of the worst (and most celebrated) men in the industry. This attitude is being viewed as the ‘way to get ahead’ for any individual wanting to make their mark in the world.

I’m prepared to accept that there’s a correlation between attitudes to competition and self-promotion and gender. I’m not as prepared to take it as far as Clay seems to, but I’ll go along with its generalised existence.

And clearly, if aggressive self-promotion and pompous self-aggrandizement is what gets people ahead in the world, then at the individual level, it’s better to perform in that kind of way than it is to sit passively and watch yourself get passed over by more clumsy, venal, smug, aggressive, macho idiots.

But at the level of the company, at the level of the community, at the level of the industry – are these attributes in fact in any way desirable? Does self-promotion really lead to great products or projects? Is the ability to lie and mislead really what it takes to achieve?

My experience has been that there’s definitely a role for the arrogant and the pushy in the creation and promotion of a project. It’s also taught me that this skill is a small part of the set of skills necessary to produce something great.

The kinds of things that result in great products are tangible skills, a desire and a pleasure in collaborative building, an aspiration and sense that you’re making something important, a sense of teamwork, room to experiment, the ability to bring out the best in the people around you, a good work ethic.

Alongside that a desire to show-off can be really beneficial, a confidence in your ability is essential, the ability to push yourself into new areas certainly a benefit. But these attributes can also get in the way. There’s something in American culture in particular which values the pushy and the determined, but we’ve all worked with people whose confidence massively outstrips their abilities, who cannot work together with other people because they think they’re superior to everyone else.

And we’ve also met a whole bunch of people in the industry who do nothing but self-promote, working day and night to sell themselves, and achieve positions massively disproportionate to their tangible abilities. There are people in our industry in positions of substantial power whose reputation is built upon the way in which they present themselves as being visionaries and experts. Some of them have found that it’s simply more efficient for them to spend their days building that reputation through PR and self-promotion than it is to demonstrate it through the things that they make, the value that they create.

I’d never argue that we should forcefully reject anyone who manifests confidence, skills in self-promotion or who is cocky enough to sell themselves. But what I want to strongly resist is the idea that it is these attributes that we should be promoting – either in women or in men.

It should be unacceptable for us to say that lying about one’s abilities is something that everyone has to do to get ahead. It should be unacceptable for us to say that arrogance and aggression are to be aspired to.

Instead we should be demonstrating that great projects, like the ones Apple produces, are at least in part based upon trying to produce the best thing possible, feeling the integrity in the product you’re making. Trying to do something good. We should acknowledge the example of Flickr who created an astonishing culture of extremely talented engineers and designers around the very real aspiration to make something beautiful, powerful and good for the world. Or the guys at Twitter who discovered their idea initially by letting small groups experiment in interesting directions rather than dogmatically following the vision of a bold cocksure individual.

Good projects come from good people, good vision, good execution, good collaboration, good insight. And it’s these traits – and the ability to spot them – that we should be encouraging in our colleagues.

The right thing to do is to get it into the heads of our VCs and companies that a hunger to win at any cost is not the main attribute of a creative or productive person. That the ability to be intelligent, think through problems, work with other people, develop ideas effectively – that all of these traits are better indicators of success than how big they tell you their testicles are! That the person who comes to you with the biggest pitch is not necessarily the person you should be listening to.

And while encouraging people to spot the talented and the creative, we should also be considering how we shame those people who self-promote without creating. The financial collapse has taught us that rhetorical bubbles divorced from reality are a danger to us all. We’re already approaching this point – our industry has become venal, insular and dominated by marketing. We have come to value the wrong things. And if we want a continued vigorous, creative, free, open and equal environment, that’s something we have to fix. It’s not something to aspire to.