Welcome to the Age of Self-Promotion

Forget hard work. The only way to get ahead now is to toot your own horn.

Team player. Problem solver. Effective communicator. These terms are often thrown around to describe the kind of guy who gets ahead quickly in whatever business he’s in. But in recent years a new skill has crept to the top of that list. You may not hear it uttered by HR directors, but it’s there. And it might as well be printed in 72-point type at the top of every young careerist’s résumé: self-promoter. The skilled self-promoter is the guy in your office who everyone thinks is a real go-getter. He’s the one volubly telling your boss how the big project is going, even though as far as you know he’s spent most of the day playing Scrabulous on Facebook and beefing up his personal Rolodex. What this workplace striver knows—and you might as well get used to—is that these days, telling people you’re good at what you do is just as important as being good at it.

A guy I know, whom I’ll call Dwight, works for a wine distributor. He’s witnessed a baby-voiced woman at his job fool the entire office into thinking she’s a savvy, well-connected addition to the business, using nothing more than self-advertising.

“Despite all evidence to the contrary, she has convinced people that’s she intelligent,“ Dwight says. “She spends all day asking people to go out with her or sending out invitations to stupid post-work happy hours. She sucks at her job and everyone knows it. But her P.R. is so good the bosses still haven’t figured out that she’s worthless.“

There are tiny Tila Tequilas in every line of work now.

Jenny (not her real name), a marketing associate who works at a skin-care company in Chicago, has a coworker named Dan who excels at Jedi-style self-promotion. “We’ve been integrating a new inventory software system into our office, and everyone has had to help create it,“ she says. “As soon as he learns about what we’ve done, he sends out these pseudo-efficient e-mails, which makes it seem like it was his idea, or at least that he led the way.“

For all anyone knows, that baby-voiced woman might be her generation’s Robert Mondavi and Dan might be the next Estée Lauder. It doesn’t matter. In our heightened broadband lifestyle of continuous information, the only people who are successful are those who are adept with e-mails, social-networking sites, and messaging—who advertise themselves like they are their own personal Gersh Agency. You could be the most brilliant person in your field, but if you don’t peddle yourself like Pepsi, you’re doomed.

The shameless self-promoters whom Yelena Gitlin, a publicist who works in book publishing, deals with have an excuse—something tangible to promote—but their frenzied campaigns are reflective of a movement that spans all industries. “One of my favorites was when an author suggested I nominate him as Member of the Month at his fancy gym and his bio would mention his forthcoming book,“ Gitlin says. “I’ve had numerous cases where authors have tried to embroil themselves in a ‘timely’ controversy. Nothing reeks of desperation more than when an author tries to capitalize on a tragedy or weird celeb news. Honey, just ’cause Angelina adopted a black baby and Good Morning America cares doesn’t mean they care if you did.“

“There’s just so much pressure to play the self-promoting game,“ says Andrew Dunn, a paralegal and writer in New York. “Every party I go to, people ask, ‘What do you do?’ or ‘What are you working on now?’ People expect you to communicate in sound bites, and unless you have rehearsed bits on hand, nobody gives a shit what you have to say. Maybe I’m naïve, but I liked the idea that people could talk about things—current events, movies, television, anything—without constantly advertising themselves. I can’t remember: Was there ever a time when that happened?“

If there was, that time has passed. That happy hour thrown by the boss of a rival firm? The launch party you bailed on because it was raining? Those wouldn’t have been missed by the professional self-promoter, who would have flyered the crowd and created Blair Witch—level buzz in the room about his next project before leaving.

“More and more people we see say, without a trace of irony, ‘Now let’s talk about my brand,’“ says James LaForce, co-owner of the P.R. firm LaForce + Stevens. “And they mean themselves. They see their identity not as some essential thing but just like another product.“

Relentless promoters have no time to do moral inventory. They take up their selfhood campaigns like they’re a spiritual necessity. And you can bet that the most skilled among them have either read The Secret, which tells readers that they can make their desires reality by visualizing what they want, or attended the intensive three-day Landmark Forum workshop, which charges middle managers and sales associates more than a thousand dollars for the privilege of learning how to become unapologetically ambitious and get “access to being extraordinary.“

Another course gaining momentum teaches attendees how to be aggressive self-promotion machines. BecomeALPHA runs three-day-weekend seminars across the country (though the actual course work stretches out over 60 days and is completed via phone coaching and tele-seminars) that use sociological research about the success of “alpha“ individuals—the type of people who, according to the company’s research, gaze directly into the eyes of others and lean in close to you when they talk. Darryl Pierce, a BecomeALPHA representative, explains in an e-mail, “The P.C., ‘everybody’s a winner’ mentality has clouded the fact that the alpha types will always rise to the top and be the most successful. It’s a cold, hard reality that many don’t want to accept, but it’s true nonetheless.“

Thankfully, there are still limits, even in this shameless era. For example, when Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was exposed hyping his company’s stock under a fake name on Internet message boards, his reputation suffered. As did that of Lee Siegel from the New Republic, who, in an attempt at self-inflation, posted anonymous raves (“Siegel is brave, brilliant“) on his blog on the magazine’s website and was suspended from his job.

Ernest Lupinacci, an advertising and branding executive, tries to explain to clients that ubiquitous ad campaigns aren’t necessarily the goal. “In the world of advertising, clients put a huge premium on ‘awareness,’“ he says. “I point out that ‘awareness’ and ‘affinity’ are not the same thing . . . after all, everyone I knew was aware of West Nile virus, but no one I knew had an affinity for it.“

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