This conversation started with Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women, which advised that gender to self-promote a little more, maybe even bullshitting sometimes. There have been good follow-ups and I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s a fallacy, though, to think that these issues are important only to women.
Other Voices · I’ve saved a few browser tabs with the better responses: Gabriella Coleman’s Being Bad-Ass w/o the Arrogance argues that in disciplines where women aren’t bashing against glass ceilings, for example Anthropology, the people you emulate aren’t “low-life jerks clawing their way to the top”, unlike (by implication) the “sea of white men” at technical and academic conferences. That’s a powerful perception. “Why not,” she asks, “instead promote and highlight behavior that rewards confidence sans the arrogance?”
Tom Coates, in Should we encourage self-promotion and lies?, is similarly negative. Once again, I’ll quote: “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.”
Skud offered Questioning the merit of meritocracy, which draws from her own thoughts and a variety of other sources to argue that the rankings in many so-called meritocracies are both polluted by self-promotion and fail to assign merit to a broad enough spectrum of talents. To quote: “Finally, don’t require pushiness along with ability.”
I read others too, but these three stood out for me.
Details Matter · I think that when it gets down to this sort of subtle, highly-personal issue, broad-brush judgments are really dangerous. So in that spirit, I’d like to drill down a bit on Clay Shirky’s parable taken from his own early life, which I’ll reproduce:
When I was 19 and three days into my freshman year, I went to see Bill Warfel, the head of grad theater design (my chosen profession, back in the day), to ask if I could enroll in a design course. He asked me two questions. The first was “How’s your drawing?” Not so good, I replied. (I could barely draw in those days.) “OK, how’s your drafting?” I realized this was it. I could either go for a set design or lighting design course, and since I couldn’t draw or draft well, I couldn’t take either.
“My drafting’s fine”, I said.
That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face. We talked some more and then he said “Ok, you can take my class.” And I ran to the local art supply place and bought a drafting board, since I had to start practicing.
I find it really hard to disapprove of the young Clay in this story. He introspected and made the decision that he could learn enough drafting in however-much time there was before the course started that he wouldn’t get thrown out. Then he bullshitted. Then he learned enough drafting really fast to get by, and went on with his education. The results were good and, as he puts it, “I only told lies I could live up to” (well, or at least thought he could).
Here’s another thing: I’d be unsurprised if Prof. Werfel saw through Clay like a pane of glass, could tell he was bullshitting and scrambling to get in, and gave him credit for really wanting it.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, I suppose there could have been some other student candidate (perhaps a woman) with very basic drafting skills who, when the prof asked, answered “I can just barely draft a bit”, and maybe Clay got a spot and she didn’t because she told the truth and he lied. On the other hand, if she’d said “I can just barely draft a bit, but I really wanna take this course and I’m going to buckle down for the next three weeks and work like crazy on my drafting”, well who knows?
And for the sake of disclosure: In two crucial early career steps, I was, shall we say, wildly optimistic in my portrayal of my exposure to certain technologies, in the interests of getting a job I wanted. In both cases I had to scramble. And in neither can I manage any regret.
I’m not trying to draw general lessons from Clay’s yarn about the moral pros and cons of self-promotion. I will argue, though, is that in these situations the ethics are highly, well, situational, with subtle dependencies on the persons and roles and power relationships and a bunch of other things.
I Hate ’Em · Despite all that arm-waving ambiguity, let me go on the record that I totally loathe the people we’ve all met who are all self-promotion all the time, can never shut up about their various excellences. And, sadly, I’ve seen this behavior amply rewarded at a level way out of line with any contributions these jerk-offs actually make.
Yes, that’s a symptom of a management pathology, but it’s a common one; common enough that there must be something in the conventional structures of business that encourages it.
I’d also add, the problem isn’t so much that these people bullshit or that they don’t do good work, because sometimes they do. It’s that they just never shut up.
As an executive, I’ve blown off a couple of potentially interesting partnerships because the CEO on the other side was a pompous blowhard. At the end of the day, I bypassed the business and technology issues because I couldn’t face putting up with the verbal diarrhea.
Aggression · Let me revisit Tom Coates’ quote above: “It should be unacceptable for us to say that arrogance and aggression are to be aspired to.” I have a big problem with this in that it suggests that arrogance and aggression are somehow the same thing. They’re not. Whether we’re talking business, politics, or technology, I generally approve of aggression. Even extreme aggression. This is not an absolute: it doesn’t include aggression directed against other people, except in the rare cases where that’s called for, and it absolutely requires that aggressive people be prepared to suck it up and deal with the consequences of their actions; aggression is by definition risky.
Founding a company, introducing a new product category, running for any political office, launching a web-site at the world; all these things are aggressive at a deep level; and without that aggression we would all be impoverished.
At a less picturesque level, just getting anything meaningful done in certain large organizational structures requires sometimes-fairly-extreme aggression. Anybody who’s been around this track knows about the antibodies and PHBs and run-it-by-Legal-ers who are reliably full of good reasons to avoid any action whatsoever.
And a lot of the world’s most aggressive people are not self-promoters in the slightest; people who are soft-spoken, unobtrusive, but then they go Just Fucking Do It. I think aggression is most effective when it’s not pre-announced.
That Gender Thing · Statistically speaking, women exhibit less aggression, and statistically speaking, that probably hurts them in the aggregate. Here’s the problem: statistical wisdom is bullshit, everybody’s an exception to some statistic or other; but the human mind has such a powerful pattern-matching engine that it can’t help acting on anecdotal perception. This is why, as Skud pointed out, orchestras have had to adopt blind auditions in order to route around the systematic statistical bias in favor of male musicians.
I think, then, that yes, it couldn’t do any possible harm to try to bring the average level of aggressiveness up among women. I suppose that’s a controversial thing to say, but I really do believe it.
Also, that we pay serious attention to Skud’s thoughts on meritocracy as we design our own social structures.
However, I am passionately against encouraging anyone, man, woman, child, to become a systematic self-promoter. (To be fair to Clay Shirky, I don’t think that’s what he was really recommending, and he’s owed apologies from those who oversimplified his message).
Perhaps I’ve just taken multiple paragraphs to recommend what Gabriella Coleman did in a few words: “behavior that rewards confidence sans the arrogance”.
Oh, and Technology · In the last few weeks I’ve read some awfully smart stuff, concrete not abstract, about what we could do in the technology space to get more women involved; but I think it helps to bear this whole aggression-vs.-arrogance dynamic in mind as one reads through it. I totally recommend Gina Trapani’s A Word About Women in Technology and Denise’s Teaching People to Fish.