The Subtle Art of Self-Advocacy


Last semester, you may remember that I worked on an object label for a saber in an upcoming exhibition at The Independence Seaport Museum. Although I missed the opening reception while in Chicago, I was excited to finally visit “World War I: USS Olympia” over the July 4th weekend to see the finished project. I’m pleased with the result, and I don’t have much more to say about the exhibit label process per se- although if you’re interested in that sort of thing, see my classmate Ted Maust’s reflection on his own label. What I want to talk about is self-promotion: one of my least favorite things!

Having this label in a real, live exhibit was a big deal to me. I’m grateful for the opportunity and gratified to see the result. But I really struggled with where, how, why, and whether I could talk about this personal triumph without sounding vain or (even more horrifyingly) boring. I waffled. And then I put it out there.

Seaport label

The label in question, along with bedraggled author.

Self-advocacy is a distasteful subject, and I’d be willing to bet that at least several people who have seen my attempts to promote my own work have come away thinking I’m arrogant, conceited, and/or a braggart. I am sure that I have been all of those things at one time or another- who hasn’t? And, sure, part of me does this for external recognition. But it’s more complicated than that; to recognize my accomplishments is to validate myself and a reminder of how hard I’ve worked. You had better believe I notice all of my mistakes, and I am willing to talk about them openly- sometimes to the point where other people around me feel it’s acceptable to pile on. (Pro tip: It’s not. Don’t be a bad friend.)

So why should I hesitate to share the things I’ve done that I’m proud of, that I worked really hard at, that I struggled with and overcame? I don’t quite know, and that’s what makes me think that it’s some sort of vestigial, distorted Protestant humility instilled in me just as it was in my parents and grandparents and so on. Trouble is, this virulent strain of self-effacement is not helpful to anyone. My voice is already more likely to fade into the background due to other factors: as a woman, as an “emerging professional,” as a graduate student not pursuing a PhD, as a recent transplant to a city where everyone else is seemingly well-connected.

not sorry

I’m excited about lots of ideas, and I’m not yet jaded with the idea of collaboration, joint ventures, mutual support. I’m beginning to recognize that I can’t wait around for someone else to notice the work that I do, much less promote it to the wider professional community. Other people have their own lives to live. If it’s gonna get out there, I’ve gotta be the one to do it. I haven’t gotten the technique quite down yet, but I have to be willing to give it a try.

I try and promote others: to give credit where credit is due, to tell them what I admire about them, and to encourage them to extend their grasp because they are good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like them. And recognizing my own efforts helps me to do this for others from a kind and caring place rather than a jealous, critical one.

But I wasn’t born yesterday. I know that the number of people who will ever see this blog post is minuscule, and that the ones who do see it may not agree with me on this. That’s fine; maybe just consider the difference less diffidence could make in your own life.

It’s also a pretty sweet exhibit label, just sayin’.