Once again, this week, I was asked to replace someone for a presentation. After the session, my colleague said “Wow, you were [unexpectedly?] good, we should have thought of you earlier”. A similar scenario occurred earlier this year when I replaced a superstar in my field at a conference where ministers and government officers were present.
While I could have just cherished the good words that I heard about me, my primary question was what I had done to earn such low expectations. My answer is possibly because I use no packaging. No fuss, no advertisement about how cool I am, no liaison with policymakers. I simply deliver and leave. I am aware that this contradicts most books on how to be successful, but I believe there is nothing wrong with it. It is a way to position yourself: let deeds speak rather than words. You will get fewer requests to speak but people will eventually notice you.
I therefore dedicate this post to my introverted (or simply PR-reluctant) colleagues, along with anyone who has ever taught me that it’s harder to be in high demand if you do not have high social skills.
There are several ways to promote yourself. Some involve high exposure, frequent and intensive public relations and announcing each of your achievements publicly. The other is more discrete, possibly slower in bringing results, but no less effective in the longer term.
Saturating “fast and slow”
Whether we’re talking about a research collaboration or consultancy, there’s an “entry point”. An (unexpected) episode that puts you in touch with the right person. You can find suggestions online on how to increase your chances of this happening but you won’t find a mathematical formula to secure a consultancy or fame. It just happens. As with most things in life, it is a trial-and-error process. Obviously, the more you are visible on social media, the more you network, the more you mingle with people in your milieu, the higher the chances you’ll be noticed.
You may envy those receiving many apparently attractive offers since the beginning of their career. But, looking back, I think receiving fewer offers in my early years was a blessing in disguise. Could I go back in time, I would still choose my slowly earned (little) fame against a quickly boosted one.
When you enter the research consulting world, you are very likely to accept most of what you’re offered. You need money, contacts, experience and, as a fresh graduate, you have little, if any, of them. The more you receive, the faster your agenda saturates. But the younger you are, the less likely you are aware of your “saturation point” after which you overcommit and, accordingly, lose sleep, deliver low quality work, and lose clients. We can all do this at some point; we find ourselves underperforming once or twice (or several times). If you underperform regularly, chances are that you will earn a reputation for being unreliable.
The more you are exposed, the faster offers will come. But people asking you to do something for them is not the same as you being willing, or happy, to work with them. Learning to check who your employer is, and say “no” if you suspect a task will take from you more than it will give, is an art that takes time. The more offers you receive before you’ve learned to say no, the more likely you are to get stuck with tasks that you dislike.
Fast saturating your agenda means that, if you receive an excellent offer you are more likely to have already committed to something else. You face a dilemma then: not to keep your word on an agreed task or decline those tasks that you’ve been dreaming of for so long (or, worse, take both and then lose your health trying to get them done, and possibly failing to deliver on either). In each scenario, you are likely to burn bridges.
Slow growth in networking gives you time to reflect, test people, and start with a low number of tasks. You may not be the hot item in demand but this is far from being a disadvantage as it will give you time to reflect and test with whom to collaborate.
My theory is that like-minded people will gravitate towards one another. So, if you’ve worked with someone new and you enjoyed the experience, if this person recommends you to their friends, these word-of-mouth colleagues are more likely to be pleasant to work with than random people who found you on the internet.
Low profile, high speed
A wise friend of mine who has since passed away once said about his Non-Government Organisation “in this country we say low profile / high speed”. I have found this to be an excellent principle and, over the years, I’ve noticed that if you invest in targeting and selecting your tasks and the people you work with the quality of your life (professional and personal) will improve.
Tim Ferriss has said that it’s 20% of your collaborators that generate 80% of your problems. Get rid of that minority and your life will get better. I did not know this when I started and, honestly, I sometimes got envious seeing some of my peers who were always in the spotlight, getting invited to talk here and there. But receiving too many invitations can be a curse. Everybody likes to be flattered and, the more you are, the more you are likely to accept tasks. You may feel obliged to accept some because you don’t want to say no to people who are being nice to you. You might accept something only to regret it almost immediately.
A friend said once about me “people might not know you, but you know who the key people are” and I liked this. I do not receive many requests and I am more likely to be the one who calls on someone rather than the someone being called on. But this allows me to hand-pick people to work with, choose folks I like, be motivated to work with them, and allows enough time to deliver good quality outputs.
Once this happens, word-of-mouth does the rest and, once you’ve gained someone’s trust, you can concentrate on delivering your best quality work and the collaboration stay intact and probably grow stronger. I’ve worked with the same people for years and years. Some come and go for various reasons. But I invest in long-term relationships. I once shaved my scalp (only the left side, so I basically looked like two distinct persons depending on whether you look at my right or left profile). It was a personal challenge but I decided to test it professionally. Would anyone stop working with me because of how I looked? No, they all stayed. I think this was because they were interested in what I could deliver rather than how close I was to the stereotype of a ‘professional’.
The art of saying no
I value my time – I know it is limited. I value my (mental) health – I know it will be affected by my professional attitude. Because of this, I do not work myself to death. My principle is “a lot of money is better than little money, but enough money is better than too much money”. I do not need to take up everything I am offered.
As much as possible, I plan my day around non-work-related tasks. I’d rather plan sport and shopping first and then fit work in between them. At the end of the day, I am a responsible person and know I will try to finish the tasks that I’ve set for the day. I know that my working time is limited, so I will focus more on actual work.
Second, many of the tasks we take on in academia are unpaid, yet we still feel obliged to accept them. Sometimes, a friend asks for a favour so you do it. Some tasks are strategic. Not being able to discriminate between an essential task and a futile one can fill our days. As an example, I have stopped doing peer-reviews for commercial journals and publishers. I would rather not spend my time and delay essential tasks, while they make money. I still review for friends and non-commercial projects though.
Third, I work with fewer people but invest a lot in long-term relationships. It takes a lot to develop trust but, once you’re there, the quality of your working life will improve. I prefer to work closely with a handful of people, knowing I can trust them with my (professional) life.
Beyond contractual obligations with funding agencies, I rarely advertise my achievements or activities. I am confident that most people with whom I have worked can vouch for me and the quality I deliver, if asked. This goes more slowly and I’m never in danger of being over-exposed, and it gets me there without being overloaded with work. And that is my priority.
Author Bio: Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser. He is the author of “The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”, a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career.