How to succeed even if you are a nobody.
21 Mar 2021- Stephen Bosch
10 min read
Here’s some bad news. You are a nobody.
I feel your pain. I am also a nobody. Welcome.
Don’t despair. There is a little bit of good news here, and it is this: You can be a nobody and still succeed.
What’s the catch? To succeed, you will have to find some way to live with your shame. (I cannot fix your shame. I cannot fix mine, either. If that is what you are looking for, you will have to look elsewhere.)
Your shame is irrelevant. In fact, it doesn’t matter how you feel about yourself at all. The only things that matter are your choices and your actions.
You do need one other thing, though.
Trust is a fundamental condition for any exchange. Parties must bring a minimum of trust to the table in order to do business. That trust needn’t necessarily be of the other party; for example, people in some countries trust in the rule of law or in their insurance to protect them against downside risks. But, assuming the parties are of sound mind, some trust must be there, or there will be no exchange.
Trust can be built through different things: past experience, borrowed trust (referrals and social proof), and due diligence, which is simply proving that what the other party is claiming is actually true by checking it with your own eyes.
People in positions of power get there through their networks, right? “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
But what about the prototypical self-made person? By definition, the self-made person begins with nothing.
Well, we all start out the same way: naked, knowing nothing and nobody.
Once the basics have been acquired (talking, walking, feeding ourselves), “knowing nothing” can be attacked solo, at least up to a given point. It’s best not to learn in a vacuum, but it’s not impossible.
But knowing nobody? That you’re not going to fix without coming into contact with other human beings. And when you’re starting out with nothing, the only way to do that is to be visible.
To talk to another person on the street? They have to see you first.
If people are to approach you? They have to see you first.
To get people to visit your website? They have to see it first.
So why does the thought of making ourselves visible scare us much? There’s a good reason: To make yourself visible is to take risks. There is a chance, even a good chance, that you will also attract the attention of some unpleasant people. Writing and working in public even carries with it the possibility of being misinterpreted by people capable of violence. (That has never seemed more true than it does today.) So the idea of “putting ourselves out there” makes us afraid.
But here’s the thing: There is no return without risk. Every person that you see in a position of power or influence got there because they took the risk of being visible and got to know lots of people, lots of the right people.1 Every person of influence you see has to deal with unwanted, unpleasant attention. It’s the price of admission.
Things have always been this way, but currently, it’s easier than ever to be visible (a good thing, the upside of the bet), and more likely than ever that we’ll be victims of unpleasant, unwanted attention when we are (a bad thing, the downside of the bet).
Unless you want to be left behind, you’ll have to learn to deal with it.
This applies to everything. To people, to companies, even to countries.
Even to countries?
Take Canada, for example. Especially relative to its size, it is practically unknown. Most people couldn’t tell you a thing about Canada if you asked them. The United States, on the other hand, is the most visible country in the world. That visibility comes with downsides, including that people form a full spectrum of opinions about you, not all of them nice, not all of them justified. An American tourist is walking around with an imaginary bulls-eye on her back.2
So the visibility means that just being American is risky, but it is also why it feels as though everybody wants to move to the United States. Their reasons for wanting to don’t even have to be good ones. The fact is that historically, it’s where people, especially ambitious people, have wanted to go.
That attraction has meant a disproportionate amount of talent accumulates in the US. That has compounding effects. For all the downside of American visibility, there is an undeniable upside.
Three kinds of visibility
So, if, after swallowing hard, you agree that the path reaching your goals goes through being visible, where and how do you start?
Strive for three kinds of visibility:
- Make yourself visible,
- make your work tangible and visible, and
- make your inner life visible.
1. Make yourself visible
This is the most obvious one and the one people typically have the hardest time with. It starts in childhood with our learned inhibitions: “Should I raise my hand in class? What will the other kids think?” and continues through to the fear of being singled out by the boss in a meeting, or having to present in front of distinguished guests or at a conference with a big audience.
Anxiety has many definitions, but in this context, I’d call it the “fear of the imagined awfulness.” When we have never or rarely done something, we can invent the craziest visions of how things can go wrong. We focus on the downside and are blind to the upside.
The only solution I have to this is to just do it, and do it often. Do it so often that it almost bores you. The idea is to take some of the anxiety-generating energy out of the thing so that you can focus on truly valuable things like improving your message and your delivery.
So, if the thought of presenting makes you afraid, present. Present often. Start with a small presentation to an audience of one, then build up from there.
Present to anybody who will listen. This has multiple benefits: You can make your biggest mistakes and learn how to handle them in front of low-stakes audiences. It will teach you that audiences are made of different people and different audiences will react differently to what you have to say. And it will teach you that there are a lot of different ways to be good at something. What one audience considers bad, another audience might consider good. You’ll have to decide which audience is important to you and adjust your message accordingly. But you’ll never really learn what works if you don’t try things out.
If the thought of publishing your writing makes you afraid, publish. Publish often. Start with a small article for an audience of one, then build up from there.
If you want to present and publish often, you will need opportunities. But they are everywhere if you can learn to see them.
To find opportunities, learn to raise your hand.
When someone asks for volunteers, raise your hand. When a moderator asks for input from the audience, raise your hand. When someone is looking for presenters, raise your hand. When someone is looking for contributors to a publication, raise your hand. When important tasks are neglected because nobody wants to do them, raise your hand and offer to take them on. If you have confidence in your skills, you can show you can get it done. It doesn’t go unnoticed when someone regularly takes on tasks without complaint. If this is a regular occurrence, you will become more visible over time.
2. Make your work tangible and visible
This has career implications.
Here’s what you never want to have happen to you at work:
Someone asks the question, “So what would you say you actually do here?” and your answer is a blubbering, meandering mess.
The best way to avoid this, apart from being so visible that there is no doubt about what you do, is to have tangible examples of your work you can show on a moment’s notice.
The central challenge of knowledge work is that much of it happens inside your head, so it’s not immediately obvious to others what you are you doing when you work. You must actively make this real for them. You must make your intangible work tangible in some way.
This act of making things tangible should be part of your regular process. Make it routine. Use whatever tools at your disposal to make it automatic, if you can.
Here are some ways you can make your work tangible:
- Produce a regular (daily, weekly) report, even if nobody reads it but you.
- Describe and illustrate your current work on a simple webpage.
- Take regular screenshots as you work (this is very automatable!)
- Take pictures of your whiteboard scribblings.
- Annotate images with text to make them as unambiguous as possible.
A non-obvious way to make your work tangible and visible is to regularly ask other people for feedback. This will force you to make what you are doing tangible in order to make visible and comprehensible to the person giving the feedback. This feedback is likely to make your work better, and the act of requesting feedback will show others that you are working and that you care about your work.
Get comfortable with exposing clearly unfinished, ugly things to other people. Remember, you have objectives that are different from the evaluation of the work itself: You want to make this such a habit that you become a little numb to the pain of any criticism that results from it so that you can pay more attention to the content of the criticism. You want signals that point you in the right direction. You want to understand what lies underneath those signals, so that you can anticipate them in your mind and respond to them as you work. This is how you improve.
Calibrate your requests for feedback so that you don’t annoy the people you are asking. Feedback is valuable. You’re asking somebody with knowledge and experience to give you their precious time. If you do it too often, or if your feedback sessions are too long, you’ll develop a reputation as someone who cannot work independently. If you do it too infrequently, it doesn’t serve its purpose. Experimentation will help you find the right balance.
If you’re facing a problem and need to discuss it with your superior, it helps to take the following approach: Attempt to find the best solution you can and say “This is what I think we should do” instead of asking “What should I do?”. You’ll be surprised at how that can spur on the dialogue and get you more respectful feedback, even if your solution does not turn out to be 100% correct.
It also shows how you’re developing in your field and makes you think a bit more to try and find that solution.
That resistance you feel to asking for feedback? That’s your inner critic talking. Your inner critic thinks you haven’t really been working. If your inner critic is right, then asking for feedback enough times when you don’t feel ready will hurt so much that you’ll learn to tell the difference between effective work and ineffective work in a hurry. And if your inner critic is wrong, the feedback is going to tell you so pretty quickly. Either way, you win.
3. Make your inner life visible
There is a third kind of visibility. It is perhaps the most emotionally risky one. But it will transform the way your work is seen by others if you can muster the courage to take it.
If you are doing something for the first time, you will not have existing clients or coworkers who can provide you with a reference. How can you build trust, then?
You make your inner life visible by describing it in as much detail as you can stomach.
Trust depends on honesty. When you are starting from the beginning, there is but one person you need to be honest with: Yourself.
Imagine writing a diary, except that, instead of describing your personal life, you’re writing about your work.
As a diarist, your pact with your diary is to always be honest about everything.
It is easy to be honest about what is going well. It is much harder to be honest about what isn’t. Nobody likes to be wrong, especially not in public. But you must…
Tell it all
…talk openly about what isn’t working and what you don’t understand.
Honour the obvious
When something becomes so familiar that its complexities disappear, we can struggle to explain that thing in ways that a beginner can understand. This is sometimes called “the curse of knowledge”. Assume that you are cursed by your existing knowledge more than you think. (If you find yourself routinely devaluing your knowledge and experience, that is the curse of knowledge at work.)
Strive to see things as you did when they were new to you. In Zen, this is called beginner’s mind.
Finding your way to beginner’s mind takes patience.
It helps to ask concrete, granular questions about your subject and then write out the answers. What are your assumptions? What are your expectations?
To learn, teach.
But the best way to discover what is obvious to you but not to others is to try to teach it. This is a useful exercise even if you have no intention of making education your main focus.
Explain something to another person, then ask that person to explain it back to you. Like in a game of “Telephone”, the return message will be so different from what you thought you were sending out that it will surprise you.
Yes, being visible is risky, but the potential rewards outweigh the risks
Being visible is certainly risky, but can also be rewarding. It puts you in contact with reality. It gets you closer to the truth. It challenges you to get better. And it can lead to surprising benefits: You can meet interesting people, be exposed to new ideas, and learn things about yourself. (It can even lead to job offers.)
So take the leap and let yourself be seen. ⊡
Thanks to Carey Du Gray, Sean Lindsay and Ken Henderson who reviewed this article. Additional thanks to Ken for contributing the notes on proving your work, doing things nobody else wants to, and remembering your audience.
There are, of course, people of power and influence who are practically invisible to most of us mortals. But they are certainly visible to the right people. ↩
And what do American tourists who are worried about that bulls-eye often do? Sew Canadian flags on their luggage. That’s visibility and anti-visibility at work. ↩