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Sell Yourself, Sell Your Work (solipsys.co.uk)
452 points by ColinWright 12 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 131 comments





> ... it is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell it. "Selling" to a scientist is an awkward thing to do. It's very ugly; you shouldn't have to do it. The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it.

Took me very long to get this, and, if I'm being completely honest, I still struggle with it.

Being smart and humble is a pretty terrible combination. I met so many brilliant people at UCLA and in my professional career that had this twinge of impostor syndrome. What ended up happening is their less-brilliant but much-louder colleagues always got the promotions and always got the funding.


It helps to reframe the issue. "Selling" yourself is distasteful for many, because it smacks not only of loudness & brashness, but of straight up lying.

Look at this instead as a problem of knowledge distribution. In the extreme case, you do absolutely brilliant work, but tell nobody - how would people in charge of promotions/funding know you did that work?

That's the first step. You need to let people know your work exists, otherwise they really can't reward/recognize it. (Or really, in the extreme, you need to let them know you exist as the very first precondition).

The next step is the fact that you are the person who has likely spent by far the most time on the problem. You intuitively understand why this is an incredibly important problem, and why the solution is really, really good. I guarantee you that the people around you don't. How would they? They've spent much less time on it than you have.

And so part 2 becomes educating others on the problem and on the solution.

So, no, you don't "sell" yourself. You publicize and educate. It's still incredibly hard, but it captures the core of what's actually necessary much better. There's no need to be loud & brash, to paint everything in the brightest possible colors, but there's a need to communicate.

If Einstein hadn't written a paper on special relativity, he would (obviously) not have been recognized for it. And if he hand't communicated his insights very clearly and crisply, he wouldn't have been recognized, either - several people before him spelled out some of the insights, but in a much less clear manner.

So, don't "sell", just let people clearly know what you do,and why you do it. Looking at it from that angle has helped me tremendously getting over the "selling is gauche" issue.


> "Selling" yourself is distasteful for many, because it smacks not only of loudness & brashness, but of straight up lying.

Selling is often conflated with trying to trick people into doing something they don't want to do. This is ultimately counterproductive. Selling is helping others get what they want, and in return you get what you want.


Some types of selling are like that, but it would be incorrect to say that all types of selling are like that or that some salesmen don't consistently rely on straight up lying. Some bad apples spoil the basket.

> it would be incorrect to say that all types of selling are like that

I didn't say that.

I did say it was counterproductive. Making a career out of selling means you're going to need repeat customers, and customers don't return when they realize they were hoodwinked.

People who sell me what I want make a lot of money off of me because I keep coming back for more.


How many cars do people buy in a life? How many houses?

Sales has earned a slimy reputation. Slapping the word in front of hard, earnest work to brand it as something better than it is, is lying.

Clear communication has nothing to do with sales because sales has nothing to do with anything other than making a sale. Real problems and real solutions are motivated by more complex worldviews than “profit good”.


> Clear communication has nothing to do with sales

It certainly does. It produces the best kind of sales - transactions that work well for buyer and seller.

> cars

I asked the prof who taught my accounting class about his career in used car sales. He said you could tell a good dealer from bad by how long he'd been in business. A good lot will last more than 5 years, because by then he'll be running on repeat business rather than running out of suckers in the community.

> houses

I've moved around Seattle a bit. I only deal with one agent now, because she's honest and reliable, and I recommend her to anyone who asks. Real estate agents rely heavily on recommendations from satisfied customers.

> Real problems and real solutions are motivated by more complex worldviews than “profit good”.

I'm pointing out that the path to great profits is not by lying - it's by building a track record of satisfied customers. And that's how the best salesmen operate.

Consider insurance salesmen. I gave all my insurance business to one Charles Kern, who was very old school in that he always personally went way out of his way to take good care of all my insurance needs, including claims. His prices were higher, but were damn well worth it. I was very sad when he passed away, and have not found another agent since who was like him, and I'm correspondingly less loyal to them.

I have a similar relationship with my business accountant, who I've been using for 35 years. He's expensive, but he's earned my loyalty and I don't hesitate to recommend him to others. (And I started doing business with him from a recommendation by a friend of mine.)

And that's darn good salesmanship.


Or, how many telecoms or ISPs you have to choose from in your area? How many banks? Very few, and at least where I live, every one has sketchy people doing sales (particularly over the phone). You can only jump around so much, I bet it averages out for everyone - for each customer telecom A loses because of sketchy sales tactics, it gains a different one that run away from the sketchy sales tactics of telecom B. Meanwhile, they keep pushing win-lose deals on people and rake in the profits.

Here's an incomplete list where I've seen dishonest sales, and expect that the entire market category is thoroughly corrputed by such:

- Cases where you buy something very rarely (like cars or houses).

- Cases where there isn't much choice in the first place (banks, telecoms, ISPs, but also SaaS products).

- Cases where there is a steady flow of new customers, and repeat ones are unlikely (lots of e-commerce, in particular on big e-commerce platforms).


Most of sales are like that. The very very small minority is about actually helping people. Then, a lot of people are about manipulating and stretching truth just slightly beyond breaking point. The rest straight lies.

Think about the businesses you repeatedly buy from. Are they cheating you?

Almost nothing I repeat-buy is sold to me by a salesperson. Is there marketing? Sure. Salesperson? No. In fact having a salesperson involved almost always means it’s something unwanted or unpleasant (door-to-door window salesmen, cars) and I’m inclined to avoid them and shop on my own if it’s an option—I figure if a place is paying salesmen, I’m paying those salesmen if I buy from them, and I’d rather keep that money, and besides I don’t want to spend my time playing Which Pop-Sales Book Did You Read Last with Jim and his “salesman of the month, April 2013” plaque and mass-produced golf art.

B2B sales are different but incentives there aren’t the same as for individuals—I might take more sales pitches in private life if someone was paying me to do it, it wasn’t my money on the line, and so on.


The company is still doing selling to you.

Yeah, ads, shelf placement. Marketing. No interaction with a salesperson. I take them as a really strong signal to walk away from whatever they’re selling. Ditto any direct communication that appears personalized. Cold calls. Hell even unexpected calls from my bank trying to sell me something or “check in”. No, no, no if you’re talking to me you want something and there’s nothing I want to give you so, bye, and even if I think no maybe I do want that I’ll just hang up faster because you’re (maybe) a pro so I can’t trust any of this—if I didn’t initiate the communication, I don’t need it, so, bye.

Actually, I take that back: recruiters sell to me quite a bit. Though they’re trying to convince someone else to give us both money, not me to give them money, so that’s a bit different in that I’m not purchasing anything they’re “selling”.


That can be surprising if you dig into it.

Before I moved to a smaller town, there was a grocery store I bought regularly from due to optimal location and relatively middle-level prices. I was pretty sociable back then, and befriended some employees. This eventually led to them warning me about buying meat on certain days - turns out, they were forced to wash stale meat with detergent to erase the bad smell, and sell it as fresh. I recently confirmed it with one of the ex-employees, turns out their manager actually opposed that, but this was forced by the higher ups in the management of the whole shop chain.

That, and bunch of other stories (some second-hand, some first-hand), essentially ruined my trust in regular small business.


Did you continue to buy from them? I doubt it. Do you recommend them to others? I doubt that. Such practices tend to not work out well in the long term.

I've been investing in stocks ever since my first job. I've done reasonably well, and I focus on companies that focus on making their customers happy - and they do better than average long term. That's great salesmanship.


> Did you continue to buy from them? I doubt it.

Only bread, cheese and processed products in original packaging, so I guess this proves your point. But they are doing fine to this day, because there's only so many people you could tell (for various personal reasons I didn't want to pursue anything serious, like ratting them out to safety inspectors and hoping they didn't bribe the local inspector, like a certain bookstore I know of... but that's another story), and people tend to stick to their local grocery stores anyway (price and location sensitivity).

For what it's worth, despite that I'm now distrusting businesses by default, I try to compensate for that; if there's a store or service provider that I feel treats me fairly, and I don't see any obvious signs of deception in their overall business practices, I tend to stick to them despite cheaper options available. I feel fair business should be rewarded, and I do my best to put my money where my mouth is in this area.


> It helps to reframe the issue. "Selling" yourself is distasteful for many, because it smacks not only of loudness & brashness, but of straight up lying.

But a lot of people who get the promotions and funding are straight up lying. Selling yourself is distasteful because you can't compete with the dishonest, you don't want to play that game.


Counterpoint: smart, interested, thoughtful people want to hear your ideas. Judging their judgment in advance, assuming they’ll all be swayed by brashness and unsupportable claims, is really to discount their intelligence. A failure to reach them, to inform your peers, to share and collaborate on ideas due to misplaced humility, to expect someone to entirely bear the responsibility of seeking us out, is almost equally arrogant as the brash salesman.

You can compete with the dishonest. Just because many liars are sellers, doesn’t mean all marketing is lying.


I rarely see lying, but you can get pretty much the same result with selective word choice and hand waving.

Going from 500 words to 30 means a loss of resolution. Just make more of the words positive and you can greatly mislead.


Greatly misleading or lying by omission isn’t much better than lying directly.

Exactly. This kind of lying is like return-oriented programming attack. Technically you didn't lie to them, didn't inject them with malicious payload straight up - you just crafted your input to guarantee their mental process generates the malicious payload (the lie) for them.

Yeah, but the harm is done to the uncurious and lazy so I have a lot less sympathy.

If that describes your current workplace, you really should get a new one!

The other part of the framing problem is pushing through your internal critic. Impostor syndrome is very real and very difficult to overcome.

We're exposed to brilliance from others all around us, but we only see our own repeated failures. But that's a very biased sample. Others also stumble. But those stumbles are invisible. Likewise, your own past success is likely to be drowned out by the noise.


> educating others on the problem and on the solution.

I have had positive results due to this a few times. Though I was not "selling" myself, but product of some company at retail stores. I had never done that before so didn't know anything about "selling". Hence I did what I thought was acceptable to me i.e. educate customers and explain the solution, the only additional thing I did was to understand the customer's requirements first. That helps in calibrating the message for specific audiences.


> Look at this instead as a problem of knowledge distribution

I personally found this to be helpful. I find it more comfortable to document and present internally to my companies than to the public at large. I've tried blogging, but it feels pointless. At least with internal presentation, I hear positive feedback from it. Maybe it is just that one person six months later who messages me that I saved them days of work.


"It helps to reframe the issue. "Selling" yourself is distasteful for many, because it smacks not only of loudness & brashness, but of straight up lying."

I think a lot of folks think franchise auto dealers or traveling Hoover reps when they think about "selling". I've always found that sort of "get someone to give me their money for something no matter what" process is better equated with "hustling".

I have a few great relationships with real salespeople through my work, and for them it's about lining up their products with the people that truly need them for the price the products need to sell at.

I've tried to learn that as a lesson for self-advocacy and network building as well. I actually don't mind a cold call on LinkedIn from someone where our work might really benefit each other.


Austin Kleon wrote a great book "Show Your Work!" discussing this approach of sharing, communicating and exchanging creative ideas. He frames the problem in a similar fashion and brings all kinds of nuanced aspects of the issue into the discussion.

This is a really phenomenal lens to look through. This has totally changed my perspective. Thank you

Thank you all, in this thread. It is a difficult skill, but a necessity as well.

I took the humble approach to promoting Rust in Action for most of its development. It felt awkward as a writer to also be a marketer. But that meant many days with 0 sales. Now I'm more active, I regularly hit 10 sales per day and I haven't had a no sales day in 2020.

Most people have a fixed image of what selling yourself looks like: overly confident suit wearing people with nothing behind it yelling empty slogans at evetybody and their mother unsolicited just to see what sticks etc.

That is false. You can very easily sell yourself without ever lying or overstating anything. If all you have is a small CLI tool on github, selling yourself could be as simple as posting the link to the right people. Selling yourself could mean going to some event and talk to likeminded people, it could mean explaining some person what you are doing etc.

It is not about overly praising your own stuff — it is about not underpraising it.


I struggle with how much of life is shallow seduction. I cannot deny reality but I still hate it.

I don't want to sell, I want honest look. It makes me happy and motivated to do better. I should go into boxing at least there's some truth in survival.


I wonder if boxing has its own flavour of kayfabe.

I struggle with that two, and that's one of two big things. The other thing is: how so many things around us are balanced by adversarial relationships instead of cooperation. From nature, where ecosystem equilibrium is just a slow-moving frontline of life forms fighting and starving, to markets, where price determination relies on companies fighting over customers and ever pushing on each other. It's all so incredibly wasteful.


Yes.

Yes yes yes yes and yes yes and yes. I cannot stop seeing waste and adversity. It's 2020 and nobody is really fearing anything critical but we still roam with our paranoia on it seems.

I assume (bedroom theory) that with some cooperation level we'd cut the effort of everything 50%.

I think human groups also need leaders otherwise they just don't see the whole picture and don't function well because everybody is trying to defend his cubicle.

ps: I don't know about kayfabe, maybe there's a bit in boxing, there's also paid matches .. I believe on average the competition is real enough.


The greater cooperation inside a tribe, the greater competition there is between tribe leaders. It's a fact of nature. You can't have one without the other.

I fail to follow, care to explain more please ?

Success and power make you a target

Any ideas as to a better system that can be designed and implemented under which these brilliant, but quiet, people have a higher probability of getting funding, becoming recognized and having an overall greater impact?

I met so many brilliant people at UCLA and in my professional career that had this twinge of impostor syndrome. What ended up happening is their less-brilliant but much-louder colleagues always got the promotions and always got the funding.

How do you know whether you are part of the "brilliant" versus "less brilliant" groups you've mentioned here?


> How do you know whether you are part of the "brilliant" versus "less brilliant" groups you've mentioned here?

If you spend more than 10% of your time dealing with emails instead of doing science, then you are probably on the "less" side.


Scientists time counting does not work like that. At the end what you discovered will help people forever, how may time you spend to achieve it, is not (or at least shouldn't be) so relevant.

And a lot of the time spent in science is about painfully compiling info. Emailing people can have a lot of sense in that part.


Sorta agree with this but look at the success of Facebook. Zuck didn't have to sell Facebook. He put the idea out there and it was an instant success. if you find yourself having to sell too hard, maybe your idea is not that good.

This is extremely false; lots of people had similar ideas at the same time. They all had to be sold to their audiences, and their investors. Zuckerberg had an advantage in starting from a very prestigious university.

He wasn't even the first person to come up with the idea at Harvard. Heck, there were two similar projects at Cambridge when I was graduating in 2000. And a dating site.


I guess the larger point is: he didn't spend much time telling people how great facebook was. He created something with utility and rolled it out in a way that would provide maximum utility to each additional person signing up. (Replicating existing networks in order of diminishing prestige)

Even if this were true, Facebook is an extreme (as in, 0.000001%) outlier. It's difficult to draw conclusions.

Is this really true? Like at all? Is it likely that he built Facebook v1 and registered thefacebook.com and sat back waiting for organic traffic?

I mean, my entire knowledge of the launch of Facebook comes from watching The Social Network so take it with a grain of salt. But wasn’t he a prolific LiveJournaler (writing about his projects amongst everything else)? I’d think that fits this article rather exactly.


Nah, the magic sauce (IMO) was the progressive roll-out. When only .edu addresses were allowed in, it was exclusive and regular joes were desperate to get in. Google successfully pulled the same stunt with gmail, but failed dismally with google plus.

Didn't he have marketing partners who later sued him?

This is the truth. The way our market defines success doesn't mean that thats what success is. Sure, you can abuse it and sell your product even if it's bad, but look where that has taken the world.

Zuck was talking to Harvard's newspaper about Facebook shortly after he started coding it, and as soon as it was finished he sent it to a 300-member email list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Facebook#Facebook

I have a side project where you rate statements 1-5 for their truthfulness. "Zuck didn't have to sell Facebook" makes me feel like I need to add even lower numbers.


Zuck didn't have to sell Facebook.

I feel like that's only kind of true, and only at first.


This article doesn't resonate with me. We live our lives as if they were a business enterprise with a balance sheet, always selling, always advertising, always figuring out how to put our personality on display, always judging our human worth by our successes or failures, always weighing the benefits of everything we do. This is the root of many of our modern sociological problems. We attempt to "justify our existence" by our relationship with work. Part of exploring the life of the mind is keeping some ideas, maybe even your most fulfilling work, close to the chest. Life is not all about selling yourself.

I think you're conflating two things.

You shouldn't need to sell yourself to find joy, contentment, fulfillment; those who try are doomed to be miserable.

But, selling yourself is still important; even if your sense of self-worth and etc isn't tied into recognition, it is still something humans crave, and it has societal value. If you are doing anything of value to others, the only way it can achieve that value is by letting those who would value it know it exists. That's called "selling". Without it, what you've done has no value outside of yourself.

That's not to say (to your point) that something done just for yourself is without some sort of objective value, but it certainly has no value to society (by definition), and we are social creatures; we all have a desire to have at least some of our work be valued by others.


I felt a similar reaction to the tone of the article. Twice the author said 'You may as well not have bothered' if no one recognized the value of your output. And your response also frames it as 'What you've done has no value outside of yourself'.

I think what the post you're replying to is getting at is that by framing things this way we overvalue things which others approve of, and undervalue things we enjoy doing for the sake of doing.


> We live our lives as if they were a business enterprise with a balance sheet, always selling, always advertising, always figuring out how to put our personality on display,

I think this is a very American thing to do. In most other cultures this is not true. Notably the OP is presumably British and my British grand parents most definitely were not "always selling" nor "putting their personality on display".


I also immediately regarded this to be an American thing to do, and I am from the US, so I suppose I am guilty of the following. In any case, I find it slightly amusing that even when a (presumably) non-American does something that fits into this model of things Americans do, it can serve to reinforce the idea that it's an American thing to do. Is there a point at which this ceases to be so?

> Life is not all about selling yourself.

Since we are social creatures, it pretty much is. Social mores and niceties, for example.


Yep. People may not want life to be about selling yourself, but that's the way it is.

Anyone is free to reject it. And that person is likely to live their life without their work being recognized, their ideas being appreciated, or their ingenuity to find the hands of those whom it would benefit.

I wonder how fulfilling that feels?


No friends and no spouse, either.

I have friends and i have a spouse, i never sold myself to them and they never sold themselves to me. Quite frankly the idea of it is disgusting.

So, you never do things just to please them? You have no filters on what you say to them? You're not on your best behavior on a first date? You only bathe when medically necessary? You dress only for comfort? When you have a photo taken you don't try to smile and stand up straight?

I'm not buying it.


That works for short term relationships. Long term ones work differently.

The divorce rate comes from people thinking they no longer need to please their partner.

That's not selling. It's odd that the only coordination you seem to recognise is negotiated between buyers and sellers.

It most definitely is. It’s odd that you refuse to recognize a thing for what it is.

Work isn't the purpose of life, but if you do work for other people (and most of us do) then you need to show those people what you accomplished.

Showing people that you care about them (and their interests) might be a/the purpose of life, and this is one example of that.


We're in a constant state of signalling. Think some book mentions that most of our actions are driven by our need to signal or convey something to parties.

So, I'd argue we are always "selling" ourselves in one way or another, both unconsciously and consciously.


This is so interesting that the two sides to this don’t seem to be able to engage very much. For me, too, the reflex is “Who cares? Why be so prescriptive and pushy about needing to sell (as if it’s humanity’s natural state)?” because that isn’t how I experience my life. But to others it seems to be just instinct.

> It seems crazy to require that technically talented people should be forced to spend time doing something - report writing - at which they're not gifted, but how else can the world benefit from their brilliance? Without communicating their ideas, their work is lost and might never have been.

Peter Thiel has an interesting take on sales in his book Zero to One. He makes the case that good selling and good teaching are pretty much the same thing.

The best teachers know how to sell the topic they teach. K-12 teachers in particular know in their bones how crucial a sales perspective is to getting an important message across.

The best salespeople sell in a way that doesn't seem like selling. Thiel gives the example Steve Jobs. It almost seems strange to call what he did sales, but that's essentially what he did when he got on stage. Another example, is Elon Musk, who gets his message across without seeming very much like a salesperson. It's probably no coincidence that both figured out good ways to inspire their audiences.

So if the word "sell" makes you want to run for the door, consider the more or less equivalent form: communicate. Or, maybe "educate." If you think salespeople are all liars, focus your "sales" efforts on conveying facts in the most compelling way possible - without lying. I find that from this perspective, the idea doesn't seem nearly as bad. It also presents a much more actionable path forward.


The element people are ignoring is money. You can communicate, teach, etc. without money coming into the picture. Sales is about money. You can claim you're "selling" an idea, but the implication is that you're still doing it for your own benefit or advantage. That doesn't mean it has to be a one-sided transaction. You may really believe that what you're doing is beneficial for the other party. But your own interest is an inextricable element of sales.

If your own advantage isn't a factor, there are a hundred words with more relevant connotations to describe what you're doing.


I've got to say that I don't agree at all with the teacher analogy. People get so caught up in thinking that teaching is about the subject that they are teaching. It's not. It's 100% about the student. If you are a teacher that is astounding at presenting the material, you will provide an incredibly enjoyable experience for the students who would have already have learned the material on their own. They others will similarly be entertained, but will struggle and just assume they are stupid because they have failed to learn from such an incredible teacher.

However, I learned from a very good sales person that sales is all about understanding the other person and making sure that you present an interface that they can relate to. In that respect, I agree that teaching is just like that. You need to get into the mind of each student and understand how they think and what they are feeling. You need to be understanding and compassionate and to open the doors that they didn't know existed. Very, very good sales people do the same thing.

I've come to the conclusion that sales, at its very best, is one of the most wholesome and wonderful jobs you can have. What is better than connecting people who need something to the thing they need? What is better than making them feel good about taking action to making their life better by fulfilling their needs?

The problem is that most sales people aren't actually that good at sales. ;-)


> If you lock yourself in a room and do the most marvellous work but don't tell anyone, then no one will know, no one will benefit, and the work will be lost. You may as well not have bothered.

That's a questionable premise and an entitled perspective from "the world" in my opinion. If one decides that they don't really give a fuck about the "impact" of the work on the world and doing it for its own sake, the "world" has no right to push them to release/advertise for their benefit. The premise also implies all entertainment is completely useless. Devil's advocate might argue it's quite the opposite: everything else in the world exists for you to focus on joy and entertainment and not be bothered with the bullshit the world brings on to you :)


The thing I find about this quote is, barring the existence of a deity or secular equivalent, all work is, in the end, lost, everything comes down to nothing as the universe is overcome by entropy and heat death or the big crunch. As the song goes: It all returns to nothing, it all comes tumbling down. Which, of course, leads right back to the foundational existential question: free of the perceived delusion of eternity, why do anything? Or why not do everything? Or why, just, why?

IMO only most of the things come to nothing.

A good way to deal with existential crises in my life has been to ask myself this question:

"If somebody were to objectively reduce my life to several deeds only and say that those were my most important actions, which ones would they be?"

This question also helps me put my energy expenditures in perspective. Is what I'm doing really important to me?

So yes, probably 99% of what we'll ever do will amount to nothing. Makes it all the more crucial to focus on that important 1%.


Gotta do something

Also, Kafka, Vivian Dorothy Maier and many others did essentially that and were posthumously discovered, so you never know.

You shouldn’t count on it, of course, if recognition is important to you.


You're mixing up terms and inferring "entertainment" when that's not what's being talked about. The operative word is "work" which is used in contrast to "play"

Well, I see that as a false dichotomy, and an important one at that. The most marvelous work the world has seen is a product of love, not a desire to maximize money or exposure. If you were doing number theory in 1500s, you were not thinking of how I would apply it to make the world a better place with secure communications. You do it for its own sake. ffs, I'm writing this comment on a website titled "Hacker News" after all, which I hope implies some audience care about the spirit of "doing something for its own inherent pleasure".

If you invented number theory in the 1500s, then burned your manuscripts, the world will be no different from if you wrote ten thousand pages saying only "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy".

If you are doing something entirely for your benefit, that's fine. But people generally want someone to see the things they make, even if those things are not intended to be a billion-dollar startup.


I see your point, but I think the framing is important: yes, you generally want to benefit from some of the things you do, and most of your work is generally not your marvelous work. I indeed believe the best work is done when you are not constantly looking over your shoulder thinking about how to sell.

The paradoxical thing about this typical simplistic Western-society benefit maximization framework is if you actually think about it in principle, to maximize benefits, you are usually better off minimizing doing the real work altogether (almost to a halt), and singularly focus on the selling whatever shit you get your hands on and focus on coordination and leveraging other people's work to capture the value, which empirically works, but is somehow crass to rewrite the article and just say so. You certainly won't hit HN first page that way.


I think you're going down a slippery slope. You say:

> I indeed believe the best work is done when you are not constantly looking over your shoulder thinking about how to sell.

I, too, believe this. But let's look at what Hamming counts as "selling", as quoted in the sidebar to the article:

> You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks.

"Selling", to Hamming, includes being able to tell people about what you are making. Not necessarily "pay me $999/month for my SAS I created in a weekend", but even "here is how to understand my mathematical proof". It counts everything needed to communicate to others. That can be communicate why a thing you made is worth paying for, certainly. But it also includes knowing how to get your painting framed properly, so it is in a context for people to enjoy your art.

I would get far more enjoyment out of almost anything I make if someone else also enjoyed it, rather than my creation being hidden in my apartment. And so it is useful to me to publicize it, to put it into the world for people to see, to even just be able to explain what it is. It is not all about the almighty dollar.


> I think you're going down a slippery slope... > let's look at what Hamming counts as "selling"

Ironically, above is a textbook example of "slippery slope"; redefining selling to include any communication about the work. (Besides, the context Hamming seems to be targeting is academic/semi-academic formal research, which is different from purely artistic/solo efforts; it's another form of business with a somewhat different currency). One might enjoy multiplayer games more than single-player; is that "selling" too?

Look, I am not arguing at all with the statement that if "impact on the world" in the external sense is your North Star, you have to "sell" in the broad sense of the word. I also am not arguing that there is pleasure in that act for some people (I, too, in fact enjoy it, sometimes more than the contribution, but that's just me). In fact, I stretch the argument even further that capturing value of the work is more in the sales aspect of it than the "real" contribution, as you can empirically see in the world.

What I vehemently disagree with is the default and universal framing, that everyone's goal is, or ought to be, external projection of the work--and that otherwise the work is "valueless". I also disagree with the universal perception that all people would equally gain more satisfaction by the "impact" than the inherent pleasure associated with the work.

Without that mindset, extremely long term investments and contributions will never be made. Okay, maybe you'll redefine "selling" to explaining your vision to people living 500 years from now, but I don't. And I doubt that is the intent of the article. I read it as much more pedestrian: "if you want to get promoted, gotta sell your work to your bosses."


There are diminishing returns to selling whatever shit you can get your hands on, especially if you're actually good at solving problems.

Conversely, your most marvellous work probably becomes marvellous round about the point it moves from the realm of being perfect inside your own head to actually helping someone else. Whether that happens by means of a full-throttle sales approach and a patent so you can extract every last dollar out of it or is gifted to a world not yet fully ready to appreciate it, it's a lot more marvellous if you've put the effort into sharing it, even if that bit sounds like work.


Einstein is the ultimate example of selling yourself. Yes, he was brilliant but brilliant is not enough. He was constantly open to interviews and made sure the media knew what he was doing. He was so successful that even after his death most of us know about him even if we don't really understand what he was famous for. BTW, he did not earn his Nobel Price for his work on relativity but for the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.

I bet if he was alive today, he would be all over social media -similar to Musk.


That implies some form of narcissism in the equation. Is this the trait one of the special sauces?

No, I think I show forms of narcissism, but I'm nowhere near successful as I would imagine. It gives you the drive, but it doesn't give you a vehicle.

What I've observed is that the special trait is being a "people's person", great conversationalist, communicator and likeable.


There are people that can turn all those qualities on and off. I worked with a manager that was extremely good at it in public and people could not get enough of her but in private she was plain nasty. She was hired to layoff staff that were not making the mark and bring in new talent. She was very good at it.

Can it be thought of as 'sharing'?

There are very few channels to "sell" your work or yourself. We need more of those channels and more "connected" people willing to browse those channels and trampoline things that are interesting.

Nobody cares about your work, they care about what other people care about. It's a chicken-and-egg problem. It can only be bootstrapped by some clever social hack, money, or with someone more connected putting in the work to help connect people. Someone who is producing high quality work 150% of the time cannot be expected to spend another 150% effort to required to rise above the cacophony of other people doing the same thing.

That said, I have done some thinking on this subject, and I'm curious: would there be any interest in a QVC-for-software-demos livestream? It would be somewhere where anyone could go on, on a schedule, and show a demo of something they've made or like to use. It could be for paid software or for fun projects, and it would be live, warts and all. Does this sound interesting to anyone?

EDIT>> If you're interested, as either a presenter or a viewer, add your name and email to this google sheet: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1VX1H8wsW-Do2NflC3__y...


I built something like this for Shopify. Than Facebook sorta copied my idea with this storefront news. Anyway, I think this niche is very small and your better going for lower hanging fruit then starting with a live stream for software products. There have been businesses like this that were great like criticue.com but surprisingly they went under due to lack of interest and adoption. I personally really liked the service. It was better then a livestream, it was a group of software reviewers giving you feedback.

I'd volunteer to present on the QVC-for-software-demos livestream if such a thing existed.

It is accurate but disappointing.

Just before university admissions, I learned to be a self-promotional person, so I am guilty of this.

Firstly, you spend a ton of time doing that selling. It takes away from actually doing work. It is also just distasteful. I hate constantly fiddling with my bio.

Second, you end up altering the work you are willing to do simply because some work is easier to sell than other work.

I completely get why people do this as I do it as well, but what is all this costing society?


Absolutely true, absolutely a valid criticism, but it's sort of a 'first level selling'. If you look into people who are REALLY good at what they do, things start to look real different and the value system you're concerned about goes out the window.

Read some of Guy Kawasaki's stuff. That guy is stupidly good at selling, had much to do with introducing the Macintosh back in the day, but it is anything but a burden to him, and if he found he was grinding away selling junk because it was easier, he'd jump out the window.

There is NO substitute for being able to try and convey your excitement about something you're REALLY good at and REALLY care about, and when you are able to bring that to bear, everything is different. I make my living on Patreon 'selling' open source audio stuff I make, and one of my PRIMARY arguments there is, 'this is amazing! Because it is completely liberating! Getting paid this way I get to make weird stuff that maybe only one person will like better than anything, because I NEVER have to hold back and alter things to fit in with what I think the market will bear!"

And it's true… but there is also a market for people who want stuff off the beaten path. I never spend anything on advertising or marketing, and it costs me quite a lot in discoverability, but there is also a market for people who want someone that will not SELL to them in the normal sense, who seems to be out there just doing, and never comes knocking expecting to make 'a sale' or hyping their latest nonsense.

It's not as big a market as the mainstream. But the mainstream simply does not serve everybody.

The bottom line is, if you expect to sell stuff, the most enduring way to do that is to be yourself and then hope like hell there's a market for YOU… because you can fake it, but you can't really get away from who you are. But, if you're prepared to just go full tilt and be consistently who you are, the connections you build are not disposable and don't require trickery to maintain.

When everybody got hit with coronavirus lockdown and were facing great financial risk and the loss of their livelihoods, I worked out an arrangement where I declared that I cut the price of everything more than half, and told all my people on patreon that they should cut back or cancel what they were giving. And I braced myself, certain that I could withstand it: I'd run the numbers and I'd be able to tough it out.

And of course they all did the opposite and gave more, and I got upset and had to be told to allow people to be generous when they wanted to. Because I'd really meant it, it wasn't a 'bit'. And because that was who I really was… yeah. So I got the opposite of hurt, and had the opposite of being out of work. And now I'm trying not to overwork like a madman, knowing that people cared, but also that they wanted me to be well.

If you can be yourself as hard as you can, and it's a self worth being, the idea of 'selling yourself' seems pretty ridiculous ;)


I've seen this pushed before. Unfortunately, the more you focus on advertising the less you focus on technical knowledge.

Let the two be separate, because the world has enough 'leaders'/'advertisers'. What it needs now is technical knowledge.


Everyone who has the deep technical knowledge also needs to be able to communicate with others who don't have it. There's a difference between being an Internet personality who can code and being a programmer who can write English.

Even if locking yourself in a room for months is a requirement to coming up with new science (which I highly doubt), solving problems for the intellectual gratification is useless on its own unless the new knowledge is shared. Writing is simply the highest-bandwidth medium for distributing technical knowledge to a wide group of people, so even the most in-the-trenches technical people need to be good at it.


It's really not as you say in practice. Semantically yes it never becomes released, but eventually excellent work spreads naturally.

In the current internet setup it is hard to grow organically, but that's a result of this same mentality. It reinforces politics and showmanship, which is why those skills dictate the market and coincidentally the internet.


But how does excellent work spread naturally? If I publish some truly wonderful language or package on GitHub, would anyone notice without me promoting it? Or if I find some surprising result from an experiment, write it up, put it on my blog that I don't promote, will anyone see it? And if so, how?

> Let the two be separate, because the world has enough 'leaders'/'advertisers'. What it needs now is technical knowledge.

I think that without those with the technical knowledge leading in their own right, then other self-proclaimed leaders will do their best bet at understanding, and will often get critical parts wrong.


It's more likely that the technical crowd won't follow the leaders who get technical implementations wrong. Instead you will see natural leadership like in the early days of the internet.

> Unfortunately, the more you focus on advertising the less you focus on technical knowledge.

If the law of diminishing returns applies, it's better to spend time on improving multiple skills or knowledge instead of focusing on just one. I don't think you need to be an expert in advertising for it to be useful to you.


>Doing technically brilliant work may be enough for your personal gratification, but you should never think it's enough. If you lock yourself in a room and do the most marvellous work but don't tell anyone, then no one will know, no one will benefit, and the work will be lost. You may as well not have bothered. For the world to benefit from your work, and therefore for you to benefit fully from your work, you have to make it known.

no kidding. but the other possibility is that you tell the world but no one cares,which is likely the most probable outcome. Look at all

>But you still have to sell! You now have to sell your company's product or service, you now have to get known so that people will start to use your product or service, or people will constantly visit your website, which then attracts advertising. Whatever, you need to sell! A company lives and dies by what it sells.

>Some people say that the sole purpose of a company is to make money. Others are more idealistic and say that it's to make the world better, or to make their employees' lives better, or some other goal. But without making money, everything else is moot.

Some of the biggest acquisitions and valuations have been in companies that make little to no money or lose money.


>no kidding. but the other possibility is that you tell the world but no one cares,which is likely the most probable outcome.

Well, there are 3 components to it:

A) Find a relevant problem to solve. I.e. market research.

B) Solve the problem. I.e. engineering.

C) Convince your audience to try your solution. I.e. marketing/sales.

A successful business requires all 3.

>Some of the biggest acquisitions and valuations have been in companies that make little to no money or lose money.

Because their actual product is the expectation of future profits, and their customers are the investors. Ethics aside, it's the same pipeline, really.


"but the other possibility is that you tell the world but no one cares, which is likely the most probable outcome."

There's some truth to this. To take Hacker News as an example, there are many excellent projects posted in the 'Show HN' section that get no traction at all. And then there a few lucky ones that suddenly take-off. There's no "wisdom of the crowds" moment that propels one project to success over another because it's more worthy or excellent - it really is random in so many cases.

We think success = product excellence: how else could a product rise to a leading position in the market or to such pre-eminence unless it was better than the alternatives? But the mountain of successful products that range from mediocre to terrible shows that product excellence isn't always the key ingredient to a product's success.

Lest this all sounds too negative, I agree with the original article that documenting and pursuing your idea is absolutely worthwhile.


> Some of the biggest acquisitions and valuations have been in companies that make little to no money or lose money.

They've also been exceptionally good at raising money by selling their potential to generate revenue (or threaten the revenue stream of potential acquirers) even when they're unprofitable or even generating any non-trivial revenue stream.

The businesses that get acquired purely for quietly generating useful IP don't figure in the biggest acquisitions or valuations, and without exception could [have] do[ne] better if and when they communicate[d] that value effectively.


If you replace 'sell' with communicate and 'advertise' with inform, I think everybody's going to agree.

Clear, concise communication is important in any human relationship - it doesn't matter what line of work you're in, unless you're living in isolation somewhere :)

These mythical creatures who create incredible work but fail to communicate it - really? I wouldn't call Linus Torvalds a communication genius and yet when you create something other people want, word gets around and your software gets used.

We could all use a reality check - most of these mythical undiscovered gems are doing above average work that wouldn't benefit that much from better communication, hence it doesn't happen. The cost of re-learning your communication patterns to better match others' expectations is high and yet the reward is often that others will find you a little less stand-offish.


The missing piece here is: How do you sell it? How do people find out about your work?

These days (especially in a quarantine world) that means SEO, writing to the search engine, and to an extent, social media.

So while I don't love it, either, I'm increasingly learning to see sophisticated social media usage & SEO as part of my work.


Any chance of going into more detail about what you see as sophisticated social media usage? A link would be good.

I'm still early in the learning process, and I wouldn't feel confident going beyond the most basic google search results, right now.

But clearly, having an audience on Twitter, and possibly a good relationship with online publications or reporters who can help get your message out, where you can guest blog or become known as an expert, is good for business.

And if there's some way that your work can become a product that translates into sales that can be reached through Instagram, Pinterest, etc., then it helps to know that too. Sounds weird, but I worked at a tooling startup that advertised on Instagram and apparently got good results from it.


After reading this article I scrolled down the list of other blog posts by Colin Wright and I found one at the very bottom, from 2011, entitled "Withdrawing from Hacker News": https://www.solipsys.co.uk/new/WithdrawingFromHackerNews.htm...

There was a comment thread from that article here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2402730

I wonder if Colin has decided to re-join Hacker News, and if so, would he care to comment on the changes to Hacker News since 2011 that prompted him to change his mind.


I went away for quite some time. In response to the HN discussion you quote, quite a lot of people got in touch, and as a result I ended up making a few quite good friends, and many more contacts.

After a while I submitted a few things, and commented on a few things I was pointed at, but I didn't ever come back and read in the same way that I had been doing.

And it remains thus. I submit things I think the community might be interested in, and I dip in occasionally. But my participation is not as it once was. During "lock down" I've been commenting about once a day, I look at the "Front Page" most days, and "newest" most days, but I don't comment much. Looking at the trends and what the community usually finds interesting, and especially looking at the responses to some of the comments I make, I don't feel that I have a lot to contribute.


Hi Colin, you gave your juggling talk at my high school sometime before 2009. I already considered myself both a juggler and a programmer, but your talk inspired me on both counts, and taught me something about being cross-disciplinary in the things we enjoy and pursue. I've been a professional software dev for 8 years but I still think about your talk, your software, and your website. Thanks for encouraging young people like me.

Hi there ...

That's a lovely comment ... thank you. Feel free to email me and we could perhaps arrange to meet and have a coffee sometime. Contact details in my profile.

But equally, feel free to stay anonymous if you prefer!


This is an unfortunate truth. People aren't waiting to cheer you on as soon as you release a work.

Something about academia too, which doesn't really prepare us for the 'selling' part of life/coding. Every term/semester is nice and discrete, with a culminating project/exam, and then the next one is suddenly ... complete. The only required external attention was either the prof who did the grades (who's paid to view your work) or your parents who want to see your accomplishments.

Ironically, everyone posting in this thread is trying to sell their opinion on it!

>>Selling" to a scientist is an awkward thing to do. It's very ugly; you shouldn't have to do it. The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it.

Half of what I did as 'public engagement' was basically selling people the idea that they should take time and care about these animals we were researching and in fact money should be spent protecting them.

Most of grant proposal writing is very much selling the idea of your study or project to the government or organization that's willing to give you money.


> If you lock yourself in a room and do the most marvellous work but don't tell anyone, then no one will know, no one will benefit, and the work will be lost. You may as well not have bothered.

Maybe this article should be called "I sell, therefore I am".

The quote from the article, to me, sounds ridiculous. I don't lock myself in a room and do marvelous work for other people, so that they know it exists, or so that it will last longer than I do -- and I suspect many other creators feel similarly.


Dont sell yourself.

Be honest. Be modest.

Work hard for your own satisfaction.

If you make a modest living doing something you enjoy, consider yourself lucky.

Unless you want to be rich and famous. In which case, kiss arse and big yourself up all the time.


Yeah son, but doing it that way wont get you accepted in YCombinator with all the cool kids here. Dont tell me you dont want to be the next Lizzie Holmes.

I think there are a few grey beards lurking :)

This Hamming quote is gold. I like the way it tells how to put "know your audience" into practice:

... ask why you read some articles and not others. You had better write your report so when it is published ... as the readers are turning the pages they won't just turn your pages but they will stop and read yours. If they don't stop and read it, you won't get credit.


One other thing is that if you don't sell your work, someone else might take it, rebrand it, and sell it for his own profit.

Sadly I agree. I've seen this a few times in Silicon Valley. You take an open source project from here, take another one from there, take some code from someone's Github, forget about the licenses (because who is going to figure it out?), and you put it all together overlaid with some nice graphics and you've got the start of a business/startup. Take that, show it to investors, and go raise a bunch of money.

Does that really happen often in Silicon Valley? Any offenders that you know of or just a hunch?

Don't think anyone would "turn someone in" in particular to answer you but it happens all the time. Commercial software businesses thrive on open source, and even of the successful ones only _very_ few concern themselves with giving back to the individuals whose work they used or the open-source world in any way. (edit) I'm not against it per se, but it's sad how it's only take, take, and take.

Yeah I feel you, but think about it from the other perspective. We use PostgreSQL but may not have the expertise or budget (since man hours = cost) to contribute to the project. Open Source is and can only thrive by the amazing volunteers that contribute to them, it can never been an obligation; specially for appearances sake.

>> then no one will know, no one will benefit, and the work will be lost. You may as well not have bothered.

This runs counter to a lot of great works. They were completed, known by and benefited first and foremost their creator. The fact that the rest of us know about them is just a nice side effect, not necessary.


If you don't advertise your work there is no point in even having done it. Perfect way to sum up our pr/advertising driven world. Not the way I value things, or my own work. There is more value to things than people's 'perception' imo.

"... you can either do it in such a fashion that people can indeed build on what you've done, or you can do it in such a fashion that the next person has to essentially duplicate again what you've done ..."

I like these words


>then no one will know, no one will benefit, and the work will be lost. You may as well not have bothered.

The same is true if you expand your perspective into timescales just slightly larger than the usual human one.




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