Two themes: excellence and self promotion.

This post may need a bit of an explanation. I am supposed to give a brief talk to and about a partcular institution. I think the institution is often shooting itself in the foot. So I would like to talk about an aspect of institutional excellence at least to divert attention from inflicting wounds. The connection I mention below seemed to me to be possibly worth exploring. It occurred to me yesterday, so these are very preliminary reflections. I’m also reacting a bit to an earlier post on the topic of referring to one’s work.


I’ve been thinking off and on about these two themes for some time. It occurred to me last night that in fact they may be very closely connected. A little more cautiously, two institutions that have recently seemed to be very similar even though they are very different in kind might seem so similar because of how these themes might be invoked in describing them. (Just so you know, I’ve been wondering for some time why two places I’ve recently seen a lot of – Somerville College, Oxford, and MD Anderson, Houston, often ranked as the US’s number one cancer treatment and research institution, have seem so similar in some way related to excellence. That is, related in a way that is more than simply both being excellent.)

So let’s consider this conjecture: with some excellent places, the accusatory assumption that someone who mentions her work is being self-promoting is absent, or nearly absent. Further, that absence can nuture excellence while it is itself a more intelligent reaction to excellence.

What could possibly cause any association between excellence and a lack of accusations of self-promotion? Here is one connection: it is pretty unthinking to assume someone mentioning her work is being self-promoting. The assumption is a mark of a failure in excellence. Why? For a lot of reasons:

1. People who think one’s motivation is self-promotion quite probably are not aware of some other very significant motivations. In particular, there can be a genuine joy in creating something and bringing something to a conclusion, whether it is a paper, a painting, a recital, a tennis match, or so on.

2. The hypothesis of self-promotion usually has a large gap; namely, there isn’t an answer given to the question of whom the accused is supposed to be trying to impress. Too often the accuser assumes they are among those whom the accused is trying to impress. Except in some special cases where the accuser has special power or resources, that may well be false.

3. The accusation is a way of dismissing someone’s work without incurring any burden of proof. That is less than honest trickery (At the same time, we might reflect that there are different reasons one might want to dismiss someone’s work. The quality of the work might really threaten one’s own sense of self-worth. Or one might be trying to derail some candidacy, etc. and there are no doubt more reasons.)

I think and hope I’ve said enough to give some sense of a line of thought.

I expect there are objections, and I’d love to hear of any you think of. You can also be positive!

There is a great deal, in fact, that remains to be said. For example, aren’t there some brilliant people who have made huge advances while still being nasty and accusatory about others’ supposed self-promoting narcissism? (talk about projection, one might say.) If you are thinking about this, please notice that the ideas get quite qualified as this post progresses.

So please add or subtract from these reflections.

5 thoughts on “Two themes: excellence and self promotion.

  1. An interesting topic.

    Maybe you could give some examples. Certainly not all self-mentionings are self-promoting. Some surely are. For instance, in the course of a discussion, highlighting that a certin idea is one’s own, when that fact isn’t germane to moving forward the discussion seems self-promoting. Why not just raise the point without highlighting its authorship?

    Or, if one presumes the excellence of one’s work. I’m inclined to think that most overvalue their own work. If its truly excellent, it will be readily apparent. And if others are too dense to see that, proclaiming as much won’t help matters.

    Or if one continually discusses on one’s own work, to the exclusion of other good and relevant work. The point I’m trying to get at is that context will play an important role indeterming whether self-mentioning is viewed as self-promoting.

  2. “Or, if one presumes the excellence of one’s work. I’m inclined to think that most overvalue their own work. If its truly excellent, it will be readily apparent.”

    Given recent work on the sociology of philosophy citation practices, in addition to longstanding work on things like implicit biases, I’d hope that people no longer think this.

  3. rachel,

    Sure. It may well be the case that one’s excellent work goes unappreciated and un-cited because of implicit biases and the like. It could also be the case that it”s really not that excellent. I’ll go ahead and say that the class of those who have great work and believe it to be under-appreciated is vastly smaller than that of
    those who have good/mediocre/meh work and believe it to be under-appreciated.

    (Full disclosure. My work is firmly within the mediocre/meh categories).

  4. Hi Dr. Jacobson. Suppose someone’s significant motivation were self-promotion (and I agree with reason 1 it is a precarious attribution.) Even in that case it is puzzling to me what conclusions we ought to draw about such a person.

    I’m thinking a self-promoter may have learned self-promotion as a way to gain acceptance, or their self-promotion may be an expression of something very reasonable and conciliatory, like wanting to be liked or appreciated. If that’s right, it seems judging them negatively or aloud or both makes things worse: they may feel people are just as (or more) judgmental as they suspected, and the world is more scary (or just as scary) as their experience has led them to believe. (full disclosure I am guilty of judging people in this way and promoting myself in this way)

    So it seems to me, that after the attribution of SP (even correct attribution), assuming further that someone’s behavior is not conciliatory, when in fact it may have been conciliatory, without knowing them or their history, would not be an “excellent” way of facilitating a relationship with that person. What do you think?

    My hope is my comment adds to your reflections in reason #1.

  5. Thnks so much for the comments! You. Have convinced me that I really was ignoring a lot of detail, and skipping over some important possibilities.

    I just discovered a lot of recent work on creativity and innovation, and impediments to it in universities. When I finish writing a very important job reference (at least for me and the person I am writing about), I’ll pick up some of your points in a post on that. Part of the problem I’d like to address could also be seen as insisting that people shouldn’t do anything differently.

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