The Expert’s Curse
May 24, 2022
“One of our biggest challenges is making sure our life’s purpose doesn’t become a beggar’s bowl, a bottomless pit of desire continually searching for the next thing that will make us happy. That’s a losing proposition.” — Gary Keller
“If you think the price of winning is too high, wait until you get the bill for regret.” — Tim Grover
“Refrain from trying to win other people’s approval and admiration.” — Epictetus
I sat there, scrolling LinkedIn. Thumb slowly sliding from the top of the screen down to the bottom. Hunting for something stimulating. Anything that isn’t just pure braggart, pure narcissism wrapped up in a post about how successful somebody is and why I should want to emulate them. After about 10 minutes I began to take pleasure in spotting what most of them were doing.
I started talking to myself out loud.
“Ah, another story about his family and his incredibly impressive schedule. Oh look, there’s his Bentley in the background. Didn’t have to be there though, but it was angled just right to show how his massive…success. There we go. There’s his free PDF I can download right now to learn how to be just as successful as him.”
“Oh this one is identical but from a different person. Let me scroll to the bottom…ah yes. There’s the free PDF.”
Discovering The Curse
I’ve worked in marketing a long time. Nearly two decades in fact. For my sins, I’m the man behind the curtain, helping people to write posts like the ones above I just took the piss out of, but hopefully much more genuine and human. Because of this, I’m cursed. I’m cursed to spot somebody’s marketing angle immediately when somebody creates something online. I’m cursed to analyse it for its “effectiveness”, it’s cheesiness, it’s straight-up fakery.
I can’t turn this perspective off. I can’t read a thing on social media and assume it genuine (99% of the time it isn’t), so it makes it difficult for me to see any of this stuff in a positive light.
I understand the Greek tragedy at play. Craig, working in marketing for 17 years, now cursed to see how fake the entire marketing game is, unable to take any of it remotely seriously even if he wanted to, stuck in a prison of post-rationalisation. This is why nearly all marketers are absolutely horrible at marketing themselves online. They’re too self-aware.
I’m an expert at marketing, so I think I don’t need to tell anyone I’m an expert at it. I feel like I’m above it, but sometimes I feel like I’m below it. Either way, I feel wholly uncomfortable with marketing myself.
That’s The Expert’s Curse.
The Expert’s Curse
You’re probably thinking: “so what?”
“Poor Craig. Poor Craig can’t market himself properly. Let me find my microscopic violin and play a sad tune for him.”
Yes, poor me. But poor you too, because it’s affecting you as much as it affects me. It affects most people.
In my experience, anybody who is close to being an expert at what they do can’t market themselves. They can’t talk about what they do, they can’t promote themselves, they are their own worst critic and are paralysed when it comes to any type of marketing activity. I know this for a fact because I’ve been there, got myself out of it, then found myself back there. Multiple times.
Allow me to explain via the power of allegory.
Horror conventions, comic conventions (or comic cons), video game conventions, they’re all the same. It’s a room full of geeks geeking out over their very specific geek thing. I was recently at one, a horror convention to be specific.
There’s usually special guests from their very specific geek niche, there’s usually themed food from their very specific geek niche, and then there’s the last thing that makes all the money: the stalls.
The stalls sell things very specific to their chosen geek niche. The horror convention I went to had an entire hall full of stalls, dedicated to very specific geek niche horror stuff. Chucky Dolls. Bride of Chucky Dolls. Critters. People walking around dressed as Jason Vorhees or Freddy Krueger (there’s always loads of them). But it was at the stalls that I witnessed The Expert’s Curse at play out in real-time.
As I shuffled along the hall looking at the stalls I came to one with horror artwork. I was taken by the work I saw straight away because it was excellent. Drawn in a very distinctive style, the work regularly featured in horror magazines and movie posters. The artist was clearly an expert at his craft, and to my joy I noticed him stood looking at me whilst I looked at his work. I’d get a chance to strike up a conversation about his work, his process. Understand his opinions about The Creative Endeavour a little further. I was excited.
I looked at him and half-nodded, trying to warm him up. Trying to subtly hint at the fact I would like to commence a conversation. I told him his work was very good, to which he said thank you. That line usually opens up an artist to talking about his work, but here, nothing happened. He nervously looked at me, as if he knew a social cue was being instigated, but not sure what to do next. Half a second later a loud salesman-type man introduced himself.
After talking to the loud salesman-type man for quite some time I realised he wasn’t this amazing artist’s salesman at all. He was his agent. He booked stalls at events like this, sold the artist’s artwork through his website, even framed the artist’s artwork for him. He handled all the sales and all the talking and all the traveling and organising and everything. The artist just drew shit, every day of his life. The loud salesman-type sold it for him.
The Expert’s Curse in action, and also one potential solution: hire a salesman.
The Salesman Curse
Now, I’d love to have an agent to do all my selling for me. I’d love to just write shit and make shit and design shit and talk shit and get someone else to hawk it. The truth is, that artist was in an extremely privileged position. I’ve seen a thousand other artists not capable of finding an agent to do all the hard work for them who have spent decades floundering in obscurity. They always rationalise it that that’s what they always wanted anyway, preferring not to have the pressure of making money from their hobby.
It’s just not true though, is it? If you had the option right now to make a decent living from your hobby or your passion, you’d take it. Of course you would. It’s the dream situation, to do what you love every day of your life and get paid for it. Free from the pressures of worrying about money, we have the opportunity to make the best creative work of our lives. The opposite is to get a steady job that pays good money, then create fun stuff in our spare time. Because there’s no financial pressure for it to be a certain way. Either way, getting paid one way or another for our creative pursuits is a goal most creatives desire.
But that’s when The Salesman Curse rears its ugly head. Once we’ve created our things we need to sell our things. And even if we aren’t selling them for money, we need to sell them on social media so our creative message will spread, allowing us to make more creative things and hopefully make a bit of money.
As creatives, we struggle with the selling bit. I do. I struggle deeply with it. I feel like a complete imbecile asking people to look at the stuff I create. It feels dirty to ask somebody to buy it or watch it or listen to it. It feels wrong, like we’re turning into a pushy car salesman at the end of the quarter, desperate to boost his sales figures to make his bonus.
It doesn’t have to be like this though.
There’s a selection of beliefs we have to become comfortable with if we’re going to begin to promote our own work properly.
- It is not wrong to ask people to look at our creative work.
- It is not wrong to ask people to pay for our creative work.
- It is not wrong to talk about our creative work.
- It is not wrong to celebrate our creative successes. In fact, people love seeing it.
- It is not wrong to do well. It is not selling out.
The truth of creative work is that it isn’t completed until it’s published. A published work builds into a body of work, which allows us to stand for something. Feedback on our work allows us to get better, and we only get feedback by showing our work to other people. To show it to other people, we need to talk about it. We need to—shudder—market ourselves.
I’m still working through some of these for my own creative work. I vacillate between phoney salesman and starving artist mentalities. I write this article to remind myself more than you. To remind myself that people want to see what I’m doing, people enjoy seeing what I’m up to, and people are happy to celebrate with me.
And for everything else and when my mood changes, I just record a grumpy episode of The Wednesday Audio.