I’ve recently mastered the skill of humblebragging. You know, humblebragging: that self-promotion thing every creative must do to both silence the inner critic and sell ideas to generate income—all while staying somewhat likeable.
To crank out creative, original content one piece after another, a brand storyteller has to strike a razor-thin balance between confidence and humility. Unfortunately though, these things tend to war with one another just under the surface of every clever content writing campaign.
On one hand, there’s your pride, fist-bumping every time you submit a killer story. It’s in your corner, along with your mom and your dog—who couldn’t find fault in your work if they tried. Empowering self-talk is part of the job. So is self-promotion. To succeed in brand storytelling, you must be confident and assertive, approaching every project with I got this on loop in your mind. From managing deadlines to cold-pitching new clients, advertising your work, and even brainstorming a simple kicker, you’ve got to feel you’re good enough.
Your pride is your most valuable asset.
Then again, it’s also your biggest blind spot.
You see, confidence is a necessary ingredient for success, but so is introspection. The mixture of the two is the perfect recipe for vibrant content creation.
While pumping yourself up, you also need to know when to fold. One glance at an arrogant, bombastic, “successful” entrepreneur, and you can be sure you don’t want to be that. Plus, egotism can be a creativity killer—according to thought leaders at the London Business School. Imagine working so hard to build your own confidence only to watch it snap its own leash and run away with your inspiration.
Another reason you need to keep an eye on arrogance is because it interferes with your relationships. And that doesn’t just mean editors, clients, and fellow writers. It also means you can’t relate as well to your stories’ characters. When you loose touch with these vital personalities, you’ll land back at square one, disoriented, wondering what happened.
In the early years of my freelancing journey, I was devastated every time an editor needed revisions or a client passed me up for more work. I mean devastated. I shriveled at every setback and shrunk in the shadow of each competitor’s shining portfolio. I was humble, sure, but that kind of off-putting, negative self-talk wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I had to (wo)man up.
So I set to work building my confidence. I resolved to look at revision requests through the lens of gratitude until I could genuinely thank editors for their insights. I began recording their suggestions in a folder to review again and again—so as not to repeat mistakes. Then, I started reading books on prose and today’s brand messaging. I invested in my own business by attending conferences for marketing managers, and hired a graphic designer to showcase my portfolio online. I was finally proud.
Unfortunately though, nothing is quite that simple. As I erected my brand, I felt myself losing the wide-eyed openness I’d had in the beginning. Scrambling to get it back (after all, it is why my editors remember me when they need a writer), I began to research the way creativity and confidence work together.
Here’s what I found.
There is a sweet spot, a delicate balance you can find to both maximize your creative output, project the awesomeness within, and still maintain the approachability needed to use feedback constructively.
To get there, you first need to establish the side of the continuum on which you tend to lean. And to do that, look no further than your gut reaction when asked to revise your work.
As we explored earlier, you can either experience fatalistic pessimism or incredulous doubt when you see your content creation returned to you. Do you tend to retreat into comforting behaviors or go on the offensive with an eloquent list of reasons your critic is off base? One indicates excessive humility, while the other, a bent toward arrogance.
To complicate things further, you may—like I did—swing from one extreme to the other. Right now, just focus on your most recent run-in with constructive criticism. In retrospect, were you more apologetic, or indignant?
Once you have your answer, you have a road map to improvement.
Let’s say you find yourself on the insecure side of the ideal. You might be the most creative person in the room, but your brilliance will never shine through your foggy reticence. You’d like to quip a jibe in your content writing on occasion, “…but golly, what will they think of me?” To make matters worse, your insecurity saps your productivity, too, so the worrying habit holds you in a never ending cycle of nothingness.
But there’s hope. The momentum can easily be reversed, and start working to your benefit. David Kelley, co-author of the book Creative Confidence and student of renowned psychologist Albert Bandura says insecurity comes from the fear of others’ judgment, when in reality, you’re most often judging yourself.
In his TED talk, Kelley quoted a study Bandura conducted where ophidiophobic patients were told about a snake in the next room, and how treatment involved doctor and patient going into the room together. Understandably, clients were appalled at the thought. Over time, though, Dr. Bandura inched the patient closer and closer to the reality of being with the snake—first by cracking the door and looking at the animal, then by standing in the doorway for a few moments, and eventually, entering the room. By the time the good doctor had convinced his phobic patient to touch—yes, touch—the snake, a change had taken place. Patients remarked how beautiful the creature was, given their new perspective.
“These people who went through the process and touched the snake, ended up having less anxiety about other things in their lives,” said Kelley. “They tried harder, they persevered longer, and they’re more resilient in the face of failure. They gained a new confidence.”
Imagine now, that instead of a snake, a creative (you) feared the criticism of clients and editors. What would Bandura’s technique be? Would he have you include a zany little nugget in your next assignment? Would he encourage you to submit all eight of your ideas, and trust your client to choose the best few pitches? It’s not such a stretch then, to say there’s genuine, powerful help to be had if only you could face the fear and, one small risk at a time, put your creative (read: weird) ideas onto paper. Take it from me: editors don’t bite.
Perhaps you’re the opposite. Perhaps you’re proud of your achievements, your brand, and your offerings. You feel a smart business would be thankful to have your contribution. And if you’re honest, all the self-promotion you’ve had to do may have led you to become a touch overconfident. But you don’t want to lose your identity or compromise your value just to reclaim the benefits of amenability.
There’s a way back out of that, too.
The trick? Align yourself with brands and campaigns you can really get behind—things you’re already excited about—and promote the partnership. Champion the cause, not just your contribution to it.
“B-b-but what about my brand?” you might be asking. As a seasoned expert, you cringe at the thought of promoting someone else.
Ryan Holiday, media strategist and former director of marketing at American Apparel, explained it well in his new book Ego is The Enemy: “Let’s flip it around so it doesn’t seem so demeaning: It’s not about kissing ass. It’s not about making someone look good,” he wrote. “It’s about providing the support so that others can be good.”
Giving the idea handles, Holiday goes on to deliver this killer advice: “Attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory—though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward.”
Keep in mind the advice applies to those who, like me, can detect, admit, and target overconfidence when it creeps in.
If your content writing has been an innocent casualty of the ego vs. creativity civil war, reclaim the sweet spot of humble confidence so you can get back to what you set out to do—produce unforgettable stories.