A tongue-in-cheek comment I wrote in my last post has stuck with me the past few days. This comment:
Much better to present ourselves as award winners than to document the struggle it took to get us there.
I didn't articulate it well at the time but I think now the reference to 'award winners' is about LinkedIn. It's impossible to scroll that feed without being smothered in humblebragging. The 'delighted to receive...' and the 'pleased to be recognised...' has become pervasive.
I share Allan Sullivan QC's sentiment:
I saw this post being shared and felt inspired to reach out to Sullivan and thank him for articulating what I have felt for a little while.
In some ways he goes a bit too far. I don't blame the humblebraggers and I'm not sure it does any good to try to shame them. I think most of that behaviour, in my network at least, is due to the majority of my 'connections' being salespeople. They don't call themselves salespeople, of course, they call themselves 'Partners', 'Directors', 'Founders', 'Managers' or, the very worst, 'Recruiters'. Rest assured though they're all in sales, and it's not their fault their natural inclination is to see LinkedIn as a sales funnel first and a channel for actual connections second.
But it's also worse than what Sullivan makes it out to be. It's not merely distasteful behaviour - it's isolating to those experiencing it. When I scroll through my feed to see nothing but people boasting I'm reminded my utility to these people is limited to how I can facilitate their next achievements. I don't feel encouraged to reach out and check in on how they're going, because the message they're sending is that they're killing it - as always. I don't feel encouraged to share with them the problems I'm working through (ie professional challenges - I'm not suggesting LinkedIn needs to be a platform for hugs and empathy - although it wouldn't be terrible for it to move a little more in that direction) because the brand they're sending out is that they're unfamiliar with struggle; they only know the success and prestige that comes with always having the answers.
Ozan Voral has a great riff on this in his wonderful book Think Like a Rocket Scientist (affiliate link). He wrote:
What's more, in this era of 'move fast and break things,' curiosity can seem like an unnecessary luxury. With an inbox-zero ethos and an unyielding focus on hustle and execution, answers appear efficient. They illuminate the path forward and give us that life hack so we can move on to the next thing on our to-do list. Questions, on the other hand, are exceedingly inefficient.
To me, LinkedIn has become just another marketplace. It's a crowded bazaar where the vendors climb over each other to claim only they can sell 'the kevlar of knowing the answer'. But this misses the point. It's not possible to get to the answer without struggling with the problem - because if there was no struggle then the answer has no value. And so I'm not much interested in the answer you sold to someone else - the achievement you've just accomplished - I'm interested in how you struggled. Because firstly it tells me you're willing to be honest about at some stage not having the answer. And secondly because it helps me predict how you might be when we're both struggling with my problem(s).
Simply reminding me of one achievement after another - regardless of how indirect or humble you think you're being - does nothing for me. It's distasteful. It's isolating. It's also boring.
As Charlie Munger puts it, '...those people are not my people'.
And so, the question is then, if these LinkedIn connections are not my people – where are my people?
The truth is I don't have a solution. I don't really expect this problem to be solved. I only know it bums me out to think that LinkedIn is probably a necessary professional evil that I'm unlikely to enjoy using for some years to come.
People aren't going to stop humblebragging. I wonder though whether my connections could try to add a little bit more value to their chest beating. For example, the next time you tell me how 'delighted' you are to be nominated for some phony industry award, perhaps also take the time to explain some of really difficult challenges during the period. Tell me why those challenges were so difficult for you, and your team, and your clients, and perhaps what helped you get through. Give me something I can connect to.
Or the next time you want to point to a transaction you were involved with, you could note why it's particularly significant so that I can learn something as well. Did it have some special structure that I might like to learn more about? Was there a particular industry or market challenge I might extrapolate to my own markets? Give me something I can learn from.
If there was nothing special about the transaction, is there something special about your relationship with the client perhaps that you could highlight to help me appreciate the time and energy you've invested in building that relationship? Give me something I can empathise with.
If not, if there was nothing special about the transaction, and there was nothing special about the relationship, and the award is just another cheap tombstone lining your trophy cabinet - maybe reconsider putting it up there at all.
LinkedIn is meant to be all about connecting, but lately it just feels lonely.