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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Why You Should “Brag Better” to Help Your Career—and How You Can Get Started Today

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If you, like me, grew up thinking that you should focus on quietly doing a good job and everything else would take care of itself, you probably had a rude awakening when you realized that’s not how the world works. Definitely not the workplace. And if you, like me, feel slightly nauseous at the thought of touting your own achievements, Meredith Fineman wants to help you change your mindset.

The founder and CEO of FinePoint, a leadership and professional development company, Fineman is also the author of Brag Better: Master the Art of Fearless Self-Promotion. And she wants to teach you to do just that: brag better.

Whether you’re trying to land your dream internship, struggling to feel valued in your job, hoping for a raise or promotion, searching for a new job, or trying to put yourself out there for more freelance gigs, Fineman believes you have to get comfortable feeling proud of your accomplishments and sharing them with others.

Fineman spoke to me about her new book, her “brag better” approach, how you can start small right now, and why you should—even in the middle of a global pandemic.

What do you mean when you say “brag better”?

It means that we need a vocabulary and a systematic approach to tout our own accomplishments, because nobody knows what you’ve done and what you want until you tell them and ask them. We have a really intense inverse relationship between volume and merit and we reward loud. So that means that my audience, the qualified quiet—people that have done the work and don’t know how to talk about it—need to figure out how to turn up the volume. 

What led you to focus on this concept in your work and recent book?

I got really passionate about this because I am a freelance writer of 15 years. I’ve been a speaker for a very long time. I’ve had a lot of my own side projects in addition to my business FinePoint. And I’ve always had a voice. And I think I taught that to myself a lot, and I realized that this is a teachable skill set.

But it didn’t get really intensely clear to me until I was running my company as a publicist and I started to notice that we were rewarding the wrong voices—that everyone in any industry can think of someone in their industry who has done less work than they have, but is getting more recognition. I didn’t think that was fair and I wanted to teach those people who have done the work how to talk about it.

You can start anywhere at any time, even if it’s just calling your friend and being like, “Hey, I’m really proud of this thing I said in a meeting.” Bragging better for someone might mean that you raise your hand more in class, that you volunteer ideas more in meetings, or it means that you are looking to go on a national speaking tour. It can be very small actions. It’s not about moving mountains at all. It’s about conveying what you’re proud of and what you’re excited about versus a laundry list of accomplishments.

To use the overused phrase, this is an unprecedented time—with a global pandemic and widespread remote work. Why is it important for people to think about bragging better even now?

Nobody knows what you’ve done until you brag to them about it. We all walk around all day thinking everyone knows what we’ve done. The truth is they really have no idea because they’re focused on themselves, which is just human nature. [Now] we are in an emergency situation so everyone is going through a lot of different collective trauma [and] everybody is equally focused on just the basics. So you have to be as explicit as possible. Nobody is spending extra energy looking at what other people are doing. So you need to be more clear than ever and tell people what you’re up to.

What are a few things anyone can do right now to start bragging better today, this week, or this month?

There are opportunities all around you to promote yourself. It’s finally buying a domain of your name. Or making sure all of your social media photos match up so that a recruiter or conference organizer can make sure it’s definitely you really really quickly. Or it’s adding more to your email signature, because people are really short on time right now. Or it’s taking a second to update your bio or put in a quarterly calendar reminder to update your bio. And then keep another document of all your wins. Again, they don’t have to be huge awards.

For those who are job searching right now, it’s a hugely competitive market, with not much supply and a lot of demand. What are a couple of things job seekers can do in practice to brag better and boost their search?

Stop thinking LinkedIn is a joke. I think that that’s actually just a missed opportunity because recruiters really look at it. It’s a great mini publishing platform that serves as a living resume. Bulk up your LinkedIn and make sure that it’s really easy to contact you. Put your email address in the top of your about you.

I also think everyone full stop needs a personal website. Everyone is a multihyphenate now, everyone does a million different things, and it’s the only place online where you have full control of the conversation, but also can display some of your personality. Your personal website does not have to be the sexiest thing on earth. It has to just be really easy to navigate and really clear. So it needs to have a really recent, clear photo of you. A really strong, long bio. And deeply, deeply easy contact information. Here’s my phone number. Here’s my email address.

So much of communicating your message and telling people who you are is also getting it to them as quickly and cohesively as possible. So you could say, “Oh, here’s a link to my LinkedIn, here’s my resume attached.” Or you could say, “Here’s a link to my personal website, which has everything in one place.” You really want that one-stop shop of you.

What does bragging better look like in a remote interview situation?

You’re just going to have to go even harder on yourself in terms of what you’ve done and why you’re the candidate for the job. It’s going to be harder to hit it off with the recruiter, because you’re on a screen. You want to tell people who you are or what you’re about and have them be able to deduce that in 30 seconds. That was something I learned as a publicist: You have to hand people on a silver platter who you are and why your story matters.

For those who are lucky enough to have a job right now, but are working from home away from their offices, bosses, and teams, what are a few things they can do to brag better?

Keep a running tally in a Google doc of what you think your wins are. And then—I didn’t include this in the book because I came up with it too late and I am kicking myself—but everyone has read [about] the love languages. I think people have bragging languages. Which is to say that you need to figure out how you can brag to the people in charge in a way that will be retained. So let’s say your boss really loves reports. If you try to talk about one of your wins on a call... that person is not going to retain that as well.

You could say to your boss, “Hey, I’d really like to talk about what I’m proud of right now. What’s the best way to get that to you? Do you want it written out? Do you want to do a quick call? Do you want to have me present it to you? I want to make sure that you’re able to see what I’m doing even though I can’t walk by your office.” You can absolutely ask those things.

What about for folks who feel really uncomfortable bragging for themselves, is there anything you’d recommend?

So much of bragging better is [also] doing so for and with others. It’s not only about you. I believe it is your job to help also highlight and uplift the voices of other people, particularly people who may not be as privileged as you or have more trouble bragging better. So discuss with your coworker or a friend and say, “Hey, I want to help spread what you’re doing. How can I help you?”  

I did 30 original interviews for Brag Better with very different, interesting people. One of those people was Jessica Bennett, who wrote Feminist Fight Club, and in it she has this concept of the “boast bitch” where you hype each other’s ideas in meetings. So none of this is you alone. I counsel people who had trouble in meetings. I’m like, OK, who are you closest with in the office? Can you say, “Hey, I really want to show this, I’m nervous about it. Will you tee me up or agree with me?” It’s just about getting a little more strategic.

I imagine some people would also feel conflicted about bragging right now during a pandemic when there’s so much going on that seems bigger or more important. Are there scenarios when people shouldn’t brag?

I mean that’s true, but also you need to keep your job or get a new job and that is very real in your world. You could always give yourself the excuse that there was something more important that was going on.

But I will acknowledge that when you do decide to show up for yourself or brag better, there are going to be people that are pissed off. There are going to be people that are turned off. I have experienced a lot of that. That particularly happens for women for so many different sexist reasons. But my argument is that it’s a net positive. A couple of people might not like what you’re doing but it’s like, okay, is this a them problem or a me problem? Some of this stuff will light up other people’s insecurities or fears that they can’t do these things.

You acknowledge right up front in your book that factors like gender or race can impact people’s comfort level with bragging, and how their bragging would be perceived. What do you think people need to be aware of on that front?

The ability to brag better and to be listened to is deeply intertwined with privilege. So for me as a white woman, yeah, I’ve experienced sexism in my career, but I haven’t had to experience racism. As a straight person, I have not had to experience homophobia. I believe it is very much your duty, if you do have that privilege of being someone we listen to, to elevate the voices of people we don’t [listen to] and to pass that microphone.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Listen, I’m not trying to add something to the laundry list of fear and anxiety right now. I’m trying to tell you [about] this skill that you’re going to work on your entire career. So don’t put tons of pressure on yourself to figure it all out right now. I mean, I’m still figuring it out and I wrote the literal book on it.

You’re going to get in the habit of celebrating yourself and your wins so that you can get what you want, whether that’s funding or an interview or a raise or whatever. But at the end of the day, it’s also a mindset shift and something, I hope, that other people can learn from you. The truth is when you do these things, you never know who you could also be inspiring or impacting.