Stoic advice: is it ethical to self-promote?

self promotion[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

M. writes: My question has to do with “career” and what it takes to get ahead. I am 46 and have not had a traditional career but have managed to work in fields that, at least on paper, were in accordance with my values and interests. Until now. I am finding myself in a place where I need to change jobs as I feel stuck in one that does not fulfill me completely. But, in today’s job market, sending cv’s and application letters does not seem to be enough. I’ve already done that and have not been called once for an interview. My profile and work experience are — I, maybe presumptuously, believe — varied and interesting but I don’t get called, while acquaintances with a similar or less qualified profile are reaching top positions.

They seem to be able to use connections, to show their ambitions, to walk on other people’s feet in a way I am not. So apart from working on the envy I regularly, shamefully, feel, I have been reflecting on the moral aspect of it. In my view, my accomplishments, experience, dedication to my work, concrete results in the projects I have led should speak for themselves. I should not need to move heaven and earth, to get vague contacts to make recommendations for me, or to pull strings to get an interview. But these and putting yourself “out there” seem to be the only way to succeed. In any case, be it pride, fear, or a will to act in accordance with some principles, but I am very reluctant to do that. Yet the result is also frustration. What is the Stoic take on that?

I face a similar situation myself, pretty much every day. Not because I’m looking for a job, as thankfully I have a great one that I have no intention to leave, fate permitting. But because I have decided long ago that an important part of what I want to do in life is public outreach. And you ain’t gonna do much of that if you ain’t got a public.

Like you, I feel like my writings — which I consider not stellar, but nevertheless above average — should speak for themselves. People should read my blogs and my books, and come to my lectures (I’m writing this in St. Louis, MO, right before giving a talk at the Society for Ethical Culture here, and just after a stint, last night, at the local Skeptics in the Pub).

And yet my success is modest, and I see a number of writers (I could give you names, but that would be petty) who are doing much better than I am, even though their writings are — in my opinion — no better, and sometimes decidedly worse, than mine.

Moreover, whenever I get a new book contract (at the moment I’m co-writing a book of Stoic spiritual exercises with my friend Greg Lopez) the publisher, naturally, wants to know how I am going to sell it. They send you the dreadful “author’s questionnaire,” which is a long document where you need to list every media outlet that might be interested in promoting your book, every personality that may endorse it, every newspaper or magazine that may (favorably, of course!) review it.

And then there is the social media aspect. Few people would read my blog posts, or buy my books, if I did not regularly promote them on my Twitter account (speaking of which, here it is!) or my “official” Facebook page (here!). (What the hell, I even have a Google+ page.)

All of the above just to make the point that your situation is actually fairly common, and that I have asked myself the same question, though the stakes for me are lower than for you. My answer to myself, Stoically speaking, is to apply the test of virtue: selling books, reaching a wider audience, or — in your case — getting out of a job you don’t like — are all preferred indifferents. Should we pursuit, them, then? There is a two-step procedure we can apply: first, does the pursuit of said preferred indifferents run against our own practice of virtue? Second, if the answer to the first question is no, does such pursuit allow us to be more virtuous?

The first question is more fundamental because a Stoic should never pursue, under any circumstances, a course of action that is not virtuous, i.e., not prudent, temperate, just, and courageous. Let’s apply this to your situation: asking people you barely known for recommendations, networking, and generally putting yourself “out there” is not cowardly or unjust (so long as you are not doing it by unfairly undercutting others). It is temperate if you do it up to a point, as I strive to do with respect to my publishers’ analogous demands. As for prudence (i.e., practical wisdom) again, so long as you are not acting unethically (for instance, by overselling yourself, or misrepresenting your abilities), you should be good.

The second test is more stringent, setting a higher bar. Suppose you succeed in finding a new job, starting a new career. Is this going to improve your chances of acting virtuously? Maybe, maybe not, depending on what career we are talking about, and how you would pursue it. You don’t provide any information about either your current or potential new career, so it is hard to advice in that respect. But you can use the same criteria, based on the exercise of the four virtues, to answer the question for yourself.

As I said, the second test is more stringent than the first one, but if you really think your new career would be better just for you personally, the first bar is sufficient: so long as you don’t do anything unvirtuous, and so long as your new quest does not distract you from acting virtuously, your are good. The second bar is for advanced students, so to speak.

Another way to look at your conundrum is in terms of Epictetus’ role ethics, which I have discussed in six posts. Epictetus recognized that we have three classes of roles in life: the general role we play as human beings qua members of the human cosmopolis; roles that are given to us (e.g., being someone’s son); and roles we choose (e.g., our career). His take was that the first role trumps all others, so that if in order to be a good son, say, or a good employer, you have to do something unjust, you simply don’t. Your given roles tend to carry a certain duty to perform them: you did not ask to be born, but your parents gave you life, and you owe them something just because of that (although your duties in that respect have limits). Your chosen roles also carry duties, for instance toward your employer (though, again, within limits).

It is your faculty of prohairesis, or judgment, that allows you to navigate the inevitable trade-offs among these roles, which is why its improvement is a major goal of Stoic training. Just remember Epictetus’ words:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)


8 thoughts on “Stoic advice: is it ethical to self-promote?

  1. paul sailer (@paul_sailer)

    Perhaps Ben Franklin can help. He had some interesting things to say about being called a braggart. “Early in his career, Franklin realized that the public’s perception of reality was as important as the reality itself. He believed that he would get more work for his business if people thought of him as a really hard worker. Franklin made sure that townspeople saw him hard at work early in the morning and late at night, hoping that people would perceive “hard work” as “good work” and become customers of his print shop. “

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Patri Friedman (@patrissimo)

    I love this question. I think it really, really matters how one promotes. There is nothing dishonest or pushy about, for example, creating a Twitter account to share one’s essays. It’s simply offering another way for people who want to read your writing to be notified about it. Whereas one could imagine ways of advertising that are pushy – say bulk unsolicited email to a list of email addresses you bought that are supposedly interested in philosophy. I see that as unvirtuous.

    So, generally, promoting yourself is not un-Stoic, but many ways of doing so are. Hence, it’s a dangerous choice – one that should involve a lot of scrutiny and self-examination to be sure it does not lead one to unvirtuous actions.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Chuchu

    Hi Massimo, thanks for this post. You’ve addressed a problem many face everyday : I don’t like my current job, I’d like to move into something different, sometime I like, but I must go through some process I don’t like to maybe achieve my goals. I’ve done this a couple of times now. In fact, a couple of years ago I took a huge pay cut and went from a relatively easy and secure job to right now 80% learning and constantly under pressure to perform situation. Such changes were made right before everything else went horriblely wrong in my life. I found, with the help of Stoicism, to overcome many of these difficulties is to change my goal in life from whatever it was to living a virtuous life. This seems to agree with what you’ve recommended too.

    Also now I’m following you on google+, haha. Just so you know, Massimo, your book “how to be a stoic” has been forever on loan at my local library. Many are waiting in line to read it so you are absolutely a good writer!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. leonids

    In “Lapham’s Rules of Influence: A Careerist’s Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation,” author Lewis Lapham writes, “In Philadelphia in 1743 the immortal Benjamin Franklin, still a young printer but wise beyond his years, took the trouble to be seen on Market Street every day at noon, pushing a wheelbarrow stacked with reams of blank paper—not because the paper needed to go anywhere, but because Franklin was promoting his reputation for diligence, industry, and thrift.”


  5. labnut

    This is a fascinating question.

    an important part of what I want to do in life is public outreach

    I am grateful for that because I have learnt so much from you.(even when the contrarian in me, on occasion, vigorously disagrees with you!)

    I think this is an important aspect to take into consideration. Had you not promoted your work as you do, I might never have read it and I certainly would have been impoverished. If someone has something worthwhile to say(or worthwhile skills to contribute) they should be made available so that others may benefit. We live in a crowded marketplace so your voice is easily lost and consequently you should take steps to bring it to the attention of others. It is an act of giving that enriches society. It is the manner of doing this that makes all the difference. It can be done unethically and this happens all too often.

    Of course there is a corollary to this and one must have worthwhile skills or something worthwhile to say. The surest way to stand out in the marketplace is to aim for insightful, innovative excellence. It gets one’s voice heard, but most importantly, society benefits hugely from the contributions of excellence. There is also a personal benefit in that this struggle for excellence greatly improves oneself.

    And yet my success is modest

    Your modesty is admirable but I think your success is much greater than you can imagine. You touch many more lives than is apparent and always in a positive way.

    Liked by 1 person

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