All the Attention I Want and Don’t Want

Photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash

I’ve always been fascinated by confident people — the ones who tell you at a party, unprompted, about their latest achievement, or who happily share their latest success across all their social media channels.

I don’t mean arrogant braggarts. There’s nothing I particularly admire about them, and often that behavior is rooted in insecurity.

But I’ve definitely met people who take genuine pride in what they’ve done and want to share it with you. There’s still probably ego tied up in all that, but I don’t come away from those encounters feeling like someone just slimed me with their greatness. Rather, I come away admiring the person who can own their accomplishments and feel good about sharing them.

From an early age, I’ve always hated having people notice me. If I won an award at school, I tried to ditch the ceremony. If someone complimented me, I’d look to the ground and mumble a thanks. Even in adulthood, I squirm if someone sings my praises.

Tellingly, when a friend once asked, “If you could be any profession in the world, what would you be?” I answered: “Dancing in the chorus line at the very back.”

It’s not that I don’t like recognition. I’m as craven for it as the next person. But I want it to happen when I’m not there. Ideally, I would receive a report each month that simply said, “Someone laughed as they read your writing,” or “Someone thought your product roadmap was really clear.” I want to be recognized, but at a very safe distance.

I worked in Communications at Google until late 2017. It was easy for me to promote my company’s products, because they never felt like mine. It was someone else who had built the Search bar; someone else who made Google Maps work.

But after I left, I suddenly found myself without my normal shields. So I tried create new ones.

When I published a book, I tried to do it anonymously. I wanted people to enjoy it, and I wanted to see them enjoy it, but I wanted to be like some missable figure in a coffee shop, scarf up to my nose, knit cap pulled down to my eyebrows — readers swirling around me, but completely unaware that I was there or had written it. For a number of reasons, the book didn’t end up anonymous, and I found the whole process of having my face and name tied to a public work incredibly stressful.

I still feel this way every time I publish an article or story. In fact, I linked and unlinked my book in the above paragraph three times just now before finally leaving the link in (Me: “It’s logical to link to something one references.” Also me: “But it feels so gross and promotional!”).

I want everyone and absolutely no one to read what I write.

Similarly, when I co-founded a company, I wanted to do everything but tell people I was creating a company. It felt too personal to share.

At first this approach worked fine. We had a big research challenge ahead of us, and estimated it would take us 1–2 years to reach a point where we could sell our work. But at some point in the past few months it became clear that we actually needed to start talking about what we were doing.

As the only non-researcher on the team, and the one that handles everything from product management to sales, the task fell to me.

If a normal blog post at Google took me an hour to write, this one took days. I kept wanting to caveat each sentence or add in a disclaimer. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t over-promising or bragging — all the while knowing that the whole point of announcing your existence as a company is to say that you exist, are doing worthwhile things, and are open for business.

I agonized over a blog post, all the while knowing it was going to be shared with a very small audience with a very specific interest in music AI research. What was the worst that could happen? A Twitter follower canceling me because they thought our guitar separation wasn’t sufficiently crisp?

So what happened?

Nothing. Of course nothing happened.

The computer didn’t blow up. People were nice and complimentary.

So, what great lesson did I learn from all this?

Nothing. I have learned nothing. It will still be excruciating the next time I do something public.

But I like to think there are a lot of us like this out there. We want you to like us, but quietly and from afar. And is that such a bad thing?

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