Look, I do not want to get into some kind of childish contest with you about which of us is more anal-retentive, all right? It's true that I'm a highly organized guy, and that I keep color-coded hierarchical lists of to-do items on my three computers and two whiteboards, and that post-it notes are stuck all over my walls, but (appearances notwithstanding) I'm not perfect. My files are usually findable but they're not completely alphabetical. My bedroom is reasonably clean, but (big confession) I didn't make my bed this morning. There are usually no dirty dishes in my sink, but sometimes there are. I mean, I'm just a well-adjusted, normal, balanced guy, see? So what if I keep a list of personal accomplishments in my wallet in case I get depressed? I'm just as casual, fallible, and spontaneous as any other Renaissance wannabee. Get off my case!
Whew. Calm now. Of course, much as it pains me, I must confess that in some respects I really am perfect. For example, my resumé is perfect. All of them. Yes, I have many resumés. Some are 'consultant's resumés' related to my recent identity as an independent professional (currently on ice) and some are conventional resumés from my past lives as various species of wage slave. The resumés are all beautiful (as befits a graphic designer) and well written (as befits a writer) and carefully organized (as befits anybody with a brain). I have other painstakingly organized self-promotional stuff, too -- cartons of it. Let's see, there's my shelf of matching leather-jacketed portfolios filled with samples of my work: screenshots of web sites I've created; tech writing; short stories; marketing writing; fine art; corporate design; arty design; cartoon illustration; and so on. There are the reprints of my occasional press writeups. There are the photocopied letters of recommendation -- from clients, and past employers, and strangers I've met at parties and badgered into writing endorsements. ("I've known San for an entire five minutes and, despite my initial expectations, he still hasn't spilled his beer on me! Highly recommended!") All the self-promo stuff is carefully categorized and boxed and oh-so-impressive. I have filing cabinets and shelves full of it from decades of marketing myself. Then I have the master lists that keep track of all this stuff. You're impressed, aren't you? I can tell.
Unfortunately, there's a little problem with all this stuff. I know it was sometimes helpful, but I also know IPs who don't have piles of marketing materials and still make more money than I ever did. Oh, and did I mention that my skills were better than theirs? Really. Nonetheless, some of them did lots better than I did at finding top-paying clients.
No, I'm not telling you that you don't need skills, or that you don't need marketing materials, or that lists are evil. It's a little more complex than that.
Bug-Eyed Monsters to the Rescue
I don't have time to tell you about my sexual fantasies right now, but I will tell you about one of my extraterrestrial fantasies: Omnipotent space aliens from Alpha Centauri descend on Earth. The human personality-type seems so weird to them that they don't even notice the minor character differences between, say, Mother Teresa and Attila the Hun. (Or, more to the point, between myself and a normal person.) The only differences between humans that they notice are the objective, listable skill items. Then they realize that humans often make hiring decisions based on non-objective criteria that are totally invisible to the aliens. This offends their sense of rationality, so (through the magic of Alpha Centaurian science) they force their machine-like perspective on all of us. As a result, all of our clients' hiring decisions become totally skill-based and coldly rational.
For example, say some earthling clients decide to hire a web architect. Because the clients' brains had been zapped by the Alpha Centaurians, they'd pass over the superficially impressive, Gucci-suited account sleazoids from the local ad agency, and hire a real web architect instead, despite all his warts and wrinkles and foot-in-mouth disease (uh, that would be me). I figure, under the benevolent alien rule of Utter Rationality, that clients would review objective qualifications only, pass over my competitors who excel at the squooshy skills that I'm not so good at... and I'd get the juicy assignments.
On the other hand, when it comes to aliens you never know. Perhaps I'd be dogmeat. Literally.
Until that golden day when the Alpha Centaurian ships get here, we have to contend with this imperfect world as it is. We have to think about why some IPs get all the juicy clients while others, perhaps better prepared, scrounge for the scraps.
One reason is contacts: You need to know a lot of people in order for the laws of chance to work in your favor. If you spend all your time alone in your home, like a bat in a cave, your business is unlikely to flourish. (There are exceptions to this in certain fields, such as illustration and some kinds of writing, but it's generally true.) Another reason is persistence. Persistence is possibly the single most important factor in separating the success stories from the I coulda-I shoulda sad tales. Let's see: contacts, persistence, rich uncles... oh, there are lots of factors for success. But the one I'm talking about here is a little more subtle... it's about integration and memory. Think of it this way:
You go to some kind of industry or association party where there are lots of IPs (your competitors) scrounging to connect to a handful of potential clients. Like everyone else, you're handing out stuff like business cards, maybe leaving booklets or consultant resumés on a table, flinging at people the usual sheets of paper listing your impressive whatevers (the details vary depending on what field you're in).
Two weeks later a hiring manager who was there needs to hire an IP in your field. He runs through his mental list of who he knows. Nobody who's available. Maybe somebody he met at that party? Who'll spring to his mind -- the one with the most impressive printed list of accomplishments? Are you kidding?
Think about it. He rummages under a pile of other papers and finds some of the self-promo stuff he brought back. Idly, he flips through it. His typical, immediate reaction has little or nothing to do with whether the promo piece is impressive or not. Follow me here. He knows he's already met the people corresponding to these handouts. He knows he liked a few of them (they seemed like they'd be fun to work with), and he couldn't stand a few of them, and he was neutral about a bunch of them. So what's his immediate reaction to the handouts?
His reaction is uncertainty. Which pieces of paper go with which vague memories? He wants to correlate the promo materials with the actual people he met, but he can't. What good are the impressive lists of clients and skills and projects? They all have that. He might call one of the phone numbers and not recognize the voice, but find out later (when the IP comes to visit him in his office) that it was that guy at the party who made his skin crawl! He wouldn't have to hire the guy, of course, but even to go through meeting him again, and in his own office to boot... yuck.
(Yes, I know what you're thinking: photos. I actually do put my photo on some of my handouts... but just the ones advertising me as a cartoonist or animator, or occasionally as a designer. In those cases I can gimmick up the context to make it seem almost reasonable. For most IPs, however, putting your photo on your handouts would be tricky -- it would tend to seem tacky and amateurish. Anyway, the "can't remember his face" thing isn't exactly my point.)
Look at it another way. If two clients were talking about some IPs they'd met at a party a week before, would they describe the IPs in terms of their listable attributes? Would they remember who they were by referring to resumé-type items? "Oh, Jane Smith, she was the consultant who went to Yale and majored in economics and has completed seven projects in..." Maybe, but I doubt it. More likely they'd say, "Did you meet that woman, uh, Jane something? The one who knew old Bill Morris before he went crazy? Did you know she did some work for him on that re-org project of his? Boy was he nuts! She seemed pretty sharp, though. What's that? Yes, I think I got her card..."
Is it starting to become clear? Once the aliens get here and put things on a strictly rational basis, your resumés and other marketing stuff with the project lists and qualifications will determine what clients you land. If you're objectively better than your competitors, then you'll make more money than them. Period. Until then, it's a little more complicated. It's about integration: integrating your contacts (as many as possible), and your social skills (don't look at me), and your professional background, and... wrapping it up in a tale so they can remember you. It doesn't have to be a tale you tell. It's usually a tale they tell, but you're the subject. By contrast, a marketing piece is just that -- a piece of the tale. It's not the whole package. I can't tell you how to integrate the whole package in this short essay; I just wanted to clue you in to the sad truth.
Personally I resent the hell out of all this, and I wish those rational aliens would hurry up and get here. But until then, if you want people to remember you, then you should remember this: You're not a list. You're a story.
San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.
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