Stefanie Sword-Williams: “Self-promotion is not a dirty word”

In an extract from her new book, F*ck Being Humble, founder Stefanie Sword-Williams writes about why women shouldn’t be ashamed to amplify their achievements.

Stefanie Sword-Williams is a 28-year-old from Leeds who kick-started her career working for some of the biggest brands in marketing. Now she is self-employed thanks to her Instagram platform F*ck Being Humble, which has taken on a life of its own and allowed Sword-Williams to launch workshops full-time on ways to help women grow their confidence with networking and self-promotion. 

When I started off on this journey and told people that my goal was to help people overcome their fears of self-promotion, I was met with pretty universal looks of disapproval. These only deepened when I explained that the platform was called ‘F*ck Being Humble’

Even I used to lower my voice, just in case it offended people. (I know, believe in your brand and all that, but you can’t help feeling nervous saying such a provocative phrase to a 60-year-old businessman.)

The funny thing is, it’s the provocative title that has connected with people the most – it cuts through the stuffy and rigid status quo of career development and strikes a chord with people of all ages. But while I became more confident openly sharing the brand, and momentum built around the movement, certain people’s responses still didn’t change.

For some, the concern stemmed from not being able to accept that self-promotion is a skill that is essential in modern business; but for most people, it was simply that they had no idea what the term really meant. 

Self-promotion for Brits, in particular, is almost taboo, and it is very rarely encouraged through our education system or during our careers. Which, of course, I would argue is absolutely ridiculous. 

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We tiptoe around a topic that can make all the difference in being paid appropriately, or finding a fulfilling career, or making meaningful connections in the workplace, and yet we’ve force-fed geometry from the age of 11 – and, quite frankly, I don’t know when I’ve ever needed to know whether an angle is acute or obtuse. The concerns around ‘blowing your own trumpet’ overshadow the benefits of self-promotion.

Somewhere along the way, the definition has got lost – and, consequently, people avoid it like they avoid being sandwiched between sweaty commuters on the Tube at 9am. Because, when you actually break it down, ‘self’ means I and ‘promotion’ means an activity that supports or encourages a cause, venture, or aim.

So my regular response to the raised eyebrows and cynical attitude is: What’s arrogant about that? How can you possibly dismiss it as self-indulgent or say ‘it’s just not for me’ when really you’ve probably already engaged with that ‘activity’ at some point in your life – you just never openly labelled it as ‘self-promotion’ and nor have you thought about how you could be doing it better? 

You’re most likely reading this book [F*ck Being Humble: Why self-promotion isn’t a dirty word] because, deep down, you do want to share with the world how good you really are, but you don’t know how to do it in a way that won’t invite people to judge you. Because, ultimately, no matter how proud you are of your work, the fear of sharing it – and how you’ll be perceived when you do – is what you care about most. 

Stefanie Sword-Williams on the importance of self-promotion
“We tiptoe around a topic that can make all the difference in being paid appropriately”

Your lack of knowledge on how to put your talents out there effectively creates an irrational fear that you will be ripped to shreds or even dismissed for oversharing – which is ironic, as I bet it doesn’t stop you from sharing Instagram stories of you shrieking karaoke at 5am with all your mates. But we’ll breeze past that and look at why society has set us up to fail. It’s much easier to blame everyone else, isn’t it?

Modesty is not always the answer

Throughout your life, you will have most likely been encouraged to always, always be modest about your achievements. And despite what the title of this book might suggest, I do believe in humility, 100%. What I don’t agree with is letting yourself be so humble that you miss the opportunity of a lifetime, all because you’re ‘far too modest’.

 No one will pat you on the back for that. In fact, when you’re starting out in your career, you must work 10 times harder to get noticed, because you haven’t earned a reputation that will allow you to sit back and lap up the praise.

When no one knows who you are, it’s really more arrogant – as well as naive – to trust that everything will land in your lap if you wait patiently. Because it won’t. But you’re not solely to blame for this humble pie approach – society is too. So let’s look at who and what may have impacted the way you self-promote… 

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Your parents 

Most parents didn’t want their child to be a cocky, snot-faced brat that no one likes, so bragging about your achievements was likely a no-go unless it was to your grandma and grandad, who already worshipped the ground you walked on.

Chances are they also work in a completely different industry to you, and so their career advice, although given with love, probably isn’t right for you and your journey, particularly when you think about the ways in which our professional trajectories have changed.

We are more likely to freelance outside of our day jobs, we generate business via Twitter, we can work remotely from anywhere in the world, and some of us are even building empires from our bedrooms at the age of 13. We also have less job security than our parents did.

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Mark Lurie, founder and CEO at Codex Protocol, explains that our parents were used to working hard for a company in exchange for a long-term investment in skills development and future financial security, like a retirement fund or pension.

But employment security and long-term investment no longer exist in the modern working world. Over the last 20 years, the number of companies the average individual works for in the five years after they graduate has nearly doubled. We can’t trust that we’ll be in the same industry – let alone company – for our whole career, and that has had a huge impact on the way we work.

F*ck Being Humble by Stefanie Sword-Williams (Quadrille, £12.99)

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Image: ©Clare Posthuma