When No One’s Watching

What do we do when the world stops listening — when no one pays attention anymore to what we say or do?

This is the reality every communicator or leader must face. Sooner or later, you hit a plateau. You start to feel invisible. And you begin to wonder if you ever had any influence at all.

Subversive Success
Photo Credit: Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

What we want to do is get louder. To pull out the bullhorn. Shout from the rooftops. But in reality, we need to do the opposite.

What about self-promotion?

Occasionally, we’ll see someone benefit from short-term profiteering.

Over time, though, most self-promoters don’t last. Not when you pit them up against the true artists — those who have a message worth sharing. Their messages always ring hollow in comparison to these people.

It’s almost always better to have someone else toot your horn. To earn the spotlight instead of demanding it.

But how do you do that?

Try something different

When you have an idea to spread, don’t give in to the temptation to rush it. To force a connection or over-promote the message. Instead, take your time making it really, really good.

If you’re an artist with something to say — something that would make the world a better place — try a more subtle, counter-intuitive means of finding an audience:


Say less. Be obscure. Hide your brilliance so that people have to come find it.

If you need ideas, take a page from the Led Zeppelin marketing playbook. Defy the critics by making your work hard to find. Make it so good that when it does get found (and all great art eventually does), people will marvel at it.

You want them to be delighted, not disappointed. And that’s exactly what will happen if you resort to hype: people will be let down.

The fear

The problem is we’re afraid. Of never getting discovered. Of waiting our whole lives to be acknowledged.

But this isn’t middle school — why are we waiting to be picked?

You should be creating world-class works of art right now. Because you can, not because someone is watching you.

If you will learn this discipline — to show up when no one else does — you will do what most people can’t. You’ll be able to find pleasure in your work without any extrinsic benefits.

And that’s what we’re all looking and hoping for.

The platform of now

Whatever you’re doing right now, you’re building a platform. You’re connecting with people and doing work that someone is noticing.

It may not seem significant, but that’s your choice. You can make it matter, or you can make it mediocre.

Whether you realize it or not, you are broadcasting a message. People are watching you, paying attention to your every move and word. I promise.

They see your tweets and blog posts and Instagram photos. We all see them. I know it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, and that’s what makes this work so dangerous. You may feel invisible, but you’re not.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite — we’re all waiting for you to show us something.

The question is: Are you spending most of your time on the work or the hype?

*Photo credit: Gerald Pereira (Creative Commons)

60 thoughts on “When No One’s Watching

  1. Encouraging.

    Thanks.  I have wondered the last week or so if anyone has really noticed my work (specifically my writing).  Your encouragement to keep working on the writing is very timely.

  2. I love this post. What I get from your writing is how important it is to create for the right reasons. If you create for the wrong ones, your work will end up being worthless anyway. 

    1.  Thanks, Jonny. That kind of feedback is actually really helpful. I don’t think I would’ve been able to find my voice without this community. So appreciate you!

  3. I used to read your blog all the time, but I stopped because I was not writing at the time. Now I find myself going back and catching up. Thank you for sharing because it is very helpful.

  4. Thanks for the encouraging post. At times I wonder if my efforts make a difference. Do my posts really help my blog’s readers? Does anyone receive value from my tweets? And then, unexpectedly, I’ll hear from someone who was impacted by my words, and I know what I’m doing is worthwhile.

  5. I’m completely with you when it comes to building and doing the work now instead of relying on hype, but I think to hide your “brilliance” is to be disingenuous with your message if you truly believe in it. I will not make my work hard to find. I will make it available and I will share it with all who will listen because, as I said, if I believe in it I want to reach as many people as possible. 

    I understand your main point wasn’t about hiding your work, but I still had to mention it. 😉

    Also, I think the question you pose at the end is great. The work must come first, but then, have fun with spreading the news! 🙂

      1. I read the Led Zeppelin article, and it was their fourth album, they were already a famous band. Also, it may not have had a name on it, but people knew it was them-it went #1 immediately. Also, one could argue that this was the ultimate hype-creating a no name album with symbols and daring to be different and radical, eh? Just a thought. But it wasn’t all hype, was it? It was both, that’s why it’s brilliant. Atlantic records marketed the heck out of it, btw, with teasers and graphics. 

        As for the Zenhabits article, I don’t think getting your message out has to be either screaming or quiet. I think it’s an art that has to be crafted and delivered with the passion of one who believes in the message. 

        The bottom line though, and your point, is that it’s the content that matters most. And friend, I’m fully with you there.

        1.  Good call. I would argue that hype and artful marketing are two very different things. In a world over-saturated with noise, you have to be clever about you how you get your message. You can’t look like you’re trying (but of course, you are).

  6. Ah. This explains a lot that has happened in my life since I met you back in October. Honestly, I try not to think about others’ responses and requests, and just keep plugging away at the things that are worth the effort of waking up early. I much happier that way.

  7. So true Jeff!  Sometimes it seems like the world operates like a middle school.  Do we ever leave the kickball field?  Instead of waiting to be picked, create a different game and invite people to play.  I love how Shane Claiborne writes about “the third way” of Jesus, which can be applied here.  It’s not about getting louder vs. living in obscurity.  

  8. Man … so true, but so easy to ignore.

    I can attest to this first hand. Isn’t always easy to keep the train on the tracks when the response or conversation is tepid at best.

    But when you believe in what you are doing, truly believe, then you should know it’s only a matter of time before the tipping point arrives.

    And if it doesn’t … you still shipped something the world is better for having.

    I say all of this, knowing it in my heart, despite feeling anxious to do more, to say more, to connect more.

    Every artist experiences the anxiety of the chase. Hell, I’m feeling it especially strong today and in recent weeks. 

    Guess you just have to keep digging/climbing.

    Thanks Jeff!

    1.  yep. and i would add this: you also have to love the climb itself or it’s not worth doing in the first place. i’ve been on mountaintops, traveled the world, and won awards. none of that is as fun as the journey getting there. once you arrive, there’s some euphoria, but that high quickly passes. if you do it for the reward, you’re never fully satisfied. alternately, if you enjoy the chase, then whatever accolades you might get at the end is just a cherry on top. the work is the sundae.

  9. This one of my fav quotes, think it applies.

    Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. -Margaret Thatcher

  10. I’m copying this.

    Paying our dues is a lonely road that we all have to travel. ‘Easy come, easy go.’

    But the proven worth of our message. Wow! That ‘stands the test of time.’
    And I’ve got a ways to go.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  11. I think it really comes down to your motivation. If someone is out just to promote themselves, then it shows and they need to back off. But if you’re truly creating things in order to help people, I think a more “aggressive” approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The key is, though, that your selflessness has to show. This is something you have to go to pains to display. It has to be clear that you’re not out to just make a quick buck off people.

  12. Great post Jeff.  It all comes back to true intent doesn’t it?  We’re either creating to be noticed or we’re creating because it’s what we were put here to do and can’t live without it.

  13. Wow.  I really needed to hear this one.  All this emphasis on social media has often been a huge distraction for me.  Like Pressfield says, do the work.

    It reminds me of some of the martial arts philosophy, where you do the work, practice, process etc. because of the here and now regardless of the result.  Kind of like when Paul talked about zen at your videochat this morning.  Regardless of belief about zen, I think we can take those here and now concepts and put them into practice.

    Thanks for the kick in the butt, Jeff

  14. Reminds me of Jeremy Lin, works on his game consistently and quietly where most people would have never heard of the guy before, and out of no where he explodes into the scene, inspires others and exceeds expectations…that is what the people love to see and cheer for, we know something great when we see it 🙂

  15. Reminds me of Jeremy Lin, works on his game consistently and quietly where most people would have never heard of the guy before, and out of no where he explodes into the scene, inspires others and exceeds expectations…that is what the people love to see and cheer for, we know something great when we see it 🙂

  16. Thank you so much for this post. It’s got me all teary. I could blame it on the hormones and life with two under two and the pressures of our ministry and work and blah blah blah, but really, it’s that you’ve spoken right directly into my heart. Thank you.

  17. I agree with hammondart. It really is about focusing on the intent and true passion underlining our efforts whether in work or our personal lives. To say  it is easy to ignore the desire to stand up and shout “What about me!?” would be false. However, that is the resistance talking isn’t it? The fear of failure. If we try, have we really ever failed? 

    Thank you for reminding me to be quiet and listen. Quiet and focus on the work, and follow through with shipping. 

  18. Great post, Jeff. (As usual!) As an author, since entering the social media arena, it’s been practically forced down my throat to self-promote, self-promote—and really, start self-promoting!

    It cuts against the grain from my upbringing: “Let others promote you, and not yourself.”

    But it was there. In my face. And sounding like real marketing–a skill set I felt I so greatly lacked. I’m a writer, not a saleswoman.

    I have been encouraged through reading your posts. I love the concept of concentrating on simply building my platform–not on self promotion. Of waiting for permission before asking. Of the possibility to just be myself, build a platform through relationships (which sits with me much better!), and not to feel at all like I HAVE to promote myself.

    Whew! What a relief! Thanks. 🙂

  19. Slowly but surely, I think I’m learning this. I read in “Bird by Bird” yesterday a quote that reminds me of this concept, from Lamott’s agent when she turned in a first draft of one of her books, 

    “You’ve made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you is significant.” 

    It keeps echoing in my head, reminding me to simplify, scale back, focus on what the important things really are. For example, I know I need to be more strategic in how I use twitter – self-promote sparingly and get rid of my bad habit of thought-vomiting (tweeting about things that annoy me, or about other inconsequential things.) 

  20. What a beautifully written message. I loved the part about ‘you can make it matter or make it mediocre.’ I have often wondered if I’m ‘promoting’ myself enough (not that I do much anyway), especially with all this online marketing. I felt like I was behind or missing something. It feels like pressure. So this post was a nice reminder that if it’s meant to be heard, it will happen naturally. I need to focus on the writing, the rest will fall into place. Thank you Jeff. 

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