What Does Everyone Know You For?

I can assure you that people believe you have skills that you don’t actually have. They also don’t know about some great skills that you do have. These phenomena are a result of personal marketing efforts–whether intended or unconscious.

Owning concepts

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout contain a few laws that I’d like to highlight:

  • The Law of Exclusivity: Two companies cannot own the same word in the concept’s mind.
  • The Law of Leadership: It’s better to be first than it is to be better.
  • The Law of the Mind: It’s better to be first in the mind than to be first in the marketplace.

Now consider the following categories and who pops into your mind:

  • a giving person
  • a great programmer
  • a do-it-yourself mechanic
  • a politically liberal or conservative person
  • a talented artist
  • someone who sells things online
  • someone who is in fantastic shape

My experiences

Generally I can think of only a person or two for any given category. I don’t know why this is the case. But not knowing the reason does not stop it from being a useful thing to know about.

I notice that I associate people with a concept and believe them to be knowledgeable in a certain area when they are the first person I heard about the concept from. Until I have evidence to the contrary or find a more knowledgeable person, this is the working assumption. Whether they are really the most qualified people on these subjects, I would go to them first with questions. Their face pops up when I think about the category. I try to be more open-minded than believing that my mental model of them is accurate, but I am fallible.

When a consultant came into work and wound up a Pomodoro clock, several people glanced at me and I guessed that they were thinking about the Pomodoro Technique article that I wrote. I did it at work for a month or two, and it elicited some strong responses. It must be that when people think of the Pomodoro Technique, they think of me. While it was not my idea, it was one of the earlier published descriptions of using the technique. I don’t think this is egotistical or out of left field–it is just the way the mind works. We associate concepts with specific people.

In my own mind, for example, one or more people “own” the following words:

  • Windows Azure
  • dependency injection
  • exploratory testing
  • Stoicism
  • jQuery

So what should you do about it?

Ask people what they know you for. Does their response mesh with what you think they know you for and what you want them to know you for? This understanding is critical in developing your personal narrative. You are the stories you can convincingly tell. Who would not want to be first in the mind for something they care about? Who wants to be first in the mind for something that they don’t like or identify with?

Do you associate yourself with positive or negative concepts? Being early is risky, because the concept’s associations might change or be run into the ground. But you could be first in the mind if you are early.

Do you read about new concepts and breathe life into existing ones? By writing about things that already exist, you reach people that have not heard of them.

Generally it’s hard to disassociate yourself with concepts, even if they are value neutral. Robby Slaughter writes about this and more in the excellent (and quite relevant) The Tyranny of the Niche:

The worst part about switching your major in junior year is not the administrative paperwork or the additional coursework. Rather, bailing on art history and heading to journalism means you will spend the next few years of your life reminding every acquaintance and distant family member that you no longer plan to work in museums. Your assertions will grow more firm and flustered as you repeat them to the same people. Our tidy stereotypes cannot weather the complex nuances of individual choice. Change is hard; getting others to actually remember that you’ve changed is often more work than the initial reinvention.

What words or phrases or terms do you own? The rewards of being first in the mind are disproportionately large. There’s only so many slots one typically lumps a person into. Consider what concepts you mention in passing that people might begin associating you with. What do you need to drop to be first in the thing you care most about? Consciously manage these perceptions. They are real.

This post generally relates to using meta-information, although that is a bit theoretical.


Have you seen the principle of owning concepts in life? Am I full of crap?! :) Post a comment!

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