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Is Success Down To The Quality Of Your Work?

One of the biggest fallacies of our industry is that good work speaks for itself. It is a self-delusional lie that those with a good reputation tell themselves to explain their success.

Success means many things to many people. Some think it is getting to work on projects they love; others believe it is earning a lot of money, still others consider it is getting to spend more time with the family.

However you choose to define success, it will require other people’s cooperation. It will involve landing the right job, winning the right kind of work and being able to charge enough money for your services.

It would be great if that were all defined by the quality of your work, but it’s not. There is another factor at play here; your reputation.

I will let you in on a secret; I am not that amazing at my job. Don’t get me wrong; I am good. But I am not a leading mind in our industry or anything. But, people often talk as if I am.

I get invited to speak at conferences, I write for leading publications like Smashing Magazine1 and have a sizeable following on social media2. All this, despite the fact that there are thousands of people who know what I know and can do what I do.

My terrifying secret is that despite speaking at conferences and writing regularly for big name publications like Smashing Magazine, I am just not that talented. (Large preview4)

I would love to claim this was down to talent. But in truth, it is because I shamelessly self-promote. Hell, I am doing it right now, and I am even being paid to write this post!

I will be honest, doing so makes me feel uncomfortable. It might be because I am British. We hate talking about ourselves and despise people who are full of self-importance. But from a career perspective, it was the best thing I ever did.

It has helped me to win work to the point where I can now pick and choose the work I do. But it also had another unexpected benefit; my projects tend to run much more smoothly. That is because my clients respect me more. They know I have a reputation and so listen to what I have got to say.

Think of reputation as a currency. A currency that you can spend to advance your career, win new clients or ensure projects run that little bit easier. It a currency that you can spend to achieve your version of success.

Of course, none of this is fair. People should respect ability, not reputation. But most clients don’t know what good looks like and so have to fall back on how other people talk about you. That means that reputation is about a lot more than the quality of your work.

Staying Productive In Everything You Do Link

Every web professional is different, but no one likes to work on weekends and extra hours. Managing your time is vital, and with just a few other tricks you can easily get work done without working more hours. Read more →5

Your Reputation Is About More Than Your Work Link

For a start, producing great work won’t build your reputation if people aren’t aware of it. Sure, word of mouth from satisfied clients is important, but that will only take you so far.

If you don’t get out there and talk about your work, then nobody will ever know about it. That is why most of us haven’t heard of Duncan Haldane6 despite having won the Nobel Prize in Physics, but you have heard of Stephen Hawking who hasn’t.

Stephen Hawking has a much higher profile than Duncan Haldane despite the fact he has never won a Nobel Prize. (Large preview8)

Then you also need to ensure people remember you. People have short memories and reputations can quickly fade if not constantly reinforced.

Finally, they have to like you. You can produce the best work in the world, but if you are obnoxious, then you will end up with entirely the wrong sort of reputation.

So if the quality of your work isn’t enough to build a solid reputation, then what is?

The Secrets To Building A Better Reputation Link

Look, I am no Gary Vaynerchuk9. I am not a Times bestseller who has built a business empire based on his ‘personal brand’. But in my little way, I have done okay.

Gary Vaynerchuk has built a phenomenal business empire largely based on his personal brand. (Large preview11)

I would like to say that what success I have had in self-promotion has been down to careful planning, but that would be a lie. A good degree of it was blind luck and timing. For example, when I started a web design podcast12 there was nothing else on the subject. I had a monopoly. That gives you a good head start!

You could argue that my success came from grasping the opportunity. But again that was more luck than judgement, and anyway, that is not something you can replicate in your situation.

But among all the blind luck, I have done a few things right. I could drone on about writing great posts, or why my podcast has been a success. But much of my success has boiled down to two things.

The first is my pigheadedness.

Never give up, never surrender Link

When it comes to reputation building, people give up too quickly. They start a blog and then get demoralised when nobody reads it. They submit talks to a conference but give up after a few rejections. So it goes on, a string of half arsed attempts.

Reputation building takes time, not weeks, not months, but years. Years of nobody paying you a blind bit of attention. It took me years before the number of people subscribed to my podcast got above 600. Years more before I was asked to speak at a conference or invited to write a book.

When it comes to reputation building, you need to think long term. That means that you need a reason to do what you do beyond reputation. I blogged because I wanted to get down in writing all the things I was learning. I recorded my podcast every week because I enjoyed chatting with people. Without those extra motivations, I would have given up, too.

But stubbornness plays a big part as well. It would have been easy to skip the occasional podcast episode or conclude client work was more important than posting an article nobody would read. However, you can’t think like that. If you do, self-promotion will always be at the bottom of your task list and will never happen.

To this day, I will without fail, post an article every Tuesday and a podcast every Thursday. My newsletter will go out every other Friday because I know how important it is to stay in the front of people’s minds. The only time I take a break is when I am on vacation. Because if I start slacking off, people will quickly forget me like that 80’s boy band you loved so much.

But putting out regular content is not enough. It has to be the right type of content too.

Know who you are targeting Link

While my pigheadedness proved a benefit, my ego did not, especially when it came to building a reputation. If I’m truthful, my motivation in the early days was to win the approval of the “cool kids” of the web design world. I wanted to be a star of the web design community, and that is what drove my writing and podcasting.

Not only did this mean I found myself frustrated when nothing happened, but it also led to me writing for entirely the wrong audience. Instead of writing for people who might potentially hire me, I spent my time writing articles aimed at impressing other web designers.

Don’t misunderstand me; there is nothing wrong with sharing your knowledge with your peers. In fact, it is something we should all be doing. But, we need to remember why exactly we want to build our reputation. Ultimately it is to progress our careers and win work. That means we need to think long and hard about where we invest our time. Do we speak at a jQuery conference that we have always respected and admired, or at some soulless business event full of potential clients? Personally, I would pick the latter every time.

We also need to be focused in who we target. The larger the number of people you are trying to build a reputation with the harder it is going to be. Becoming a global superstar in web design is extremely challenging. But becoming the go-to web designer within a particular sector or niche is much easier. With limited resources at our disposal, it makes much more sense to focus on a specific area in which to build our reputation.

When it comes to reputation building, it is better to be a big fish in a small pond. (Large preview14)

Although the above advice will help, it is not enough on its own. Even if you became an expert in every aspect of reputation building you may still not succeed. That is because our attitude becomes our worst enemy.

Overcoming Your Excuses Link

I’m sick of people making excuses about why they can never build the reputation I have been talking about in this article. They have failed even before they have begun because of their mindset.

So let’s take a moment to address some of the defeatist attitudes that may be rattling around in your brain.

People keep rejecting me Link

Maybe you’ve been dismissed as a speaker or submitted a post to Smashing Magazine that got turned down. Maybe you want to write a book but can’t find a publisher. Whatever the case, get over it. You don’t need any of those things to build a reputation.

If you get turned down as a speaker, start offering webinars. If you can’t get a book deal, self-publish. If people don’t accept your articles, start a blog. You don’t need a gatekeeper to reach an audience.

We don’t need gatekeepers to approve our content. If you want to write a book, self publish. (Large preview16)

Sure, you will reach fewer people initially, but it gives you time to hone your craft. Given enough time you will become good enough to attract the attention of those with larger audiences. Eventually, they will be banging down your door.

I don’t have enough time Link

I want to let you in on a shocking truth; we all have the same number of hours in a day. My life is just as busy as yours, but I find time to post an article and podcast episode every week.

Partly this is because I manage my time well17. But mainly, it is because I prioritise it.

You may feel that you do not have the time because you are barely making ends meet by working weekends and evenings already. Well, you have bigger problems and should read my article on pricing your time18.

I don’t know enough Link

Many people are afraid to share their thoughts online for fear of criticism. They don’t think they know enough and don’t want to look like an idiot. Trust me, I get this, and everybody struggles with the same thing.

But please do not let that hold you back. In truth, there is always somebody out there who knows less than you. Admittedly, there will be people who know more, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing of value to add.

I recommend starting with sharing your personal experiences of projects that you have run. By talking about your own experience, you are on safe ground. Nobody can tell you you are wrong because you are only sharing what happened to you. Also, nobody else had that experience, and so there is nobody who is better placed to share it. Do that for a while, and you will find your confidence grows.

Note: Denise Jacobs excellent book19 is a great starting point to build confidence in putting yourself out there.

I hate writing and speaking Link

Finally, I hear a lot of people say that they find public speaking or writing incredibly hard. Believe it or not, this is something that I found hard at the start. As a child, I used to have a stutter and found it incredibly hard to speak in a group. I’ve also always struggled with spelling and grammar which put me off of writing for years.

But speaking and writing are just like any other skill. You eventually become good at it. That is why I don’t regret the fact that I had such a small audience for so long. It gave me time to get better and growing confidence.

Ultimately that is what building a reputation is all about. It is about growing in confidence and being willing to step out from the shadows. It is not easy especially if you are a more introverted character such as myself, but it is worthwhile. You do have something of value to share and those people you look up to are no different to you.


Footnotes Link

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Paul Boag is the author of The User Experience Revolution and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    IMHO – the dangerous fallacy here is not whether being good at your job makes you successful or not, it’s that we’re equating success with speaking at events, writing books and blog posts.

    I’m sure that for those who do those things, or want to do them, that it’s a great measure of success. If your ambition is to be a keynote speaker at Smashing Conference then you probably will equate success to that.

    The section about time also feels a little unfair. Most developers and designers work for other people, no matter how well I manage my time I can’t just sit here and decide to take two hours off project to write a blog post or prep a talk. I get the notion, but it’s a bit poorly explained. I’m sure if I wanted to talk, I’d find the time to do so, but it would absolutely have to be in my own time.

    Success for me is really a question of your own personal contentment. If you’re enjoying your work, getting paid well to do it, and your life is generally happy and fulfilling, then you are already successful and you do not need to write a book or stand on a pedestal to achieve it.

    • 2

      Couldn’t agree more. I got into the industry because I wanted to design and code, not speak at conferences and write books. That’s not everybody’s goal – in fact, it’s an unrealistic goal for the majority of the industry, and a totally separate job.

      This article isn’t about how to be a successful web professional, it’s about how to be Paul Boag. It’s a masturbatory puff piece, and if this is the sort of zero-value content that’s appearing in Smashing these days it completely belies the cachet which the opening paragraphs try to establish.

      Good work delivers measurable, concrete value to clients. “My redesign of the checkout flow for Acme Widget Co reduced abandoned baskets by 60% leading to £200,000 of extra profit in the following year” does speak for itself.

      • 3

        Hey Chris.
        I am sorry you feel like that, but my motivation was to point out a single thing. It is great that you have designed a check out for Acme that reduced abandonment by 60%, but if nobody ever hears about that then it won’t help your career. Perhaps you are fine with that and if you are then great!

        I completely respect that you just want to design and code. You are right, that should be enough. I say that in the article. But in truth, doing great work is not always enough to find that perfect job or build that perfect career for you.

        I hope you never have to write or speak. I hope you have found the perfect role and that it is not necessary.

        • 4

          Maybe I was a little harsh in my critique. I’d agree that if nobody hears about it it won’t do our hypothetical designer any good, but I’d suggest that an article on the importance of incorporating the business impact of good work into portfolios, pitches and job interviews would be of more use to 99.99% of readers than extolling the virtues of speaking at conferences.

          • 5

            I wasn’t extolling the virtues of speaking at conferences. In fact, I actually went as far as saying you shouldn’t worry too much about conferences or publishers.

            But, yes there is another article in what you suggest. It just wasn’t the one I was writing today. I have however written articles like that in the past as you are correct in saying they are important.

          • 6

            I don’t think so, you said it perfectly the first time.

    • 7

      I 100% agree with every word you are saying here. I did not mean to apply otherwise.

      You are right to say that success can be defined in many different ways. But often any measure of success can be frustrated if you do not have a decent reputation.

      Let me explain.

      I am absolutely not saying that success is writing a book or speaking at a conference. Those are means to an end. But let’s imagine your measure of success is getting to spend time with your family or producing great work. To achieve those things you need the right job. Either one that doesn’t push you to work long hours or one that gives you the opportunity to do great work. In either case, you have to get that job. Winning your dream job is a hell of a lot easier IF you are well respected and known in your field.

      Respect is a currency if you like. One you can spend in whatever you want to give you the success you desire.

      In regards to time, yes you are once again correct. For years I wrote blog posts etc in my own time. However, once again building the reputation allowed me to build a role that didn’t force me to do those things in the evenings.

      In short, reputation brings with it freedom to build the career that suits your lifestyle and definition of success.

      • 8

        To put a finer point on it, let’s say you have a job and life you love and consider yourself successful. Then one day you lose your job unexpectedly. Your ability to find a new job can be greatly impacted by the reputation you’ve created, or not created, all those years previous.

    • 9

      Hey again.
      I have tweaked the start of the article based on your comments because I thought you made some excellent points. Hopefully it has helped to clarify what I was getting at.

      • 10

        And here lies the beauty of the internet. You took your time to read the comments, think them over and amend the article because you agreed with said comments and agreed that they could improve the article.

        This very much ties in with the point of the article, and for that I applaud you Paul.

        • 11

          Thanks Mike. It does feel like this is a lost art online. Everybody feels the need to defend every word they wrote rather than accepting they are wrong or have failed to communicate themselves very well.

      • 12

        Thanks Paul, appreciate your response. This line is particularly interesting:

        “Winning your dream job is a hell of a lot easier IF you are well respected and known in your field.”

        I think that’s a fair point to make. I think there are other ways (besides speaking/talks) that can help grow reputation, but nonetheless, the clarification is helpful.

        Some suggestions besides speaking/books that may help grow reputation might be to be active on Github and other dev/design communities. Another idea is to create your own open source project that other folk can use. Now that is something to shout about! ;)

        • 13

          Hey Michael.
          Absolutely. I guess it is inevitable any author ends up writing what they know and what worked for them. But yes, active participation in communities or involvement in open source projects are also good ways. I am also a fan of giving stuff away for free. I tend to give away knowledge through writing, but developers can give away plugins and designer design assets.

  2. 14

    This was a great read. One thing I try to maintain is quality work and service when I am able to have a client. I do need to design and build a blog to be implemented into everything I am doing so this post was encouraging to the idea of it.

    Ian Brown
    IAB Designs

  3. 15

    This article didn’t resonate with me but hopefully others found it useful.

    To me, success comes down to hard work.

    • 16

      As a matter of interest Marc, what does success look like to you? I am curious because everybody defines it as something different.

    • 17

      I don’t see success coming from just hard work. I am not basing success on money but this is how I see the hard work debate.

      There is a million ways to make a £1,000. Someone will work really hard to earn that after weeks of hard work. Someone who works smart and hard could do it within hours.

      The faster track to success.

      1. Work smart and hard
      2. Work smart
      3. Work hard

      Working hard is not enough on its own.

  4. 18

    Edward Meehan

    August 30, 2017 10:40 pm

    I agree with with reputation is currency, and in some cases hard work can get you recognized and build reputation. But often it helps if you take the time to wave your own flag of success, otherwise you are waiting for others to see it. And as you stated before we are all busy, and hard work can be seen as just doing your job. Since in the end aren’t we all supposed to be doing our best, and if we are then why would it be worth more from some then others.
    To use reputation in an example, early in my career I was recognized for performing a task that no one else in the company had performed up until that point. In my mind I was just doing my job, but others viewed it as extraordinary and above and beyond. So my reputation spread thru coworkers, and some of these coworkers went on to work at other companies. I soon found myself being desired by other companies because of this reputation I had built with this small group of people. But this reputation only spread so far, so its value was very localized. I have since moved to a new city, and well I no longer have the same reputation as I did before.
    I really enjoyed reading this, it reminded me how I need to take more steps maintaining my reputation so that I have more opportunities in the future.

    • 19

      But that’s only of value omve again in a tiny circle.

      This is the ‘world wide web’. You shouldn’t care what people think about you.

      I get what you’re saying, it’s nice to be thought of as a goto, but remember you’re one person in a team of people, it’s the team taht made the thing happen, regardless of whether your contribution was deemed special.

      This was where the whole rockstar thing came from in the first place because people stsrted aping themselves and ignoring the team they were in.

      Do you want to be a jerk like Rooney, or do you want to be part of the entire team feeding him the ball for the small part he plays in 90 minutes?

  5. 20

    What has always annoyed me is that for every Persona X stood on a stage dictating and telling thousands of people with their smug grins how everything they’re doing is wrong and you should be doing what I am saying there are 10s of 1000s of actual talented people doing the job – and doing it exceptionally well.

    The rockstar mentality in the web industry is still here, it’s here on this site in some little corners.
    The truth is, people aren’t going into conference speaking because it is a dead medium, we don’t need to spend hundreds if not thousands every year listening to the same 10 old white guys tell everyone what they should do; in spite of not actually doing it themselves most of the time because they’re floating around the world spewing gospel on whatever stage that’s available, whilst they get their next book ghost written by a talented junior in the office.

    Instead, we’ve still got stack overflow, we’ve still got a glut of tutorial services and now an emerging scene of communities evolving in slack groups.

    The real designers, developers and strategists are, and have always been busy, doing great work and not living the quasi academic life of book writing on subjects that are out of date before they get published (see bulletproof web design and just about everything else).

    Thank you for writing an honest post.

  6. 21

    It was an interesting article to read and some interesting comments. I think ultimately success, reputation, and alike comes down to a single thing: believing in yourself. It, in itself, has nothing to do with your “job” or “reputation” in a particular industry or people you worked with.

    Look at a family, for example, where one parent chooses to stay home (for whatever reasons and circumstances) to raise their kid(s) full time, while the other parent works. I’ve met both such women and men who took on such a role before. (Although it seems to be more common amongst women.) If you look at that person, s/he doesn’t go to a “job” on a daily bases (per se), doesn’t morning commute, sit in an office, etc, etc. Hope you get my point – no need to elaborate on the details. Yes, being a stay at home parent can be (and it is) hard work as well.

    So I think regardless of your circumstances, success eventually comes down to believing in yourself, accepting of who you are, and to like yourself. Without these factors, it matters not what your reputation is, or what successful projects you may have worked on.

    Believing in yourself, based on my measures, is the number one success you can achieve in life.

    There are people who “just have it” and they don’t think anything of it. For others, like myself, it’s a struggle to achieve.

  7. 22

    Hi Paul, this article really resonated with me.

    I sometimes look at my competitors’ work and think ‘someone paid money for that?’ yet they’ve got a huge portfolio.

    As a web designer still in my first year of trading, your article gives me a lot of food for thought!



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