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Paul Jarvis

The drawbacks of being known


I want to talk about being a “known person”, i.e. a person who publicly shares their knowledge, experience, and personality in articles, videos, social, etc. Big audience, small audience, it doesn’t matter. If you’re sharing, someone knows something about you and you are a known person.

This is a hard topic to discuss because I don’t want to come across as whiney or ungrateful (while I’m definitely the former, I’m not the latter when it comes to my job). This is something I’m sure a lot of folks in the same position feel, and it’s something I struggle with myself. As in, it affects my work, sometimes daily. It stresses me out that maybe I’m not even cut out or good enough to be a known person on the level that I am a known person.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about known person-ness:

1/ Known people who voice a political opinion are frowned upon and told that they should just shut up and do the thing they’re known for and stay in their lane. It’s not like they’re also well rounded human beings with ideas, opinions and voices on many more subjects than they’re known for, right?… I’m not exactly Bono-level in my penchant for talking issues, but they do come up in articles or on Twitter and I always get the same response about sticking to my lane. Oh, and feel free to swap out political for religious, social, or economic as well.

2/ Known people can’t make mistakes, even small ones like typos, without being blasted for it. I received 100s of emails from people saying they don’t trust my writing because I made a spelling mistake or that I can’t be the expert I apparently said I was because an email of mine from years ago has a URL in it that’s now malfunctioning.

3/ Known people have to live up to the idea that their audience has of them, and will be criticized if they don’t. I’ve had folks tell me I can’t talk about business because I have visible tattoos or because I occasionally swear. I’ve even had people ask for a refund on a course because I let a “shit” slip into a lesson (and in this article too, apparently)!

4/ Known people can’t share a point of view because it’ll be skewed by privilege or lack of empathy and also be interpreted as wholly self-centred or egotistical. Any time I’ve written about anything personal, I’ve been belittled about lacking empathy for folks who are different from me or not as lucky as I’ve been in life – or just told that the world doesn’t solely revolve around me. And I agree with all those points, I just share what I know, which is personal stories.

5/ Known people can’t sell a product or try to make a living because that means they’re sell-outs, corporate shills or just after a quick buck by any means. I’d never want to take someone’s money who wasn’t gladly offering it in exchange for something, and routinely choose to make less because making more wouldn’t align with my values.

6/ Known people can’t offer a deal or a sale on something they’ve created because some folks who previously bought it would be upset they paid more for it or others would want a bigger deal. Even though in retail or at stores, I doubt there are that many complaints about deals happening from time to time. The last bundle deal I offered led to more complaints about the price (at 70% off) not being discounted enough than actual purchases!

7/ Known people can’t change their minds about things they once believed or thought to be true, without being called out as hypocrites. Even though the mark of intelligence seems like the ability to reconsider topics when new information of experiences come to bear. I’ve flip-flopped on at least a dozen ideas on creativity, marketing, business, and have that pointed out to me often by people who read an article or book from years ago who maybe agreed more with the old opinions I had and less so with the ones I currently hold.

8/ Known people have to deal with criticism that has nothing to with their work. Like being called out for gaining weight on a freelancer Q&A call, or being told that you don’t dress “business enough” to be taken seriously. And I’m a dude too, so I am absolutely positive (from stories I’ve heard from female friends), it’s far worse when you’re a known person who happens to be a woman.

9/ Known people can’t get mad or argue. You’ve got to watch what you say, how you say it and make sure nothing you say can be taken out of context. I’ve been condemned for replying to vitriol with vitriol, which is petty, sure, but also pretty true to who I am sometimes (i.e. I am petty). I’ve also been shamed for using anger to express myself, not directed at a person, but at a situation.

Again, the point here is not to complain and get sympathy or make anyone feel sorry for me or to fish for compliments. I’m totally happy with my work, make a great living, and have an amazing group of folks who pay enough attention to what I create and say to pay for the things I sell. I also would never say that known people, myself included, don’t receive their fair share of praise and rewards from being known and having folks pay them attention. It’s just that sometimes it’s extremely difficult to deal with the negative bits and bobs. And, since I’ve never seen anyone else broach the subject, I wanted to bring it up.

To talk about the downsides of being known runs counter to the culture of thought-leadership, expertise, and known-people-ness. A lot of thought leaders main source of income is selling the idea to their audience that they can all be thought leaders too, so look how great it is! Known people are supposed to have their shit together and be positive (at least publicly) about everything. But I’m sure the downside affects other people, as it affects me. Sometimes I’ve had to walk away from my computer for a few days because I couldn’t deal with it. Or, griped to friends privately because I was too scared to write a piece like this one and share it.

I also take long breaks from working in public, both for productivity and the sake of my own mental health. Meaning I routinely take a few months off from social media (Twitter for me, I’m on no other social platform) and publishing writing. I do this because I value the perspective and clarity that comes from intense periods of solitary work, without praise or condemnation. But I also know it’s not sustainable (at least not yet, for me) to solely do solitary work and hope it gets enough attention on its own to keep my business afloat. So I oscillate between working in public for a spell, then going back to work in private, doing each for a few months at a time—as this feels like the right cadence for me.

The point is that unless we’re independently wealthy (note: I’m not rich like me), we all have jobs to do. Some jobs can be done in private, where we get paid to do something that other folks don’t notice because there’s no need for them to. Some jobs require the work to be done in public, in order to pay enough to make a living and be sustainable long term.

It’s easy to assume—mostly because known people like to focus on the positive and the benefits of being a known person—that that sort of job is the best and should be worked towards by everyone, everywhere, forever. But really, it’s just a different type of job. And both sides could probably do with a bit more empathy towards the other.

Personally, I work in semi-public because it affords me the ability to do what I really, really, really enjoy doing: using my creativity to make things. So I accept the drawbacks that come with it, even if I have a hard time with them sometimes, because the payoff is worth it. I can’t believe how lucky I am to make a living writing and designing and supporting a group of folks who get value from what I offer.

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