Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

You Were Born to Sell: Dismantling the Myths of Self-Promotion

Working hard at making something isn’t a guarantee of success. In fact, when you ship your project or work, your job has only just begun.

Many people take the brave steps of making and creating, only to hit a wall because they’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that marketing their work isn’t for them.

As best-selling author Dan Pink points out in his book To Sell is Human, we’re all in sales now. “We’re persuading, convincing, and influencing others to give up something they’ve got in exchange for what we’ve got,” he writes. Selling is becoming increasingly necessary and a real competitive advantage in a world of growing entrepreneurship and striking out on your own, because chances are you won’t have a sales team to do your pitching and promotion for you.

It’s easy for us to think that quality alone will be enough to promote our work. Yet we need to open the door to the outside world for our ideas and creations, because if we make something and nobody’s there to see, why did we create in the first place?

If we make something and nobody’s there to see, why did we create in the first place?

Maybe you feel like the act of selling is too alien or even dishonest when your disposition is so far from the enduring tropes of the sleazy car dealer, the mercenary huckster. But selling doesn’t require you to be someone who you’re not. In fact, it demands the opposite, that you be true to yourself and your passions — and then reach out to connect from that core.

Do you still have a mental block against selling? Here are two ways to help you rethink your approach.

Use the “Free Trait Theory” 

Sometimes we allow our inherent personality traits to box us into comfort zones. However, according to researcher Brian Little’s “free trait theory,” it’s possible to adjust these traits in order to advance “core personal projects,” or projects that give you meaning and direction. In other words, your character traits are more malleable than you think.

So if you’re hesitant to self-market because you’re naturally more reserved, embrace the free trait theory and take on the guest role of an extrovert for an hour in service of what matters to you.  Little offers his own example of how this works:

“[Even though I’m a classic introvert, when I give a lecture for my students I perform with great passion. Introverts, when they are ‘on,’ become pseudo-extroverts. Can you tell the difference between a born extrovert and a pseudo-extrovert? Usually you cannot.”

There’s an element of “fake it ‘til you make it” in turning on pseudo-qualities, but consider the saying in reverse. Let what you’re making provide fuel for faking it, as Little does when he performs his lectures.

Your character traits are more malleable than you think.

Open up your mindset from “I hate having to do this song and dance for strangers” to a willingness to meet people to discover — to talk over common ground, to share your passion, or to learn something new that could inform your work. Remember: not doing everything you can to get your work seen betrays your creativity. 

Turning on pseudo-extraversion might feel out of character but connecting with others does not mean you are out of step with who you are and your values. Advancing your ideas in a meaningful way by stretching to connect with other human beings is an offering to share what you find valuable. Remember that selling is actually a conversation, a fact that the loud, annoying salesperson stereotype drowns out. 

Use Attunement to Jumpstart Your Extroverted Side

Most of us have the “ideal” sales personality all wrong in the first place. Extroverts, who gain their energy from other people tend to have more outgoing personalities and are often considered “natural born” salespeople. Yet social psychologist Adam Grant discovered that the best salespeople are not extroverts but ambiverts — people who fall between the poles of extroversion and introversion.

Ambiverts strike a crucial balance between talking and listening, neither dominating nor dampening a conversation. Grant explains, they “draw from a wider repertoire of behavioral options to find the appropriate balance between selling and serving.” This responsive engagement style of balancing assertiveness with attention is what Pink calls attunement, or “the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people and with the context you’re in.” The best salespeople aren’t the most outgoing, they are the ones who can best “attune” to those around them. 

The good news is that statistically, you’re likely an ambivert, as the level of extroversion in a population forms a bell curve. (Try this assessment.) So you already have many attunement skills.

There is one method of purposefully tapping into your inner ambivert called strategic mimicry. People naturally mirror each other in close social interactions, so strategic mimicry attempts to deliberately kick-start what happens subconsciously. Pink offers a “Watch-Wait-Wane” tactic in which you:

  1. Watch the other person’s actions, body language, and speech patterns
  2. Wait to mirror back certain aspects in your pose, movement, or certain expressions
  3. Wane, letting go of your conscious efforts to mimic so your natural instincts kick in.

If this tactic seems too contrived for your taste, exercise the first step of focusing your full attention on your audience. Instead of trying to jump in forcefully to a conversation, allow yourself to listen, acknowledging what’s being said through your demeanor and your words, and asking questions to move the chat forward. Attunement is for building rapport and relationships, not how many people you can check off your social conversation card. 


The challenge is to find the right balance in your approach, propelling yourself to stretch in service of the ideas and projects you care about based on your strengths of listening and thinking before speaking. As a creative and self-starter, this flexibility is in your nature. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that creative personalities are complex and versatile, “remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals.”

You can’t expect your work to speak for itself when you haven’t made an effort to reach out to people who will listen. That can be just as tone-deaf an attitude as the pushy promoter’s. Turn selling into an act of being yourself. Your work will thank you.

How about you?

What makes you nervous or reluctant toward selling?

More insights on: Self-Marketing

Janet Choi

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Janet Choi is the Marketing Manager at She writes about motivation, psychology, how people work, and how to communicate like a human being. Lover of ice cream and words. Say hi @lethargarian or on Google+.
load comments (37)
  • Bill Bassman

    Outstanding Article. There are so, so many people that feel they simply don’t have this in them, but in business it’s less and less of an optional feature.

  • Kate

    Interesting…I’d consider myself introverted and I’m involved in a solo creative pursuit, so the marketing/selling part all falls on me. It’s not that I don’t think I could ‘fake it’, it’s more that I don’t want to be ‘that’ person. I don’t want to be seen by others as being ‘that’ person either…because it’s just not authentically me. Even if that means I don’t get as many opportunities as other artists who go out and network and strike up conversations with important people. Still, I do make an effort to promote myself and engage using social media (my #1 vehicle for promo), even though I’d put it up there with tax returns as far as fun tasks! I take comfort in the fact that there are many artists who are far less engaging and self-promoting than me, who have a lot of followers and fans so I figure the quality of their work is hugely responsible for selling itself.

    • Janet Choi

      I struggle with the same thing Kate. I’m actually super introverted and faking it, for me, takes herculean effort. It’s definitely not as easy and breezy as it can sound to “oh, just get more comfortable with selling and self-promotion”, but I do think there’s usually room to find and grow your own way into working on it. Like you said, social media is a great method for quieter types.

      I’ve noticed, though, that people rarely seem to overdo it and become “that” person – because the identifying quality of “that” person is a sort of deafness on how they’re coming off, if that makes sense.

      Thanks for reading and sharing about your own efforts!

      • tim

        Most ultra-tech people in the USA ( a particular example thanks to the idiotic HR-driven SPECIFIC tech job profiles !) are not good at working outside their highly-specific work environment.
        We have become victims of “ueber”-specific employment descriptions which directly impair one’s innate ability to think as an interested CUSTOMER, rather than the EXPERT advisor.
        ……. Way too many US “professionals” offer immediate ( and quite correct, BTW !!) ANSWERS , rather than simply asking that very important CUSTOMER the relevant QUESTIONS.

        In short, it is highly, highly unlikely that the dedicated tech “expert” in his / her field (i.e., engineer, scientist or IT-specialist in PARTICULAR) could ever, ever become a great salesperson, IMHO.
        Engineers, in particular, do not make great salespeople.
        These “ueber” experts have simply not been equipped to deal with sales.
        kind regards, Tim

  • Kimberly

    Love it! This is a subject near and dear to my heart; I recently wrote about it on my own blog. I used to have this fear of selling and marketing myself, but that’s because I was suffering from the entirely wrong and misinformed belief that sales was about strong-arming people to buy things they don’t need or want. Glad I got over that!

    It’s like you say here — you can’t expect your work to speak for itself when you haven’t made an effort to reach out to people who will listen. In my work as a copywriter, I come across people who want to sell more of their thing, whatever it is, but are worried about sounding too “salesy” on their website. What I tell them is that it’s entirely possible to to express their unique talents and skills in an authentic way without any over-the-top hucksterism or weirdly smarmy copy techniques, and still get their message across effectively.

    • Janet Choi

      Hi Kimberly, thanks for sharing about your experience! You make a good point – I think a lot of the attitude toward selling basically comes down to what you define sales as. And it’s true — the actual challenge is to learn how to express talents, skills, features, etc. that doesn’t give you that cringey feeling. There’s definitely an art to that, that’s creative in its own way.

  • Evan Pham

    I enjoyed reading this article. Is the “free trait theory” really just a fancy way of saying fake it til you make it? I like to take the idea of the free trait theory up another level by focusing on service. I’m a big believer in servant leadership and I’ve found that I perform my best when I’m passionate about some work or cause that positively impacts other. What gets my nervous or reluctant towards selling, and I catch myself feeling this way all the time, is when I sell for a purpose that’s disingenuous to me. If I sell for the goal of money, solely bolstering my own image and profile among my peers, or some other self-serving reason, then I’m bound to fail.

    People can perceive passion as a negative thing as well. There is such a thing as too much passion. I like the idea of attunement to safeguard myself from portraying myself excessively to another. Match their level of excitement, or at most be a shade or two lighter.

    • Janet Choi

      Thanks Evan! Yeah, I suppose the quick version of free trait theory is a fancy way of saying fake it til you make it. (Professor Little’s work goes into more nuance and depth than what I mention here.) Your take on connecting the approach with servant leadership is right on too. It makes total sense that your “core personal project” is not necessarily your own image/status but the actual work or impact itself.

      I really like your point about passion being double-edged because it’s so often spoken of as an indisputably good thing – find your passion etc. – but how to modulate that passion around others is also something to keep in mind. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment!

  • NN

    In America, many people from other countries are better at selling because they do not fear rejection. Americans are programmed to think that selling is sleazy but consuming is noble. Now that the economy is in a warped dimension, we are all realizing that we should all be selling and consuming products that positively impact people. I confidently sell my services because I truly believe that what I offer is valuable and helps people.

    • Janet Choi

      Hm, interesting point of view. I’m not sure I agree that Americans are programmed to think that consuming is noble but I do understand where you’re coming from. Thanks for sharing about your own approach to selling — it aligns with what I’d hoped to highlight with this piece!

  • growthguided

    Now what comes to mind when someone says, Always Be Closing? ABC Rule

    Some people live by this quote.

    • Janet Choi

      Now what comes to mind is that we need to update this quote!

  • Rose Anderson

    I really appreciate the framing of this issue here. I have been really thinking about this lately because I do not sell nearly what I should…like my buyers as a force out in the universe have to overcome my reluctance to sell in order to get my art. That’s not how I ever wanted it to be. Even though I am not an introvert, I am afraid to put on the persona of salesperson for my art. Even though it’s good. And everyone loves it. I keep asking myself: what the heck is my problem?? Too many experiences with sleazy sales tactics, probably! This gives me a bit of a different way of looking at it, and it makes me feel hopeful. I have always loved Daniel Pink’s books so now I’ve ordered To Sell is Human, hopefully for some more insights.

  • damiondigi

    This was a great read, as well as for the comments below. For myself, I find it hard at times to express on the works that I do as a multidisciplinary designer. I definitely need to practice more on attunement after reading this article.

    I guess a good thing is that I’m usually surrounded by people that share some common ground of the work we do. I do catch myself at times with blending in too much, and I would need to restore what’s original and different from others. I guess this being said, I am definitely an ambivert, because I take in as much as I put out.

    But this article helps me on keeping a greater balance. Honestly, before this, I was actually thinking I was going about this the wrong way. But this made me realize that this is who I am personally and professionally, and only some improvements need to be made from here on out.

    Thank you so much for this!

    • Janet Choi

      Glad to hear that this flipped your mindset into adjustment rather than full-on thinking you were doing something wrong or that selling isn’t for you etc.

      I think you bring up some great points too – that a good chunk of attunement is 1. practicing – so that it’s not something you can just flip on and off, and 2. getting a little analytical about it. As you say, how do you restore what’s original and different about you and your work?

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment!

      • damiondigi

        My pleasure Janet. Thanks!

  • Dana Leavy-Detrick

    There’s often an element of feeling ashamed in promoting ourselves, as if we’re speaking too directly or “loudly”, whether it’s for a job or to gain clients. I think you make a great point of alleviating that discomfort somewhat by striking a balance between listening to what people want, and then not being afraid to speak to it. It’s a much less “predatory” feeling approach when you feel like you’re providing something the other party potentially needs.

    • Janet Choi

      Thanks Dana! Yeah I find it interesting that the instinct not to promote ourselves is actually kind of an insular perspective. Everything takes practice I guess!

  • GenMore

    Many years ago, through a twist of good fortune, I found myself in an entry-level sales job for a wireless company. The management was generous in training and sent us to a Brian Tracy all-day seminar. The remark he made in his opening sticks with me every day: “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those that are in sales, and those that are in sales and don’t know it.” I think that sums up sales and (by extension) customer service, Ironic because my K-12 school years were in private, religiously affiliated schools where it was emphasized daily that we are here, on this earth and in this life, to serve. Brian Tracy said that when customers believe that you care about solving their problem, the sale will happen. And from my experience it won’t feel slimy or fake, it will feel purposeful. BTW, just signed up for IDoneThis and grateful for a terrific tool to keep me encouraged. Thanks for the article.

    • KJB

      Reminds me of how I was taught to get over stage fright. I reminded myself that I had a gift to give at each performance; it helped me realize I was giving (serving) rather than being put in the hot seat.

      • Janet Choi

        So true. In many ways — at least for me — getting over selling is very similar to getting over stage fright, or getting over public speaking anxiety. There’s a whole aspect that’s all about what’s playing out in your head! Thanks for reading KJB!

    • Janet Choi

      Hi GenMore. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and bringing up purpose and service. They certainly make a difference to how selling feels — and it’s interesting how a feeling can shade an entire concept. And thank you for checking out iDoneThis!

  • John Byrne Barry

    Thank you for this. I’ve recently published a novel and I am brand new to this, and so this is very helpful. I’m also from the Midwest, where modesty is in the water.

    Here’s something I just wrote on this very subject. I’m not as far along as you are.
    The Meek Do Not Inherit the Earth — In Defense of Shameless Self Promotion

    • Janet Choi

      Thanks for sharing your post and your story John! I love how you literally got an award for being behind the scenes, but more importantly, I think you did wonderfully in your farewell note by keeping true to your style and sensibility. Culture is a fascinating and frustrating aspect of our attitudes towards self-promotion — definitely something I’d like to explore further.

      Congrats on publishing your novel and for your work at Sierra Club!

  • Michael

    Thanks for the article Janet! I just signed up for the iDoneThis.

    I love the idea of selling and i’m definitely not a “born” salesman. I base my sales on two valuable traits “trust” and “enthusiasm”. Having people in business trust you first impression is imperative. I do this through transparency. Tell the truth!

    I work in the fantastic world of online digital marketing where there are a lot of cowboys selling websites and seo. There are far too many people/businesses giving us a bad a name in this industry.

    To overcome this, especially in SEO, I tell the client that SEO is something they should be doing (and I genuinely believe this). I’m usually not the first SEO guy they meet, but when I say this, they nearly fall off their chair… “hang on… a guy is here to sell, and he is pitching the idea that “I” do the work?”

    Second tactic is easy. I’m passionate about what I do. I love WordPress (free tool), I love online marketing and I love sharing my knowledge and helping people. This brings “enthusiasm” into the meeting. The clients feel this and love working with enthusiastic people.

    These are just two basic tips that I find help me get over the line.

    • Janet Choi

      Hi Michael! Thank you for sharing your tips and showing up the cowboys. Great point on transparency and truth — because that goes a long way in creating trust and even lasting relationships with customers.

  • Erin Verbeck

    Janet, coming from the perspective of a person who teaches photographers how to sell their art, this article was fabulous and spot on. I’ve recommended it to our community to read. Thanks for writing!

    • Janet Choi

      Thank you so much Erin. I really appreciate the kind words!

  • TheBlizzrdGroup

    Janet you have revealed a way to move past the myth that selling is déclassé.

    • Janet Choi

      Thanks very much! Everyone can classé up something in their own way.

  • Janet Choi

    Thank you Rebecca! Yep, shiny is as shiny does, and I’m happy to hear you’ve figured your balance. Plus, you bring up some great questions to ask oneself in your post!

  • Jill J.

    Janet-this post is so true to my heart. I’m an internet marketer (and work with creatives) and an introvert so it’s easier for me to do my selling from behind my computer screen. I’m not much of a networker and need to work on that, but this article was perfect for people like me.

  • Justin Skinner

    Strategic Mimicry! Love it Janet.

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