The Mona Lisa Doesn’t Tweet

A Social Media Icon

Seth Godin recently noted the following on his always insightful blog:

“The Mona Lisa has a huge social media presence. Her picture is everywhere. But she doesn’t tweet. She’s big on social media because she’s an icon, but she’s not an icon because she’s big on social media.”

This perfectly sums up a point I often find myself trying to make when arguing that people don’t need to engage social media to advance their career.

In my experience, if you push people — especially young people — about why they think social media is crucial for their professional life, you’ll eventually uncover a belief that an important factor holding them back is that people in power simply haven’t noticed their specialness.

Social media platforms, they’ve been taught, provide a method to correct this information asymmetry by making it easy for them to demonstrate their specialness to the world (potentially bypassing some dreaded “gatekeepers” along the way), and therefore reap the attention that they know deep down they already deserve.

As Godin hints, however, reality is both simpler and starker.

If you can produce things that are rare and valuable, good things are likely to follow: opportunities will become more interesting and plentiful, you’ll gain more autonomy over your career, and yes, people might even start talking about you on social media.

On the other hand, if you’re not producing something rare and valuable, no amount of social media “grooming” will convince people to care (with a few rare exceptions).

The natural conclusion to draw from these observations is that you’re almost certainly better off taking the 135 minutes per day the average social media user spends on these services and instead dedicate them to deliberately improving your ability to do valuable things.

(Hat tip to my friends The Minimalists for pointing me toward Godin’s post.)


Unrelated note: I recently read an advance copy of James Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits. His thesis is that small but carefully selected habits can, over time, create massively positive results — not just in terms of what you accomplish, but also in terms of the type of person you become. James’s exposition rings true with what’ve I learned hanging around interesting people and high achievers. I recommend you give this book a closer look.

27 thoughts on “The Mona Lisa Doesn’t Tweet”

  1. This is great. Even Kim Kardashian didn’t achieve fame through social media alone: she produced media-media that people found entertaining and therefore valuable, and parlays each success into new media and products. And her social media posts don’t exist in order to convince people that her other stuff is valuable: her posts are intended to be, in and of themselves, valuable (either as entertainment to her audience or as paid promotions for her sponsors, and usually both at once). It’s not a “career” many people could have, since it requires an unusual kind of strategic charisma, and a lot of start-up cash (since you have to appear mesmerizingly glamorous from the beginning). So even social media “success stories” have succeeded by providing something rare and valuable, for which social media activity itself is a secondary support. You can’t get to where they are just posting on Instagram.

  2. Producing something that is rare & valuable is hard. sometimes very hard. No wonder people tend to go the “easy way” as marketed by “gurus”.

  3. Great point.

    Something I’ve noticed for a while being on twitter, and strategising how build my follower list. I’ve noticed that actually, the people with the most followers, are just famous people.

    Nice jab at the entitlement mindset too.

  4. Completely agree that being an icon doesn’t require social media. But I think it’s also worth noting that the Mona Lisa wasn’t perceived as rare and valuable at first, and it isn’t famous simply because it’s a well-painted portrait. Seems like many historians believe it became such an icon thanks to a combination of lucky circumstances and favorable marketing — including its theft:

    I’m not sure it’s fair to compare a portrait of a long-dead woman by a long-dead artist to young people in today’s social-media-obsessed world, but I would *love* to hear you wax a little more on how you think Da Vinci —a polymath who clearly was passionate about his work — fits into the “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” paradigm.

  5. This is why I chose to focus my time and attention on working hard to advance my career and provide value to the world. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of people today do not have the attention span required to concentrate on getting better at their craft. They spend a lot of time on social media hoping to make their brands relevant by tweeting a lot.

    • Painting actually seems to me like a perfect place for “deep work” — what will you have to post to twitter, if you don’t spend a lot of time actually painting first? How can you promote your work if you don’t have any work? I’d think it’s better to post two pieces of actual art to Facebook than twenty “promotional” posts. If the art is incredible, people will share it for you, and clients will come find you; if it’s not incredible, then spamming people about it won’t make it _become_ incredible. To make really incredible art, you have to develop rare and valuable skills, and apply them to the work itself. There has to be _some_ way for people to find out about you and the fact that you’re available for commissions, but you don’t have to be omnipresent.

  6. What are your thoughts on social media for artists ? I feel like it can be extremely hard to live comfortably as a painter or freelance illustrator, and many find in social media a space to promote their work. I guess you can formulate it that way : do you have examples of how deep work can have a higher impact on a painter’s or illustrator’s … career compared to social media which allows them to reach many people who would never have discovered their work otherwise ? How can deep work enable an artist to be more successful in his career and make a living out of it ? I can understand in terms of writers but I struggle finding arguments for painters…

    • Did you actually sold art through facebook or instagram? If you are an illustrator/painter and create some small, cheap or mass produced item that people need, like cards, invitations, posters… yes, social media ads can help. Maybe paying instead for a good seo for your site helps you even better. But if you are or aspire to be an artist, social media seems to me just a vanity booster. Not sure it worth the time. And the money. To be onest, almost no one sees you on this platforms if you don`t spend tons of time liking, following and commenting… or paying ads.

      • You are raising interesting arguments in your comment, that are worth thinking about. Thank you for taking the time to explain your point of view on this topic.

        • I sold art through social media. But my goal would be to seek how to use this shit productively. Maybe I should do detox for a month or so. And then only use it for posting art. I see how this addiction impact me negatively.

    • That’s part of the dilemma I’m facing right now. Although I’m always striving to protect and expand the time I dedicate on doing my deep work (in my case, songwriting), the results I’ve gotten so far (or lack of, thereof) have recently led me to devote more attention to a few social media channels which I believe are important for my work.

      It’s true that I don’t quite feel the same peace of mind I experience whenever I’m not on social media, but it seems like a necessary step to get me to the point where more people start caring about what I do. (but of course I may be wrong)

  7. I agree with Cal’s viewpoint on social media and looking forward to his new book.

    But something just doesn’t feel right here sometimes… because Mona Lisa doesn’t blog either.

    And blogging isn’t necessarily that “rare & valuable” activity, yet both Cal and Seth successfully using it to sell their books.

    • Blogging certainly can be rare and valuable. Cal’s entire point has been that he has built his following by producing writing that people want to read, and not only that, but by being a unique thought leader, just as Seth Godin is. I honest to God routinely check Cal’s blog because I find his thoughts so interesting and his take truly unique. I learn something every time I visit, and I don’t need an email or a social media post to remind me to read it.

  8. That Kim Kardashian link really made my day. Great Article.
    But don’t you think she actually offers great entertaiment for some people and so creates a lot of value in her niche?

  9. Awesome thoughts. Thank you. I suffer Facebook and Instagram addiction it was so hard to me. I am artist and I couldn’t work anymore. Because I couldn’t concentrate. I decided it can’t happen anymore. I should do something. Then I found your video in YouTube from TEDx. I listen to it it. It helped me to. It is very necessary to talk more and loud about it.


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