Remember that Rolling Stones hit “Mother’s Little Helper”? It’s a catchy but sad song about a common prescription drug many housewives turned to for solace within the humdrum of everyday life during the mid-20th century. The drug was so popular that during its peak years, it reportedly accounted for one in three of all prescriptions. Such numbers far exceed the rate of use we’d expect to find today for legitimate medication of clinically diagnosed maladies such as depression and anxiety. It was shocking that so many comfortable, middle class housewives chose to escape themselves through such a powerful and highly addictive tranquilizer. But they did.
It’s not unusual, of course, for anyone to find the daily grind mind-numbing at times and wearying even more often. This is why I’ve wondered if the desire cultivated among many—particularly among Christian women—to blog, build platforms, create personal brands, and publish books has become a kind of churchy, 21st-century version of “Mother’s Little Helper.”
The idea occurs not because there is anything wrong or bad with wanting to write and speak for the public. After all, I do these things, as do many of my friends and peers. It occurs because through years of communicating with those who hope to do the same, I have too often detected an air of yearning and desire that far exceeds merely staking out a professional goal. It’s as though in pursuing these things, the value of a person and her entire life were at stake.
A recent Twitter conversation about platform building, branding, and publishing crystallized this concern for me. During the robust, challenging, and encouraging discussion among a number of women (including some notable Christian leaders), undernotes of this deep desire to achieve affirmation through a platform rang through.
But platform can never affirm us in ways Jesus and those who see us regularly can.
So, what is a platform? A literal platform is something someone stands on to communicate, allowing one to be better seen and heard. A publishing platform isn’t all that different. Sometimes that something that makes one stand out from the crowd can be an experience, but most of the time it is, more simply, experience. And most experience comes from work. Platforms are built from work you have already done.
Jane Friedman, one of the top experts in the publishing industry, defines an author platform simply and clearly: it is “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.” She continues:
First and foremost, platform grows out of your body of work—or from producing great work. Remember that. It’s very difficult, next to impossible, to build a platform for work that does not yet exist.
One editor shared with me a problem she has seen with many women who write blog posts or devotionals who would like to get a book contract. She describes the situation this way:
They approach a publisher, but the publisher tells them they don’t have a platform. This leads them to think they must build a platform for themselves by attracting followers, writing email newsletters, and writing guest posts. The platform building becomes the craft, and they become the product.
It’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that platform is a means, not the end. Platform gives you standing, so others will know you have something valuable to say.
Many, understandably, are inspired to emulate the reach and influence of women like Ann Voskamp and Beth Moore. But they don’t account for the fact that these women labored largely unknown for years and, more importantly, didn’t set out in hopes of gaining the wide platforms they have.
My platform isn’t the number of Twitter followers I have or the number of books I’ve sold. (Sadly, we know there are ways of achieving numbers in those areas that are not honorable or right.) My platform is the work I’ve done. I write because it’s part of my job. As an English professor, I am expected to teach students to think, read, and write critically and to do those same things myself. This is my work. In fact, my first big writing “break” occurred unsought in a context that had nothing to do with writing or publishing. I was attending a conference related to an advocacy issue I’m involved with and met an editor of a national publication there. We spoke briefly—about the issue at hand, not writing. A few days later, I received an invitation to pitch a story to the publication. The next break came when an editor at an even bigger national publication read the work I was now publishing at the first outfit and asked me to write for her publication.
I recount this story not to give you a roadmap to follow, but to point out that I was doing the work I was called to, doing it well, and the invitations followed. The invitations are not a given. Good work will assist in the numbers game better than anything else, of course, but, ultimately, excellence is its own reward.
I’ve never met an aspiring pro athlete who isn’t putting in thousands of hours learning, improving, and perfecting her skills. But I’ve met more than a few aspiring writers more concerned with seeking a platform than with practicing their craft or discerning a needed message. I think this problem occurs when public communication is seen as a means of self-fulfillment rather than a type of work. That pursuit will fail, no matter how many books you sell.
I don’t think platform is quite what many imagine it to be.
Our real platform is the life we are living and the work and ministry we are already doing. Platform is our proven track record and the authority we’ve gained in whatever area God has called us to—whether we work out of the home and take care of children, or teach and research as a professor.
The classroom is my particular platform, and everything I write flows from the authority I have gained there through teaching literature, writing, and cultural criticism. That authority has taken a long time to acquire, something that always surprises people when they ask how I have achieved success as a writer: it took 16 years for me to get a BA, MA, and PhD (all in English), and another 13 years after that of teaching and writing articles before I published my first non-academic book (and even that was with a small independent publisher). Clearly, I’m a slow study and a late bloomer compared to some, but I think my long trajectory looks more like the rule than the exception. It’s no different for pastors, even if it seems every young church planter has multiple book deals.
Platforms look different for everyone, depending on life circumstances. I have a friend who has managed to overcome years of childhood sexual abuse and to come out of it pretty healthy and whole. That’s not the only thing she’s accomplished, but that alone is far more than I will ever do. My friend has an authority to speak into and about certain issues that I will never have. The platform her authority provides has nothing to do with Twitter followers, pageviews, or book contracts (even if she has those), but rather is the way she uses her experience to help and serve others.
In the end, that’s what we’re all called to do with our platforms: serve others and, in so doing, glorify God. There is no place better from which to do that than in our everyday lives. And there is no greater human affirmation we can get than from the people who live with us in our families, communities, and churches. No number of likes or shares or accolades from strangers on the internet is more important to me than getting a message from my own pastor telling me that I’m doing good work for the kingdom. Because only in connection to the Lord and his church can I find my true identity—and my true platform.