Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges
I’M SITTING AT THE counter in my favorite Boston bookstore-café, laptop open, writing. Ten minutes ago I ordered coffee and a muffin. The server—a young, dark-haired woman with a broad smile and glasses—paused and quietly said, “I just want to tell you how much your TED talk meant to me—how much it inspired me. A couple years ago my professor posted it for a class I was taking. Now I’m applying to medical school, and I want you to know that I stood in the bathroom like Wonder Woman before I took my MCAT, and it really helped. So even though you don’t know me, you helped me figure out what I really wanted to do with my life—go to medical school—and then you helped me do what I needed to do to get there. Thank you.”
Tears in my eyes, I asked, “What’s your name?”
“Fetaine,” she said. Then we chatted for the next ten minutes about Fetaine’s challenges in the past and newfound excitement about her future.
Everyone who approaches me is unique and memorable, but this kind of interaction happens far more frequently than I’d ever have anticipated: a stranger warmly greets me, shares a personal story about how they successfully coped with a particular challenge, and then simply thanks me for my small part in it. They’re women and men, old and young, timid and gregarious, struggling and wealthy. But something binds them: all have felt powerless in the face of great pressure and anxiety, and all discovered a remarkably simple way to liberate themselves from that feeling of powerlessness, at least for that moment.
For most authors, the book comes first, then the responses. For me, it was the other way around. First, I conducted a series of experiments that gave rise to a talk I delivered at the TEDGlobal conference in 2012. In that talk, I discussed some intriguing findings, from my own and others’ research, about how our bodies can influence our brains and behavior. (This is where I described that Wonder-Woman-in-the-bathroom thing Fetaine mentioned, which I will explain by and by, that can quickly increase our confidence and decrease our anxiety in challenging situations.) I also shared my own struggles with impostor syndrome and how I learned to trick myself to feel—and actually to become—more confident. I referred to this phenomenon as “fake it till you become it.” (By the way, in the talk, that part about my own struggles was almost entirely unplanned and unscripted, because I didn’t think I had the audacity to disclose something so personal to the hundreds of people in that audience. Little did I know.…) I didn’t know whether these topics would resonate with people. They surely spoke to me. Immediately after the twenty-one-minute video of the talk was posted on the Internet, I began hearing from people who had seen it.
Of course, watching my talk didn’t magically give Fetaine the knowledge she needed to do well on the MCAT. She didn’t miraculously acquire a detailed understanding of the characteristics of smooth-strain versus rough-strain bacteria or how the work-energy theorem relates to changes in kinetic energy. But it may have released her from the fear that could have prevented her from expressing the things she knew. Powerlessness engulfs us—and all that we believe, know, and feel. It enshrouds who we are, making us invisible. It even alienates us from ourselves.
The opposite of powerlessness must be power, right? In a sense that’s true, but it’s not quite that simple. The research I’ve been doing for years now joins a large body of inquiry into a quality I call presence. Presence stems from believing in and trusting yourself—your real, honest feelings, values, and abilities. That’s important, because if you don’t trust yourself, how can others trust you? Whether we are talking in front of two people or five thousand, interviewing for a job, negotiating for a raise, or pitching a business idea to potential investors, speaking up for ourselves or speaking up for someone else, we all face daunting moments that must be met with poise if we want to feel good about ourselves and make progress in our lives. Presence gives us the power to rise to these moments.
The path that brought me to that talk and this breakthrough was roundabout, to say the least. But it’s clear where it started………………….
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