If the only constant in life is change, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, finding your true, bedrock self becomes a problematic idea. How do you know when you’ve found it? Hasn’t the search for yourself changed who you are? And don’t your experiences in life constantly shape you into a new person? Suffice it to say that being authentic does not mean reacting to life in easily predictable ways. So if you are looking to be yourself — indeed, your best and strongest self — it is important to understand what you believe, what you value, and what your abilities are, says Amy Cuddy.
That comes down to an idea she calls “presence,” which means bringing your best self to life’s most challenging events. What these events are — a job interview, a stressful social or family situation — vary from person to person. But what is constant across these events is our true self: our beliefs, values, and abilities. If you go into stressful situations with a strong sense of what these bedrock qualities are for you, you’ll perform better in the face of adversity, says Cuddy.
While a job interview or family dispute is probably not a matter of life-or-death, it may feel that way because your biology, e.g. your nervous system, is evolved to deal with life-or-death situations. Cuddy’s point is not about overcoming evolutionary forces, but that noticing how your body reacts to stressful situations — what makes your palm sweat, for example? — is a way to identify what are your biggest life challenges. “So once you’ve identified what’s happening in the situation when those things happen,” says Cuddy, “you start to become much more attuned to those bodily cues. And so when they happen in the future you can sort of course correct earlier.”
Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, uses experimental methods to investigate how people judge and influence each other and themselves. Her research suggests that judgments along two critical trait dimensions — warmth/trustworthiness and competence/power — shape social interactions, determining such outcomes as who gets hired and who doesn’t, when we are more or less likely to take risks, why we admire, envy, or disparage certain people, elect politicians, or even target minority groups for genocide.
Cuddy’s recent work focuses on how we embody and express competence and warmth, linking our body language to our feelings, physiology, and behavior. Her latest research illuminates how “faking” body postures that convey competence and power (“power posing”) — even for as little as two minutes — changes our testosterone and cortisol levels, increases our appetite for risk, causes us to perform better in job interviews, and generally configures our brains to cope well in stressful situations.
In short, as David Brooks summarized the findings, “If you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully.” Ultimately, Cuddy’s research suggests that when people feel personally powerful, they become more present: better connected with their own thoughts and feelings, which helps them to better connect with the thoughts and feelings of others. Presence — characterized by enthusiasm, confidence, engagement, and the ability to connect with and even captivate an audience — boosts people’s performance in a wide range of domains.