A young man once wrote to tell me how he often feels after leaving a high-stress, high-stakes professional challenge: “I don’t walk away feeling like I have given my all and left everything on the table… And it always eats at me later, when I analyze it over and over again in my head, and [it] ultimately leads to feelings of weakness and failure.”
Most of us have our own personal version of this experience, whether it’s after interviewing for a job, auditioning for a role, going on a date, pitching an idea, or speaking up in a meeting or in class.
But how did we get there? We got there by worrying what others would think of us, but believing we already knew what they thought; by feeling powerless and consenting to that feeling; by clinging to the outcome and attributing far too much importance to it instead of focusing on the process. These worries coalesce into a toxic cocktail of self-defeat.
Before we even show up at the doorstep of a challenge, we’re teeming with dread and anxiety, borrowing trouble from a future that hasn’t yet unfolded. When we walk into a high-pressure situation in that frame of mind, we’re condemned to leave it feeling bad. The challenge becomes a threat rather than an opportunity.
If only I’d remembered to say this… If only I’d done it that way… If only I’d shown them who I really am. We can’t be fully engaged in an interaction when we’re busy second-guessing ourselves and attending to the hamster wheel in our heads—the jumbled, frenetic, self-doubting analysis of what we think is happening in the room. The excruciating self-awareness that we are, most definitely, in a high-pressure situation. And we’re screwing it up. Exactly when we most need to be present, we are least likely to be.
But what does it look like when we actually do show up? When we are truly present during these stressful challenges? Presence, as I mean it, is the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, skills, and potential. It is not a permanent, transcendent mode of being. It comes and goes. It is a moment-to-moment phenomenon.
Presence manifests in several ways that make us dramatically more compelling:
- Grounded enthusiasm
- Confidence without arrogance
- Believing our story
- Allowing for a bit of nervousness
- Less impression management, more authentic YOU
Let’s examine how each of these works, as well as how they come about — and what we can do to develop them.
1) Grounded enthusiasm
When we are present, we naturally display grounded enthusiasm – a combination of confidence, comfort level, and passion. This quality comes through mostly in nonverbal ways—vocal qualities, gestures, facial expressions, and so on. It predicts which entrepreneurs get funding from investors. It predicts job interviewers’ evaluations of applicants, whether the applicants will get called back, and final hiring decisions.
Are we right to value this trait so highly? Is it just a superficial preference? The outcome of hiring and investment decisions suggests that it isn’t. Self-assured enthusiasm is an impressively useful indicator of success. In studies of entrepreneurs, this quality predicts drive, willingness to work hard, initiative, persistence in the face of obstacles, enhanced mental activity, creativity, and the ability to identify good opportunities and novel ideas.
2) Confidence without arrogance
Sadly, confidence is often confused with cockiness. A truly confident person does not require arrogance, which is nothing more than smoke screen for insecurity. A confident person—knowing and believing in her core identity—carries tools, not weapons. A confident person does not need to one-up anyone else. A confident person can be present to others, hear their perspectives, and integrate those views in ways that create value for everyone. True belief—in oneself, in one’s ideas—is grounding; it defuses threat.
3) Believing our story
Maybe there was a time you had to sell a product you didn’t like or convince somebody of an idea you didn’t believe in. It feels desperate, discouraging, hard to hide. It feels dishonest because it is dishonest.
Similarly, you can’t sell a skill you don’t have. Sometimes people mistakenly think I’m suggesting that we can learn to fake competence. Presence isn’t about pretending to be competent; it’s about believing in and revealing the abilities you truly have. Sometimes it’s about tricking yourself into accepting that you are indeed capable. Sometimes you have to get out of the way of yourself so you can be yourself.
In our own studies, the more the interviewees showed the qualities of presence, the higher they were rated on believability. And the higher they were related on believability, the more likely the judges were to want to hire them. Without the believability variable, the effect of presence on hiring outcomes disappears.
4) Allowing for a bit of nervousness
It’s okay to be a little bit nervous. In challenging situations, a moderate amount of nervousness can actually be adaptive, in the evolutionary sense: it keeps us on our toes and signals respect. Without anxiety we wouldn’t worry about saying the wrong thing to an in-law or escaping a predator who’s chasing us. Healthy fear keeps us tuned in to what might go wrong and focuses us on preventing disaster. Some nervousness can even signal passion to others. After all, you wouldn’t be nervous if it didn’t matter to you, and you can’t easily persuade an investor or potential client to buy into your idea if it’s not clear that you care deeply about whether or not it succeeds.
Don’t get caught up in the idea that you have to somehow magically erase all traces of nervousness. Trying to force yourself to feel different from the way you already do is not going to help you become present. What you want to do is avoid clinging to your nervousness; notice it and move on. Anxiety gets sticky and destructive when we start becoming anxious about being anxious.
5) Less impression management, more authentic YOU
There’s another reason we tend to put our faith in people who project passion, confidence, and enthusiasm: these traits can’t easily be faked. Trying to manage the impression we’re making on others requires choreographing ourselves in an unnatural way. This is hard work, and we don’t have the cognitive and emotional bandwidth to do it well. The result is that we come across as fake. Other people can tell that something is off, even if they can’t precisely articulate what that thing is.
Science has addressed this question, mostly in the context of job interview performance and hiring decisions. For example, people might try to enforce a positive image of themselves on interviewers by pouncing on every opportunity to recite a story about their accomplishments or by smiling and making frequent eye contact. The harder candidates work to manage the impression they make—the more tactics they deploy—the more the interviewers start to see the candidates as insincere and manipulative, which ultimately bodes poorly for landing the job. So stop focusing on the impression you’re making on others; start focusing on the impression you’re making on yourself.
Presence is closer than you think.
The kind of presence I’m talking about comes through incremental change. You don’t need to embark on a long pilgrimage, experience a spiritual epiphany, or work on a complete inner transformation. Instead, focus on moments—achieving a state of psychological presence that lasts just long enough to get you through your most challenging, high-stakes, a-lot-is-on-the-line situations, such as job interviews, difficult conversations, idea pitches, public speeches, athletic events, performances, and the like.
“Imagine approaching moments with excitement instead of dread.
Imagine feeling energized and at ease.”
There will always be new challenges, new uncomfortable situations, new roles—things that push us off balance and stoke our anxiety, forcing us to reexamine who we are and how we can connect with others. To be present, we have to treat these challenges as moments. Presence is not all or nothing. Sometimes we lose it and have to start again, and that’s okay. Presence exists in moments, and we all can create those moments.
Next time you’re faced with one of these tense moments, imagine approaching it with excitement instead of dread. Imagine feeling energized and at ease while you’re there, liberated from your worries about how others are judging you. And imagine leaving it without regret, satisfied that you did your best, regardless of the measurable outcome.
Can this kind of transitory presence help you become more successful in the traditional sense? Quite possibly. But what matters more is that it will allow you to leave stressful situations without feeling regret, doubt, and frustration. Instead, you will go forth with the knowledge that you did everything you could do. That you accurately and fully represented yourself and your abilities. That you showed them who you really are. That you showed yourself who you really are. And this will make it much easier for you to show up in the next interview.
Adapted from “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges” (Little, Brown, & Co.) by Amy Cuddy