December 17, 2015
Jack Covert Selects: Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges
Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy, Little Brown, 352 pages, $28.00, Hardcover, December 2015, ISBN 9780316256575
There is a beauty that inhabits the heart of Amy Cuddy’s Presence that is deeper than the extroverted, external world we must all inhabit every day, and the idea that we must inhabit it with some measure of confidence in order to achieve anything or find success. The beauty stems from an early acknowledgement of the universality of human struggle. Every human being you encounter today has a struggle they’re dealing with, probable one unknown to you and deeper than you can imagine. Even the most confident of us face it, and even the struggles near the surface can be nearly paralyzing. “Because,” Cuddy tells us, “here’s the thing:”
most people are dealing with stressful challenges every day. People in every corner of the world and all walks of life are trying to work up the nerve to speak in class, to interview for a job, to audition for a role, to confront a daily hardship, to stand up for what they believe in, or to just find peace being who they are.
It is an admission that we all feel powerless sometimes, and that the very feeling of powerlessness is powerful, is self-compounding and self-defeating.
Powerlessness engulfs us—and all that we believe, know, and feel. It enshrouds who we are, making us invisible. It even alienated us from ourselves.
Her unequivocal response is that you can overcome it in the moments that matter most to your individual progress, or when you need to advocate for others. The antidote to that feeling, Cuddy has discovered, is the power of a condition she calls presence. As she defines it:
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 those moments.
Amy Cuddy’s own story is remarkable, having had to relearn everything—how to speak and move and communicate, how to think and think clearly, and at the most basic, almost metaphysical level, just how to act like herself—after a traumatic brain injury suffered in a car accident while in college. And though it took time, she did eventually overcome, and became a successful student once again, to the point that she was invited to a coveted academic “coming out” conference at which social psychology PhD students looking to enter professorships were able to pitch themselves for positions opening the next year. While there, she found herself with a chance to give an elevator pitch (literally in an elevator) to three luminaries in her field, and even though she had a pitch prepared just for such an occasion, she was unable to give it—the pitch fleeing as crushing anxiety took over and all the wrong words, in the wrong order, began to spill out of her mouth. We have all had moments like this, in which we fail to rise to the occasion, are unable to find the right witty retort until we walk out the door, where we really missed a chance or messed up a moment that could have changed the trajectory of our lives, if only if…
It happens when we are challenged, back on our heels, and are unable to find our thoughts and ourselves momentarily. We can overcome it if we can learn to call upon presence:
Presence, as I mean it in these pages, is the state of feeling connected with our own thoughts, values, abilities, and emotions, so that we can better connect with the thoughts, values, abilities, and emotions of others. That’s it. It is not a permanent, transcendent mode of being. It comes and goes. It is a moment-to-moment phenomenon.
So, although the idea of presence comes to us through more transcendental traditions of mindfulness, the way Cuddy comes to the concept takes it off it’s pedestal and turns it into a tool we can all tap into at any time.
But it’s also not as superficial as simply being well prepared, well practiced, or confident in your pitch—though that is all important. Your pitch can be perfectly prepared, almost a part of you you know it so well, and you can still falter the moment the opportunity unexpectedly arrives to give it. The reason any pitch is ultimately powerful is because the person giving it is wholeheartedly convinced of what they are pitching, honest in their sincerity, true believers in what they are saying, and therefore true believers in themselves. It not enough for what you’re saying to be almost a part of you, it has to be wholly, authentically you. That is what is required for true presence:
Our search for presence isn’t about finding charisma or extraversion or carefully managing the impression we’re making on other people. It’s about the honest, powerful connection that we create internally, with ourselves.
There is an “authentic leadership” element to all of this, but it is more personal. It has to do with how you lead yourself—especially in moments of stress. It is about leading your life in a way that you’re ready to show up in those moments. You have to believe your own story, be self-aware, know how you’re projecting yourself in what you’re saying and with your body language. It is also about being aware of and listening to others, because being present requires attentiveness, as well.
Amy Cuddy gives readers the tools to do that (or, rather, shows us that we already have the tools, and how to use them). I’m sure you’ve heard that the simple act of smiling releases endorphins that make us happier. In similar ways, Amy Cuddy tells us that the body often leads the mind in other ways. So we must pay attention to our posture, and can even practice “power poses” before we head into a difficult or stressful situation to overcome some of that stress. It all stems from a question she had while doing research on body language: “Since we naturally expand our bodies when we feel powerful, do we also naturally feel powerful when we expand our bodies?” Being an academic, the way to answer that question was with rigorous scientific experimentations, all of which pointed to the fact that it did. There are so many other wonderful revelations and pratcices in Amy Cuddy’s Presence, all backed by scholarship and research. It is, in the best meaning of the word, smart.
It seems that so much of our success these days isn’t about learning new technical skills, but learning how to be more authentic, empathic, understanding of ourselves and others and able to bridge the divide between us. Our ability to communicate easily and authentically when called on, and to be able to call upon ourselves at any moment is incredibly, and increasingly, important in business today, and can be enhanced with the power of presence. Amy Cuddy’s book on the topic will teach you how.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.