Beyonce: Master of the Power Pose. Hold for two minutes.
We have all heard the expression “fake it till you make it.” I have winced when I have heard myself or others use it because it somehow seemed to undermine a fundamental tenant of excellence…integrity. How can someone live authentically while simultaneously perpetuating fraud? Or to put it another way, illness is it possible to reconcile “faking it” with achieving personal authenticity?
Research suggests that it’s not only possible; it can make all the difference. At a recent POP!Tech talk, Amy Cuddy, an effervescent Associate Professor from the Harvard Business School, described how assuming body postures that convey competence and power—“power posing”—can alter our chemical make up to such a degree that after only two minutes in a posture, we will not only feel but actually become more powerful.
As you strike a “power pose,” you increase your levels of testosterone (power hormone) while reducing cortisol (stress hormone). This chemical shift leads to an increased appetite for risk as well as an improved capacity to manage stress, which are considered essential components of leadership. By assuming physical postures, you actualize personal power by creating the physical conditions your body needs to do so. In other words, “fake it till you become it.”
Conversely, studies have proven that postures that convey weakness—slumped shoulders and crossed legs—increase cortisol and decrease testosterone.
When I heard Cuddy speak, I wondered: if you can create the physical conditions to assume characteristics of leadership and competence, can you apply the same principles to achieving other attributes of excellence? And if so, what characteristics of excellence would you actualize, and what forms would those postures take?
Cuddy infront of another Power Pose… legs up, arms behind head
For those who missed my first post, I define excellence first in terms of what it is not. It is not what it has come to be known as today … an act of supremacy or perfection. Its more aspirational origin lies in Ancient Greece in the term Arête. Arête was more than a word. It was an attitude “bound with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function” and was intrinsically intertwined with justice, virtue, self-restraint, honesty, patience, bravery and wit. Excellence is a practice and progression, not perfection.
So back to the question: can you pose your way into excellence? The answer is yes, but perhaps not so quickly or easily as Cuddy’s techniques promise. Most of us are not now what we will become. As humans, we are thankfully ever-evolving, aging, and gaining the wisdom to become better people. “Be the change…” is a well-known Gandhi quote that captures our potential.
The key is to identify not what you want to be but who you want to be. Not materially or socially, but rather fundamentally. What do you stand for? What are your principles? What do you really value in yourself and others? Bravery, honesty, self-discipline, a sense of humor? Then practice through action … be that change.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle lays out a path to excellence, which relies on a fundamental tenant: “to become virtuous, you must act virtuous.” (In Aristotle’s time, virtue was synonymous with excellence.)
More recently, Teddy Roosevelt also lived by the principle of acting in order to become:
“There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
Each characteristic of excellence is like a muscle: exercise it and it will become stronger.
I am in in the process of testing the theory out myself, but not in quite so daunting a capacity as facing grizzly bears. When I committed to Inside Excellence, I did more than promise to post regularly; I knew it would take consistency and persistence—both tough virtues. Some days I experience the Imposter Syndrome or mind-numbing writer’s block, for which the only antidote is to sit down and write anyway (even if it stinks). I have to assume a posture and attitude, act, develop a habit. It is not exactly “power posing”… or maybe it is, but the results just take longer to actualize. I’ll let you know in a few months, if I haven’t been canned.
So go ahead and fake it till you make it, or better yet, fake it till you become it. If you want to be a knight, act like a knight. Over time it will actualize. Obviously this does not include deliberately lying to others about your identity, what you have or have not accomplished, or your intentions and motivations. Also, be wary of creating the allusion of power and success by surrounding yourself with material items beyond your means. A suit or two, fine. A car or house? We all know too well what can happen then.
Cuddy’s next study will focus on how people perceive themselves. The group she is working with is exceptionally tall, while she is petite at 5’5”. She says after teaching a good class or when she is feeling powerful she feels as tall as they are. Can the same be true by surrounding oneself with people with exceptional character? Can an attitude of excellence spread?
Let’s hope so.
Mick interprets a Power Pose: Be warned, not many can pull this one off.
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