A couple years ago I asked my mom if I was always as confident and assertive as I am now. My mother, not known for padding her feedback, replied, "HA! No! In fact, I don't know where the hell it came from. You certainly weren't like this in high school!"
I spent some time thinking about the different stages and phases of my life, trying to pinpoint just when I got this get-up-and-go mentality and finally came to one defining moment.
High School Is So Traumatizing
True story: My junior year of high school I asked my parents how much money was in my college fund. All my friends had one, and I figured I must have one too! Again, my mother "HA!'d" me and said there was no money. Anywhere. (I immediately wondered why my parents had practically made college a mandatory since I was 5 if they weren't going to help me pay for it, but never mind that.) I think that was the first, legitimate "oh shit!" moment of my life. The idea that I had this huge, expensive life event barreling my way and no way to pay for it made my 17-year-old self pee my pants a little. I shifted into efficiency/practicality mode. I was in the full-time International Baccalaureate program and shifted to part-time for my senior year, enabling me to take just a half day of classes. The other half of my day would now be spent applying to every scholarship I could get my hands on. I dismissed any idea of attending an out-of-state school - Arizona schools offered affordable in-state tuition, with opportunities for wavers based on GPA, SAT/ACT scores and class ranking and I made the cut for free tuition by any measure. All that was left was housing and books.
Like any wayward high school student, I went to my guidance counselor to talk about scholarship opportunities. My counselor handed me a sheet of scholarships I could apply for, and informed me that most, if not all, on the list were prestigious and very difficult to obtain, especially without some level of sponsorship or endorsement. She waved me off and I went on my merry way and applied for them all - and no less than 200 other ones. Throughout the year, one-by-one, I started winning scholarship after scholarship. In the end, I pieced together enough small and medium-sized scholarships to pay for my first and second year of college in full. I was thrilled! I shared my successes with my peers, and they shared theirs with me. And then my friend, Jack, we'll call him, told me he'd won the holy grail (or at least I thought) of college scholarships: the Coke scholarship. Congratulating him, I asked how he'd done it! (I wanted his secret sauce.) Why, he informed me, our counselor had helped him! The same one who'd just sent me off with a sheet of paper. She invested time in Jack, time to help him craft the best application...the winning application, for a scholarship that was going to take care of his ninny ass for a good long while.
My 17-year-old self processed this information in a number of ways, but the one that stands out the most to me was that our counselor saw more value in Jack because he was a boy. She thought he was smarter, more worthy of her time and assistance. Who knows if that's true, but it fuckin' pissed me off. (He probably just asked for the help, a novel idea.) But it was in that moment I realized, no one was going to help me (certainly not just because) so I had to help myself. Now, in reality, plenty of people have helped me along the way and for that I am grateful. But those people are far and few between in the world of business, so I have to fill in the gaps with a steadfast idea of my worth and my value and muscle my way to success. I have to be able to rely on myself, because there will not always be someone there to help or back me up or support me.
Enter: Power Posing.
I noticed long ago that my male colleagues would literally sprawl out in their chairs during meetings. Bosses would throw an arm over the back of their swivel chairs and lean back like Al Pacino in Scarface. They'd lean forward, gesticulate when they spoke. They didn't just fill space, they animated it. Women, however, tended to shrink back and down into their chairs, hesitantly raise their hands and wait to be called on or hold a downward gaze instead of looking head on into the eyes of their peers. When you call it out, it's easy to see what kind of message that sends.
I've read a ton of articles about body language at work and find the topic just fascinating, so Amy Cuddy's TED Talk on how body language shapes who you are was immediately interesting to me. Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, outlines a study she and a colleague did with MBA students at the school. Watch the TED Talk, but to summarize: ladies, we are sucking at owning a room and it is quite literally impacting our performance, our self-esteem and our ability to succeed.
Exercise Your Ego
Cuddy goes on to talk about how they worked with male and female MBA students on practicing either high power or low power poses, tracking their hormone levels (dominant people have more testosterone...shocking!) and ultimately, class performance.
She had students on a power posing regiment. Every day students had to pick a power pose and hold it for two minutes. (Bonus points if you do it more than once a day.) The idea being that you can't just walk into a board room, throw your arm over the back of a chair and feel like a BAMF. You have to train your mind, your body and, yes, your ego into believing you are more dominant and confident that you might actually feel you are.
This is just like exercising folks! You can't just go for a run once a month and expect to lose ten pounds! You have to train yourself and work on it consistently, to see results.
I Feel Faster, Lighter & More Confident!
Now almost a decade into my career, I consistently have to remind myself to not just be in meetings but be a presence in meetings - especially ones with people who make me feel less valued or unheard. But instead of leaving things to chance or "trying" to remind myself, I've started Cuddy's power pose work out. Just a couple minutes a day I toss my feet up on my desk or sometimes I even close the door to my office and stand like Wonder Woman. (Bonus Points: Lynda Carter who played Wonder Woman is Mexican-American!)
I can't always be confident and self-assured - there are plenty of times I doubt myself or feel insecure! It's in those moments that I'll have to fake it 'til I make it, and power posing is one of the ways I'm ensuring that I'm ready for those moments. Instead of defaulting to body language that lets the world know I'm not feeling so hot, I'm reprogramming my default to send this message: