A lot of people must have fantasies about proving their worth to old high school foes, at least if the list at the movie rental shop is any indication. The plot line goes like this: impending high school reunion, former square-peg starts to stress, undergoes makeover, makes entrance as a shining success, and then comes to the realization she doesn’t need classmates’ validation after all.
Don’t get me wrong. If I thought I could pull off a one-upmanship at my looming 20-year high school reunion, I’d consider making an appearance. But as it stands, I really don’t have time to schedule-in a tummy tuck, several rounds of Botox and a winning lotto ticket, so I’ll probably give it a pass.
It’s not that I don’t feel happy about where I am in life. I do. And I wouldn’t trade a thing. But you know as well as I do that when Ms. Perfect shows up wearing designer digs and looking not a day older than 25, confidence ignores logic and starts to crumble.
Who is Ms. Perfect? Oh, that person who just seemed to sail through life’s often unkind moments – like puberty, calculus and the prom. It’s not that you actually have anything against Ms. Perfect personally. In fact, the annoying part is that you can’t help but like her. She’s just got charisma. And it gets her far. With teachers, other students, and even parents.
But you kind of figure that once you and your high school crowd leave school, the playing field will change. In the “real world,” other things will matter just a much. Things of substance. Right?
Wrong. As it turns out, the kind of social signals that people like Ms. Perfect send out can lead to more sucessful salary negotiations and even greater chances of survival after a plane crash. And Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who directs the MIT Human Dynamics Lab, has the numbers to prove it.
“The challenge: Can we really tell who will succeed in competitive business situations without knowing what they have to offer?
So here’s what they did:
Sandy Pentland and colleague Daniel Olguin Olguin outfitted executives at a party with devices that recorded data on their social signals – tone of voice, gesticulation, proximity to others, and more. Five days later the same executives presented business plans to a panel of judges in a contest. Without reading or hearing the pitches, Pentland correctly forecast the winners, using only data collected at the party.”
Yes, you read that right. Using only data from only the party – they did not read or hear the business presentations – they were able to identify which individuals would succeed. The quality of the ideas could have been garbage for all Pentland and Olguin Olguin knew, but they still managed to predict who would win this business-plan competition with 87% accuracy.
But ever since you first came across those Ms. or Mr. Perfects, you had a gut instinct about this, didn’t you? The interesting part about Pentland’s research is not that the winner continues to win, it’s that the social signals that enable winning can now be measured and quantified.
This is actually good news for the less charismatic among us. Take Penelope Trunk for example. Trunk is an entrepreneur and founder of Brazen Careerist, whose blog has more than 48,000 subscribers. She openly acknowledges that she has no social intuition. And that’s because she has Asperger Syndrome. And yet, she has managed to succeed in the workplace. How? By studying precisely the kind of research that Pentland conducts and applying it to her career life.
But there’s more than research that can be used to advantage. There’s the internet. It is far easier to present yourself as a socially proficient human being virtually than in real life. With a blog, for example, you can choose when you feel like communicating, edit your words and even steal a few good jokes to script-in intermittently. Not so much in real life. In real life, there’s stuttering and blank expressions and feeling just plain awkward. The internet has truly levelled the playing field between the charismatic and the not-so-charismatic.
For me, this is all good news. Why? Not because I feel that I particularly lack charisma (I have, after all, been able to charm a person or two into buying me a coffee). But because it’s allowed me to connect with people that I likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise. People that are particularly shy or introverted. People who don’t work in communications and throw their photo up on a blog. And these people have enriched my life. Deeply.
So while many find that the internet has expanded their world. For me, it’s made the world smaller. With lots more winners in the room.
“Marilyn Monroe” danny bikspr @ flickr. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.