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Women & Power

Harvard’s Amy Cuddy is changing lives with a simple pose

The business school professor on power posing, confidence building, and the TED Talk that changed her life.

Brian Stauffer

Amy Cuddy’s directive was simple: Raise your arms in a V shape over your head, keep your posture straight, and hold the pose for two minutes. But when she explained the logic behind this seemingly elementary “power pose” during her 2012 TED Talk, she changed lives.

More than 28 million people have watched her talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” online. And she’s contacted daily by fans who say that just by tweaking their habits and posture, they’ve become happier, more successful people.

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“I can’t think of a day that’s gone by since the talk was posted when I didn’t either receive an e-mail or get a handwritten letter,” says Cuddy, a professor and researcher of nonverbal behavior at Harvard Business School. “It’s incredible. To me, it’s like the very, very greatest gift. I love people so much. I’m pathologically optimistic about people.”

Cuddy’s optimism is rooted in her own trials and triumphs. After she suffered a serious head injury in a car accident as a college student, she was told her IQ had fallen and that she might have trouble continuing her education. Her response was to finish her degree at the University of Colorado and eventually earn a PhD from Princeton.

Bob O'Connor

Amy Cuddy

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Since her TED Talk, Cuddy has become famous for her power pose theory. According to Cuddy, if you stand in a dominant, more expansive position, your body makes less cortisol (a stress hormone) and more of the testosterone you need to be “present” and confident. Power posing is the way to combat what researchers call “impostor syndrome,” the idea that people — including high-powered women — feel like frauds, despite their successes, she says.

Now Cuddy has written a book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, due out December 29.

I spoke with her about what she’s learned on the way to Presence and how we can use her research to improve our lives.

Lesson No. 1 / Remember men feel like impostors, too

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When Cuddy gave her TED Talk, she assumed that women were more likely than men to suffer from impostor syndrome. Based on feedback, though, that might not be true. “The first person who talked to me after the talk was a man, and it was like, a banker. It was a guy who came up to me so perfectly dressed. He said, ‘I walk into the office every day and I feel like an impostor.’ I was completely flabbergasted, and I thought, Well, this is just a weird one-off.” But Cuddy heard from more and more men who felt insecure about their place in the world. She acknowledges that men may react differently to their insecurities, but we can assume their feelings are the same. “The data, I think, are pretty clear now. The more anonymous the self-reports, the more men were willing to say, ‘Yeah, I feel like an impostor.’ ”

Lesson No. 2 / Take a hint from the kids

“I’m not making any chicken-and-egg statements,” Cuddy says of why men’s stances often give the impression of being more dominant than women’s, “but, yeah, certainly almost everywhere in the world, I think, it’s accurate to say that women’s body language is generally less open than [men’s]. And that, as we see, reinforces our own feelings of powerlessness that the body language is already sort of expressing.” Cuddy says women can learn from watching kids. “If you look at kindergartners, girls are just as likely to be throwing their arms up in the air. They’re not worried about keeping their knees together. They look like boys and boys looks like girls, and body language looks the same.”

Lesson No. 3 / Never stop power posing

Cuddy says that impostor syndrome — and the benefits of power posing — affects all ages. “Because everyone has a reason,” she says. “Everyone can think of a situation where they feel themselves sort of collapsing.” One of the early e-mails Cuddy received after her TED Talk was from a World War II veteran who told her he was afraid of going to the doctor because his problems weren’t being taken seriously. Power poses helped. “At 90 years old, he’s talking about how he connects with this stuff and realizing that he has to hold himself with more pride.”

Lesson No. 4 / Beware the smartphone hunch

Cuddy understands that we’re all attached to our phones but says that when we focus on a screen, our bodies are constricted and small. “Just working on a small device for five minutes seems to affect people’s assertiveness levels,” she says. “I’ve talked to physiotherapists who are saying they’re seeing the sort of dowager’s humps they’re used to seeing in older women in 16-year-old kids because they’re spending so much time frozen over these tiny devices. I don’t think I’m going to get people to stop carrying their phones around, but . . . it’s just these simple ways of being more mindful — of opening up your body.”

Lesson No. 5 / Rethink the endgame

Cuddy’s research is often discussed in the context of the workplace, but it’s less about getting ahead than it is about living with confidence and authenticity. The endgame should be happiness, not a raise or a promotion, she says. “To me, it’s hard to be in a business school and talk about things like this without people focusing on performance and these concrete outcomes and how you do in a negotiation. I just don’t think we can focus on those things. I think that it does not get us very far. Once you have the knowledge and the skills and you’re in the job, the focus cannot be on the outcome. It has to be about walking in without that sense of dread, being there without that feeling of anxiety and worrying about what they’re thinking about you, and leaving in peace.”

Lesson No. 6 / Get a lift from music

Cuddy becomes emotional when asked whether music, like a power pose, can give you a boost. She has a pump-up song of her own. “It’s called ‘Bright as Yellow.’ It’s by the Innocence Mission. It’s from the mid-’90s. It is just — it’s hard for me to talk about that song without getting choked up. The very first pages of the book will have these lyrics . . . ‘You live your life with your arms stretched out. Eye to eye when speaking, enter rooms with great joy shouts, happy to be meeting . . . bright as yellow, warm as yellow.’ ”

Meredith Goldstein writes the Names and Love Letters columns for the Boston Globe. E-mail her at meredith.goldstein@globe.com or follow her on Twitter at @meredithgoldste.
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