"We convince by our presence." — Walt Whitman
The poet Walt Whitman once said that “we convince by our presence,” and this suggests two important points worth considering:
Let’s address the first question first, and the second second.
What Does It Mean To Be Present?
In a literal sense being present means to be physically in attendance, but that’s only a prerequisite, for it is quite possible to be physically present even while being mentally “checked out.” Physical attendance, then, is a necessary requirement for presence, yet at the same time it is not sufficient.
Bruce Rosenbaum, artist, designer, and founder of ModVic, a company that produces functional Steampunk art, credits much of his innovations to the process of Janusian thinking, a creative problem solving technique that combines opposites to foster meaningful connections to the concurrent past, present, and future. This notion is based on the Roman god Janus who is depicted as always looking in diametrically opposite directions and is considered to be the god of all beginnings and of all ends. Because of these characteristics Janus is often depicted above doorways, seeing as doors simultaneously lead both in and out. To employ Janusian thinking is to consciously conceptualize the simultaneous co-existence of opposites as happening concurrently.
Let’s apply this notion to our present discussion on presence. To be present in the Janusian sense can mean not allowing past failures to keep us from progressing in the present while also not letting past successes to keep us from aiming even higher. Concurrently, this also means planning for the future like we’re going to live forever while also playing today as if tomorrow we shall die. This Janusian definition of presence, then, calls us to ignore the failures and successes of yesterday, like a caring yet disinterested scientist conducting a daily experiment, to allow each new day to display its wondrous surprises—free from the distractions of preconceived notions, past experiences, and dreams of tomorrow. An experience of this kind of presence reveals that what is true today is also false, and what is false today is also true; it only depends on our direction at the beginning and at the end. To be fully present is to be both empty and full—empty of preconceived notions and full of expectations to learn and experience something new, while at the same time leaning on the talents and skills learned up until that point. Presence reveals that each moment to moment is the same, while at the same time completely different.
This kind of presence suggests that we accept where we are as exactly where we should be considering everything we’ve done to get there. Being fully present is a reminder of our personal agency, while also pointing to the fact that if we don’t like where we are then we don’t have to wait for circumstances to change, for our very presence provides encouragement that we are fully empowered to take motivated actions to grow beyond the current station.
With this initial understanding of presence, let’s now consider what our presence implies. If Whitman is correct, then our presence is convicting us of something, but what exactly is it implying?
What Does Our Presence Imply?
The author Regina Brett offers this advice: “No matter how you feel, get up, dress up, and show up.” At first glance we might miss the key to understanding this statement. Notice how “show up” is the last point in her recommendation, whereas the call to “dress up” comes before it. This suggests that we seek to look the part of what we are showing up for, which when done mindfully will demonstrate three respects: 1) self-respect, 2) respect for the other parties involved, 3) respect for the activity and situation itself.
Look The Part
There is a reason why judges where robes, scientists wear lab coats, clowns wear makeup, and skydivers wear parachutes. Wardrobes function as a physical representation of a position, allowing for instant and near-universal recognizability. Uniforms also serve as an anchor for the wearer, putting them in the mindset necessary to complete the task. For example, a 2015 study observed that “felt power” can contribute to increased performance in cognitive tasks when participants wear formalwear as opposed to clothes that are less-formal. A separate study observed the same findings and coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the psychological influence that clothes can have on wearers.
A possible explanation for this comes from Scott Barnes, a celebrity make-up artist in the music, television, and film industries. He asserts:
“Looking good leads to feeling good, feeling good leads to empowerment. When you put your best face forward, it gives you the opportunity to really accelerate in life. Feeling good commands respect. And that’s really empowering.”
The lobbyist Katherine Albrecht once confided that a makeover by Barnes helped her address members of Congress. She believed that looking the part made her more effective in her work because people listen to confidence. The leadership trainer Tyler Tervooren sums it up well:
“The clothes you wear and the way you groom yourself will change the way other people hear what you say. It will subconsciously tell them if you’re like them or if you’re different. It will determine whether they listen or ignore. Trust or distrust.”
We will be judged by our presence, and choosing to be enclothed thoughtfully by the design of our position—whether current or aspirational—poises ourselves to facilitate positive experiences.
Following Regina Brett’s advice to “dress up and show up” we find credence to Whitman’s adage, however there’s more to presence than simply showing up and looking the part. If that’s all it takes to be present then we’d be nothing more than a well-dressed mannequin! To be truly present we’ll need also the first half of Brett’s statement: “No matter how you feel, get up…”
Our presence convinces because effort demonstrates care. Consider this truth: Olympic Gold Medals don’t go to the best athletes in the world; rather, they go to the best athletes who show up to the arena. We live in an age where some races can be won simply by getting up and saying yes! What’s more, when we’re present even when we don’t feel like it, sufficient evidence is provided to convict us of our determination. We will always find time to invest in what we genuinely value, and it is in this way that our presence convinces.
When I was a child, gym class more of a course in inadequacy and embarrassment rather than of physical education. I never made it to the top of the rope, I could never run the whole mile, and I couldn’t even execute just chin-up. Not even one! I remember watching my friends do countless chin-ups and all I could do was dangle from the rod. In 2014 I set out to change that. Over a span of three years I hiked mountains to build endurance, ran upwards of eight miles a day to lose weight, and lifted weights to build up strength. Even when I didn’t feel like it, I got up, dressed up, and showed up. Showing up everyday “convinced with my presence” when on September 9, 2017, at the age of 34, I finally executed my first chin-up!
How Do You Convince With You Presence?
You convince with your presence when you show up; you convince with your presence when you build others up.
You convince with your presence when you take care of your appearance; you convince with your presence when you have perseverance.
You convince with your presence when you value family and friends; you convince with your presence when you make amends.
You convince with your presence by sharing your talents; you convince with your presence by not wasting any moments.
You convince with your presence when the phone is set aside; you convince with your presence when you listen by someone’s side.
You convince with your presence by keeping an open mind; you convince with your presence by choosing to be kind.
How Behavior Influences Presence
The DISC Behavior System, as first proposed by Dr. William Marston in his 1928 book The Emotions of Normal People, is a model for understanding the motivations of human behavior. Dr. Marston further communicated his theories in 1940 when he created the superhero Wonder Woman, which he used to expound on his ideas. According to this model approximately 17% of the population is characterized as possessing an influencing, inspiring, and interactive personality. These are individuals who are active and people-oriented, and are commonly motivated by the fear of rejection. For those characterized with these “I” personality traits, they are most capable and comfortable in bringing a true presence to all that they do. It’s simply part of who they naturally are. If you’re not naturally an “I” personality, then what can you learn from them to help develop your own presence? Start by considering these influencing practices:
Implementing even just one of these suggestions will help you increase your capacity for influence and “convince with your presence.”
By exploring what it means to truly be present, and what that presence implies, we’ve uncovered a multitude of practices that if implemented will provide a lifetime of opportunities for personal and professional growth. To further encourage you in your growth, consider the following reflections:
The author Marianne Williamson reminds us, “As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence actually liberates others.” On our journey to facilitate positive experiences may our presence always be convincing, and may it always inspire others to pursue their highest purpose.
Jonas Cain is an instructional designer, facilitator of fascination, and purveyor of positivity—helping to initiate and manage positive change for individual, team, and community growth.