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It’s Not All About You
Just be your unique self. Fewer people are paying attention than you think.
“There results what practically is a division of the man into several selves; and this may be a discordant splitting, as where one is afraid to let one set of his acquaintances know him as he is elsewhere.” — William James, 1890
Did you ever feel ashamed to be yourself — that simply by doing your unique thing, you don’t fit in?
Even though we have the encouragement of Mister Rogers assuring us “I like you just the way you are,” we’re comforted by the normalcy that conformity affords us.
We want to be accepted and acceptable, but we fear that our differences make us undesirable.
The Spotlight Effect should help dissuade you of that notion.
The Spotlight Effect
In the late 1990s, three psychologists recruited undergraduate students for a study. They told everyone in the group — except for one person — to show up to a certain room at a certain time for an experiment.
The singled-out student was given a different location.
When the student arrived at this “wrong” location, someone there told him the location had been moved at the last minute and he had to hurry to the right classroom. But before he goes, he had to put on a t-shirt with Barry Manilow’s face on it.
In the paper that was later published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Husted Medvec, and Kenneth Savitsky, the authors assured us that Barry Manilow was considered very uncool among young people at this time.
After putting on this t-shirt, the student had to rush to the “right” classroom.
When he arrived, everyone else was already seated. The chairs were also arranged in such a way that all the other students faced the late-arriving student. So when he opened the door, he just faced a sea of faces looking at him.
After this late-arriving student finally found a seat, sat down, and settled in, the lead researcher of the study said, “I’m sorry, but you’ve arrived too late for this study. Would you mind exiting?” He then had to gather his things and leave the classroom.
Outside the room was someone ready to ask the student some questions. This was the real experiment.
They asked the student:
“How many people do you think noticed your Barry Manilow t-shirt? How many people do you think now have a bad impression of you?”
The researcher in the classroom asked the same questions to that group of students. And consistently, the student outside the classroom overestimated the percentage of people in the class that noticed his t-shirt and had a bad impression of him.
This was later called the Spotlight Effect. It refers to our natural tendency to believe we are being noticed more than we are.
We experience things as the center of our world, but we don’t realize that we’re not the center of other people’s worlds.
Because other people are preoccupied with themselves.
We also assume everyone else experiences the world like we do. When we feel anxious, this feeling affects how we perceive people around us, even though we don’t know what they’re feeling or thinking.
This experience can be particularly acute when we do something atypical (such as wearing a silly t-shirt) or express another aspect of being who we are.
In his newsletter last week, my friend Peter Shankman shared this:
“That’s one of the biggest problems with having a neurodiverse. What seems perfectly normal to us, (let’s fly to Asia so we can write a book on the plane) doesn’t seem that normal to anyone else. But there’s an easy solution:
Stop caring what others think, and do your own thing regardless.”
The sooner we realize that we’re not constantly occupying other people’s thoughts and that we’re not the center of attention, the sooner we can relieve ourselves of the terrible burden of worrying about what they think about us.
Just be you.
But just for the record, I like you just the way you are.
Hey, make sure you’re signed up for the follow-up newsletter, just for our paying subscribers, the Ampersand Guild. We’ll have a story about a leader who keeps a powerful message at the ready to give her the confidence in herself, as well as some recommended links, a book, and a podcast related to the topic.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.