The Superpower of the 21st Century: Presence

There are three ways to get a superpower.

One is to be so exceptional at something that your skill outstrips everyone else. Another is to get lucky, like people born with rare beauty. The third way to get a superpower is to have or do something ordinary that, for whatever reason, stands out.

These first two ways are hard. They depend a lot on luck or circumstance. Since luck and circumstance are mostly out of your control, they’re a bad bet.

But the third way, doing or having something ordinary that stands out, is open to everyone.

What’s Presence?

Presence is how fully you communicate your involvement with the people and events around you. It’s the sum of words, body language, tiny facial expressions. Your unconscious mind weaves these together and, voila, you feel the strength and completeness (or lack) of someone’s presence.

When people say, “Oh, she has such presence”, they mean that the sum of these expressions amount to something powerful and noticeable.

Little kids often have intense presence. I assume we’re all born this way. Early in life everything is new and strange so the world’s novelty holds little kids in the current moment.

People from poorer countries often have a rare presence, too. This is what the namaste backpacker means when they say the old lady in the Mumbai market was “just so real, dude”.

The backpacker is right about the unconscious experience of presence, but wrong about the reasons why it’s there.

There’s no magic in presence: just the sum of movements, expressions, and words processed by your subconscious.

Being poor or from an exotic land or following an ancient faith doesn’t give you presence. But it probably makes it easier to keep the presence we’re all given.

The Modern World Conspires Against Presence

Why does presence seem hard? Because everything today conspires against it. The old-lady-in-the-Mumbai-market just shows that presence was easier before distraction consumed everything.

Presence isn’t hard. Presence isn’t magic. It doesn’t take a genius-level IQ, exceptional beauty, courage, or strength. It’s ordinary, but rare. So people notice when it’s there.

Why is presence so rare? Because distraction is so easy.

If you’re a resident of a developed nation, everything and everyone demands your attention. We’re in a constant battle to be where we are, doing what we’re doing, with whoever we’re doing it with.

I doubt this will ever change. Our attention is too valuable. Legions of smart entrepreneurs and technologists compete for it.

The Value of Presence

You lose a lot when you give up presence.

Presence inspires trust in people. A person with tremendous presence is like a whirlpool, tugging everyone nearby toward the shared experience at the center. And, at least to me, presence signals maturity and thoughtfulness.

Presence multiplies effort. On stage, great presence animates the room. In a team, presence turns fear and confusion into focused action. Presence inspires fear in your enemy because it projects confidence and direction. A leader without presence is no leader at all.

The trouble with presence is that it seems easy to lose. I certainly struggle with it every day. Constant checking of your phone erodes presence. Preoccupation with meaningless things like the latest fear-du-jour news story colors your presence with anxiety.

Somewhere in endless distraction we lose the alignment of gestures, looks, and words that create presence. We give away a valuable asset, a superpower.

The value of presence will grow with time, as it becomes harder to sustain. It’s a good investment. Modern society makes presence rare, but it’s an ordinary trait open to all. If you can find ways to turn down distraction, you can turn up presence and get a superpower.