is a funny thing.
Yesterday, I went to a cocktail party benefit for a literacy nonprofit after work. It was at one of these super-swanky midtown Manhattan apartments that one would never see or imagine the inside of if one didn’t go to cocktail parties one had been invited to through some bureaucratic oversight.
Anyway, while feasting on pigs in blankets and offering my mustardy hand to Diverse Impressive People, I caught a familiar face in the corner of my eye. It was a boy I had gone to high school with and hadn’t seen in more than ten years. We hadn’t really known each other in high school, but cocktail chatter revealed an array of connections–the most humorous and oft-repeated was that he is my ex-sister-in-law’s sister’s brother-in-law. (He had also dated my ex-colleague’s ex-girlfriend and graduated from the same college class as my arch-nemesis. The publishing world really is a little too small for itself.)
Cocktail chatter also revealed a very interesting ten-year story after college, including shanghai-ing his way into a journalism career, producing for Gaga (“I knew her when she was 20 years old, Island had dropped her, no one wanted to talk to her, and I said, let’s do this”), and signing some book contracts. An interesting life already, and he’s 28 or 29.
This fellow’s story didn’t surprise me, based on what I remembered of him from high school. My sophomore year, he had spearheaded a school-wide pushback for free speech against journalistic oppression (a fancy way of saying the school newspaper wouldn’t let him publish a particular story, so he did anyway–the paper was shut down, and he corralled a bunch of local businesses to advertise in a new underground paper he printed himself). I still remember his campaign slogan (a catchy rhyme) from the year he ran for school president. He had always been a wave-maker.
When I saw him I remembered this recent philosophizing I’ve been doing on the topic of charisma–what exactly it is, if one can “get” it or if one must be born with it. My definition is loose and working, but so far includes certain steady themes: the ability to be remembered; the knack for being met by enthusiasm when one asks someone else to do/say/think something. Secondary themes (frequent in, but not universal to, charismatic people) include: personal warmth (“What a great gal/guy! We really connected! I felt like s/he was really listening!”); so perhaps ability to listen and retain is another one up there; and propensity to be talked about when one is not present. (Many, but not all, charismatic people make waves in the world around them.)
Any other ideas I might add to this rolling definition?
The interesting part of talking about charisma: Some of these qualities are things you can control, a person you can become. Others are less so. So in theory, to some degree, it’s something you can “get.”
This happened to me a little, this getting. Unlike the fellow I describe above, who has been happily bending happy people to his will since high school or earlier, I am not naturally charismatic. I spent my childhood and early adulthood in a shell inside a cocoon inside a cave of self-loathing. I shed many (maybe not all) those layers over the course of years, through work and aggressive self-reflection (and a compulsive desire to people-please). Objectively, I think I have some charisma; I know, for example, I’m a social lynchpin. Sometimes people ask me to co-host parties because they want my invite list to show up. (But I’d be lying if I said I’m not always pleasantly surprised when people do turn out for me.) My company always sends me as spokesperson whenever talking has to be done in front of people. (Of course it was really through blogging several years ago that I first realized I even had anything to say, and that people were willing to listen.)
The confidence mask isn’t perfect. (Do I want it to be?) And self-diagnosis is awkward (talking about oneself as charismatic feels embarrassing and immodest; I’m writing this post after much belaboring and self-editing and will only end up posting it because I know this is a quiet friendly forum).
But my goal in life is to Make Things Better (however that comes along). And I think charisma is necessary if you want to affect people with your way of thinking. Which is why I keep working on this.