How the spotlight effect holds you back (and what to do about it)

It’s common for law professors (particularly men) to wear business suits in class. When I first started teaching, I would wear a suit because everyone around me was also doing it. Plus, I didn’t yet have tenure and feared the deviation from the typical professorial uniform would suggest I was a slacker.

But I was never really comfortable in a suit. It’s hard to talk for hours while being choked by a tie and sweating through multiple layers of clothing.

After I got tenure, I started to seriously consider hanging up my suit for good. I agonized over the decision for weeks: What will my colleagues think? Will students stop taking me seriously?

Then, I took the leap. You know what happened next: Nothing.

No one said a word.

I’m sure some of my colleagues and students noticed, but they didn’t seem to care.

From our perspective, the world is our stage, and we’re the lead actor. We believe every misstep, every conversational faux pas, every oddity will be noticed and meticulously recorded by the chorus of critics walking around us. It feels like you’re a deeply imperfect version of Meryl Steep and you have a camera pointed at your face at all times.

This is normal: Everything we observe in the world is through our own eyes. We’re so close to our bodies, our vulnerabilities, and our flaws, that they get magnified from our perspective.

Researchers call this the spotlight effect. Neil Pasricha devotes an entire chapter to the spotlight effect in his brand new book, You Are Awesome. The effect, according to Pasricha, refers to the feeling that “we’re being noticed, watched, observed, and importantly judged much more than we really are.” He cites a research study from my alma mater, Cornell, where students were asked to assess what others thought of them in three areas: physical appearance, athletic accomplishment, and performance in a video game. The students in the study “consistently overestimated the extent to which their ups and downs would be noted by observers.”

In other words, other people don’t notice our flaws as much as we think they do. They’re too busy worrying about their own imperfections to notice yours.

Yet we still walk around the world thinking the spotlight is only shining on us. As a result, we play it safe. We conform, rather than contradict. We finesse, rather than finish. We stand in the corner, rather than dance.

So go ahead and ignore that old cliche.

You don’t need to dance like no one is watching.

Dance because no one is watching.

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