One time attending a conference, during the morning coffee break, I did the usual – grabbed a coffee, looked around the room, wandered over to a little gathering where they opened up the circle to let me in. They chatted and I listened, nodded, prodded, thanked them, and floated on. I did this a few times, and then I needed to pee.
While washing my hands, I didn’t look in the mirror. I’m weird like that. As I wrung my hands, I looked up at my reflection fleetingly while turning towards the hand dryer. Then I snapped my head back to the mirror, almost giving myself whiplash. There, in my left nostril, was a BOGEY!!
OH MY GOD. I can’t believe it! Not AGAIN! (They appear on my nose out of nowhere every now and then). How many people saw that bogey, I wondered. I started counting all the people I met. Then I wondered if people upstairs saw it too, as well as the people on the floor downstairs. Then my mind imagined my neighbours saw it. And the whole of London on the tube that morning.
By the time I raced home, my mind imagined all of Britain and Southern Europe saw my bogey. I could never, ever, go out again.
The spotlight’s on you
That is our mind at work. When you do something seemingly embarrassing or shameful, like being late following up with a prospect, fluffing up a meeting, or making a mistake during a talk, you assume everyone you know and their neighbour noticed, and is now talking about and judging you. Because they don’t have anything better to do. It’s called the spotlight effect.
And it can wreak havoc on your mental health and your ability to perform at your best in your business and life. It pokes holes in your confidence, rips days out of your productivity. It stops you from following up with a prospect; suspends a cloud of fear over networking events, where you think everyone knows you stick out like a sore thumb.
But you know what? No one cares. Let me tell you about a couple of experiments.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked college students to wear a Barry Manilow t-shirt and walk in a room where 4 to 6 other normally dressed participants were hanging out. After a brief exchange with the normally dressed people, the Barry Manilow t-shirt wearer went out into the hallway where they were asked to estimate how many people noticed what was on their dubious t-shirt. They also asked the normal t-shirt wearers if they noticed the t-shirt.
Here are the results
The left column is how many people the t-shirt wearer thought noticed (%), the right column is the actual number who noticed. The t-shirt wearer thought more people noticed than actually did.
The interesting thing is, not only do we exaggerate how much people see our flaws, we also over-estimate how many people see us shine.
In another similar experiment, participants were asked to wear a cool t-shirt, a choice between Bob Marley and Martin Luther King. They too were asked, how many you think noticed your t-shirt?
The left is the predicted and right is the actual. Interesting, hey? Way more people thought they were noticed when they wore something cool.
So, what does this mean for you?
No one cares
When my first startup failed, I was so ashamed, my confidence was at rock-bottom. I didn’t feel like socialising with anyone, afraid of what they might say. Turns out, most of the stress and worry about what others thought was a waste of time and energy. No one cares, they’re too busy thinking about their own lives. And probably hardly anyone noticed my bogey.
Not as good as you think
One time after my wife attended a meeting with the sales manager, the sales guy thought the meeting went really really well. Jen was really surprised at his reaction, wondering if they were in the same meeting – she thought it went terribly. This is common in sales, where, because you talked more, your attention is focused on yourself more, so you have a biased opinion and think the meeting went well.
How do you bridge the gap between your perception and the actual judgments of others?
Next time you mess up and drown in a whirpool of shame, get present by listening to your breath for five seconds. Then, remember, they’re not thinking about you, they’re too busy thinking about themselves – they too have an egocentric bias. Getting present wakes you up from yours.
To check yourself when the opposite happens, again, get present by listening to your breath. To keep yourself grounded, ask yourself, what did I learn about them in that meeting? How can I improve that call/ incident? But don’t be too hard on yourself. If I know you, I’m certain you were great, so it’s okay to revel in your awesomeness.