By Carlin Flora, published on May 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman is easily the best-loved scientist of the late 20th century. Part mentor, part circus ringmaster, he had an enthusiasm for the mysteries of the universe that infected anyone within earshot: "The energy made you want to study theoretical physics for the rest of your life," recalls psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who attended a Feynman lecture years ago. "It didn't matter if you had any idea what he was talking about or not!" But you don't need to be a Nobel laureate to have this effect.
Every college campus, every elementary school, for that matter, has its Feynman: a larger-than-life personality whose essence, beyond mere brains, talent or beauty, makes him stand apart. The French call it "je ne sais quoi," or "I know not what," but the fact is, we do have words for these attributes. Charisma, chutzpah, joie de vivre and grace are four such "X-factors," enviable dispositions that defy easy definition, even as they are immediately recognizable in people we admire. Different though they are, charisma, chutzpah, exuberance and equanimity project a positive energy that radiates beyond the person who embodies it. The Eva Perons and Sidney Poitiers of the world draw attention to themselves and, by means brash or gentle, wrangle us into the present moment, outside of ourselves. Only recently have psychologists begun to articulate and study what X-factors are made of and the degree to which these complicated qualities are born or bred.
Psychologists have long relegated attributes like chutzpah and charisma to the back burner of research in part because they are difficult to define, and because one needs a context in which to watch them unfold. Plus, they quickly shade into darker qualities: For every revolutionary hero there's a tyrant who looks just as charming at first glance. Erin Brockovich elbowed her way to a legal victory (without a law degree) and to Hollywood immortality, but a neighbor who pushes to the front of the bakery line is just plain rude. Much of our response hinges on whether a person wields his power for the greater good or for his own selfish purposes. If the guy who cuts in line sheepishly smiles and explains that he must satisfy his pregnant wife's pastry craving, lest she kill him, you will be more likely to admire, not curse, his chutzpah.
These qualities alone do not guarantee success, but they're often apparent in the most successful people around us. How, then, can we make them our own? While grace requires much effort to cultivate, it is, encouragingly, the most teachable of the X-factors, forged through tough mental and emotional discipline, often via structured spiritual practice. A small percentage of people are simply born exuberant. Yet, because it's the most contagious of the X-factors, we can all enjoy its contact high. Bona-fide charisma is probably also something you have or don't—its root word means "gift of grace." But it can be maximized. Anyone can show chutzpah, but it seems to surge through some people's veins. We can all increase our X-factors by some factor, and we can certainly appreciate their rare charms.
Textbooks break presidents down along party lines, but the real divide, in the public imagination, is the chasm between charismatic maestros and bland statesmen. "Kennedy had it," says veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas of JFK. "He was inspiring and magnetic. He gave us hope. [He] radiated that onward-and-upward good feeling." Then there's Clinton. "He is so sexy, and he eats you up with his eyes," Joan Collins once swooned to a reporter. "I don't know whether it's magic, or a trick, but it is the best act I have ever seen."
Charisma is, in fact, just short of magic: It's a rare quality but common in figures who inspire devotion. "Charismatic people are essentially brilliant communicators," says Ronald Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California. One of the few researchers to have taken a hard look at this mystical quality, Riggio believes it consists of overlapping components such as expressivity, sensitivity, control, eloquence, vision and self-confidence.
"A charismatic person never plays it small," says Frank Bernieri, professor of psychology at Oregon State University. "Seeing Tony Robbins is like listening to loud music that you can't help but tap your foot to." Because we spot charisma within seconds of meeting someone who has it, some researchers argue that it's in fact beauty, confidence or mere celebrity that sets off our radar. Riggio says that loud gestures, however, are more likely what we detect. "Expressivity is the tip of the iceberg—it's what is most visible. But there are complex behaviors underneath."
Verbal fluency is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient. "[Former Secretary of State] Warren Christopher is a great communicator, but he is not charismatic," says Riggio. Memorable leaders give speeches rich in imagery, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream." Riggio found that presidents rated as charismatic, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, used twice as many metaphors in their inaugural addresses as did their less riveting counterparts, such as Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover.
A charismatic leader acts as a bonding agent, allowing you to give in to the giddy togetherness of a peace rally or a line dance. You forget yourself in his company and climb into the palm of his hand. This intricate pas de deux is known as synchrony and may be the key to charisma.
Synchrony is a marker of rapport; if two people click, they unconsciously adjust their posture and speech rate to each other. Bernieri strongly suspects that charismatic people are natural "attractors" who get others to synchronize to them. An Oprah, for example, controls an audience with her keen sense of timing, repetition and rhythm. "They play the crowd like improvisational jazz."
How can you get in touch with your inner Oprah? Synchrony can't be faked through forced mimicry, says Bernieri. He maintains that, like jazz, charisma itself can't be taught. But it can be approximated through communication techniques that will ideally become second nature.
Magician Steve Cohen, author of Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma and Showmanship, says he used to have great sleight of hand but no hold over his audience. "I learned to figure out what is going to be interesting to people at every moment," he says. Now he draws gasps, aahs and laughs at his weekly sold-out show in New York's posh Waldorf-Astoria hotel. "The trick itself is never important; it's having a presentational hook."
The idea of charisma may be stronger than its actual effects, though. Rakesh Khurana, associate professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, finds that when American companies look for new leaders, they seek charisma above all other qualities—but the bottom-line results of this hiring practice are often disappointing, even disastrous. Under uncertain market conditions, charismatic CEOs are good for one thing: They temporarily boost their company's stock prices. But the improvement is usually short-lived. That's because charisma may have more to do with a person's image than with his or her innate abilities. Just as leaders in primitive societies wore masks that conferred upon them special status, Khurana says, CEOs embellish their auras with private planes and corner offices.
Steve Cohen learned this lesson when he started handing out his bio to audience members before his magic show. The biographical information mentions that he has privately entertained numerous corporate titans and TV personalities. "The audience's reaction to me was immensely better," he says. "They think, 'I better pay attention to him because these people have.'"
When biologist Craig Venter was 7 years old, his hobby was racing planes on his bicycle as they took off from the San Francisco airport. Pilots shook their fists at little Craig while the passengers looked on, aghast. "Eventually they built a fence around the runway," he says. "That was my contribution to airport safety."
Venter grew up to be a bad boy of science, whose unconventional ideas attracted biotech investors even as he alienated colleagues with his brash outspokenness. In 1998, Venter announced his plan to sequence the human genome on his own, breaking from the publicly funded Human Genome Project. Venter would furiously bicycle against a behemoth again, this time using his quicker (if less accurate) method of sequencing DNA.
In May of 1998, three dozen top researchers from the Human Genome Project convened with Venter. They were irate: Venter's project might threaten their funding and compromise the quality of the most important biological endeavor of the 21st century.
Did Venter quell their concerns? No. He suggested that he would go ahead and map out the human genome while his distinguished colleagues could do a very nice job sequencing... the mouse.
Chutzpah makes our jaws drop because it openly challenges our conformist tendencies. It is a behavior that crosses a social norm, not merely to get away with something, but rather to purposefully challenge convention. Venter embodies what Solomon Snyder, director of the department of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, calls the audacity principle. Snyder believes that a person who possesses the crucial ingredients in great scientific achievement—originality and simplicity over a bedrock of intellect—still needs chutzpah to deliver on his or her potential. "It's about not only having an original idea, but having the insight to know it's important," Snyder explains. "This insight in turn gives you conviction to pursue your idea, even though the world punches you in the nose."
Venter says his chutzpah helped and hurt his career: "The perceived audacity of what I've done drives some of my critics to behave correspondingly badly." (To wit: For a time, founding father of the Human Genome Project James Watson referred to Venter as "Hitler.")
Chutzpah indeed elicits a mixed response. In the mid-1990s, Erin Brockovich was a scantily clad file clerk at the law firm Masry & Vititoe when she noticed a suspicious pattern in the medical records of Hinkley, California residents. When she pursued the case and took the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to the cleaners, we admired her brashness on behalf of a community subjected to environmental toxins. "I never cared about being fired," she says. "I knew I was doing the right thing." But if we perceive that someone is using chutzpah to advance her own cause, we feel either jealous of her for taking a bigger piece of life's pie or contempt for her selfish gall.
Publishing maven Judith Regan is convinced that envy motivates her critics. "I have this incredible career. I've had great love affairs. People look at me and ask, 'Why does this bitch have all this?'" she says. "I have it because I went for it, and they are afraid."
The persistently audacious are helped along by a fearless temperament. "Risk-seekers are more likely to have chutzpah," says Aaron Ben Ze'ev, psychologist and president of the University of Haifa in Israel. But people with chutzpah operate in a social arena, where they risk hurting others, not just themselves. "James Bond is risk-taking, but no one would say he has chutzpah," says Nathan Fox, professor of human development at the University of Maryland. "You can be alone and take risks. Chutzpah is arrogantly taking advantage of social knowledge."
Those who develop a chutzpah habit always walk the line between productive shake-ups and naked aggression, says Ben Ze'ev. Whereas chutzpah skirts harm's way, aggressors delight not in expanding boundaries but in completely disregarding them, gangster style.
With proper support, even a shy wallflower can muster the courage to be provocative. But people with true gumption have life experiences that force them to use their natural boldness to break boundaries. Brockovich struggled with dyslexia as a child. "I knew I wasn't dumb, but it pissed me off that I was being labeled. I always questioned what people perceived as normal, because I never thought I was normal," she says. Venter served in a hospital in Vietnam as a young man. "After being faced with death," he says, "you learn you have nothing to lose from taking risks in life."
Opera singer Angela Brown was easily bored as a child in Indianapolis. "I would say, 'Okay, I did that. What's next?'" As a teenager, she carried her church's gospel choir. A voice coach told her she could stop right there and be the next Aretha Franklin. But to be the best Verdi soprano the world had ever seen she would have to work for at least a decade, mastering technique and foreign languages. Brown accepted the challenge. "I dread learning new music," she says with her infectious cackle. "But then as soon as I'm in it, it's like Godiva chocolate. Yeah, baby!" Brown debuted as Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in 2004, to resounding bravos. It wasn't just her mellifluous voice that moved the crowd—it was her joyful spirit. "If I'm onstage, I'm actually in Verdi's music. I'm right in the staff running up and down the scale! And on top of that I'm going to get paid?!"
People with joie de vivre are like windup dolls that never run down. They are passionate explorers who view their work as play. They're a lot of fun to be around (at least in moderate doses). That's not to say they are unfailingly happy. "Yo-Yo Ma is certainly one of the most exuberantly joyful people I have ever met," says writer Mark Salzman, a friend of the legendary cellist. "But it would be a mistake to think his emotional dial got set on joy and then got stuck. Yo-Yo is so responsive to what is going on around him. If you put him in a room with people who are grieving, he will be as sad as anyone."
Positive thinking can be taught. But passionate exuberance is something you're born with. Zeal paired with emotional responsiveness can be identified in babies as young as four months old, says University of Maryland psychologist Nathan Fox. While researching temperament in infants, he noticed that about 10 percent of his tiny subjects became unusually excited by novel toys or people. He dubbed this group "exuberant" and tracked them through their seventh birthdays. Exuberance proved remarkably stable, unlike traits such as shyness that can wane with age. Fox strongly suspects these children's underlying reward systems function differently: "Positive rewards like social interaction do more for them than they do for others." As a result, they are motivated not only to meet new people but to connect well with them.
Children with an ecstatic spirit can flounder in less supportive settings, though. "When you are exuberant, you have your emotions out there on the line. Parents can make these children feel ridiculous," laments psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of Exuberance. She believes that girls are particularly vulnerable to having their natural vitality suppressed. "It's OK to be an enthusiastic tomboy as a little girl, but then at age 11 or 12 girls are taught to reel it in."
Even people who struggle to get up in the morning can catch a temporary case of exuberance. While most moods are contagious, exuberance not only spreads quickly, but also expands people's sense of possibilities. Salzman describes the effect of Ma's concerts: "You walk out feeling excited to the core. You find yourself paying more attention to the person you're with, more aware of the rain on the windshield on the ride home... You feel more grateful just to be alive."
We may find ourselves smirking at the unbridled excitement of those who plow through life. "I'm just a bubble out of a champagne bottle!" chirps fitness guru Richard Simmons. Best known for prancing about in tank tops and short shorts, Simmons effectively counsels the obese and has produced dozens of best-selling exercise videos. "When I wake up in the morning, it's like the red curtain goes up... I twirl around the room. I thank God for the day. I fluff my hair and yell, 'Go get 'em, Richard!'"
Jamison points to envy as the reason some people trivialize joie de vivre. "No doubt, there are vapid exuberant people. But I also think it's a mistake to believe that people who are enthusiastic just haven't seen the complexity of life."
When Colleen Dawson's son was a third-grader, he shared a class in South Africa with Nelson Mandela's grandson. "On parents' night, [Mandela] visited, folding his six-foot frame into his grandson's desk," says Dawson. "Normally, we would have asked about homework and other silly details, but no one spoke. So he just started talking in a quiet, authoritative way about the important job of teaching. He's like a higher power; between the president and God there is Mandela."
Mandela put the tongue-tied parents at ease in the classiest way: He shifted the emphasis onto their shared interest in the school and elevated the agenda. Wise souls like Mandela rarely become overwhelmed by their own feelings or by discomfort. Their poise and impeccable timing allow them to strike the right emotional chord.
Grace is the quietest of the X-factors, perhaps the only one in which star power never threatens to overshadow substance. Graceful types are just as passionate and driven as their X-factored peers but rarely stir up the annoyance or suspicion we may feel toward bold or highly excitable people.
While grace is too elusive to pin down in a lab, we catch glimpses of it in studies of characteristics like wisdom and benevolence. Wisdom is associated with "meaning making," a trait ascribed to people who are introspective and cut to the heart of problems. Wisdom is also associated with benevolence, and it is in warm, compassionate individuals that we often see "grace." It is the X-factor presumed to spring from hard-won life experience: Mandela's 27 years in prison cultivated his legendary resolve.
Yet sage people begin life with certain shared proclivities. When Ravenna Helson of the University of California at Berkeley tracked women for 40 years, she concluded that subjects described as open and tolerant at age 21 were higher on a measure of wisdom in middle age, especially if they pursued psychotherapeutic or spiritual careers. "You can be wise as a young person," says Helson. "But wisdom increases between the ages of 27 and 52."
Another key to grace is equanimity, the ability to accept life's inevitable slings and arrows. A calm and composed demeanor is a central tenet of Buddhists, who believe that people must not let their emotional states oscillate wildly in response to life's vicissitudes. Through meditation, one can cultivate the mindfulness and compassion associated with grace. But you don't have to meditate to achieve equanimity.
"I'm a total failure at meditation," confesses Pankaj Mishra, author of a biography of the Buddha, An End to Suffering. Yet he learned to monitor his thoughts and feelings outside of the structure of meditation, and to curb his own desires. "To see the constant changing nature of the self is to realize that desire is worthless, because the person who has got what he desired is no longer the person who was desiring," explains Mishra.
Grace is not solely the provenance of ascetics and spiritual sophisticates, as Mishra makes clear. The charm and kindness that we associate with regal beauties like Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelley are another form of grace, one that surpasses their breeding and impeccable manners.
Just as Buddhists live by ethical precepts that determine the "right" action and speech, icons like Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy were supremely conscious of the correct way to uphold their public role (Prince Harry has yet to figure this out, and Princess Stephanie never did). The princess that Hepburn plays in Roman Holiday knows she must relinquish her personal freedom to serve her subjects; off-screen the actress used her radiant presence to lead an antifamine crusade.
Graceful prominent figures transcend their privileged existence to connect with the public. Instead of succumbing to her own grief, Jackie Kennedy stoically led her young son to deliver a heartbreaking salute at JFK's funeral. This grand gesture moved Americans because it allowed them to grieve along with her. Jackie recognized the exaggerated effect her actions would have on the world's stage. People possessed of X-factors know the hold they have over us. And if they use these qualities for the common good, we gladly go under their spell.