When I was a graduate student at Yale and got my first part time job teaching at the nearby University of New Haven, I was really nervous about commanding a classroom by myself. I had no track record as a teacher. I had no evidence I could be great at this. It's one thing to be a top learner, and another to pass it on, although as I was later to learn, the two are deeply connected. We never really master something at the deepest level until we've taught it to others. But that's another blog.
At the time I was an avid runner. I did about six miles a day through the woods of Connecticut. And it made me feel great. After hours of intellectual work in the morning, I'd lace up my New Balance running shoes and go out on the road where I'd often experience the first exhilaration of the day. After ten or fifteen minutes, I'd be inwardly flying, in total flow, and expanding my consciousness. It was great. My enjoyment of those runs was such that even lacing up my shoes beforehand gave me a confident tingle of anticipation forthe great stuff that was soon to come.
I don't know how I decided to do it, but it occurred to me one day that I had this great pair of light tan tall leather hiking boots. I decided I'd wear them to teach, and that each day, as I laced them up and tied them on, I'd visualize a great class, smiling students, laughs, intellectual revelations, and a great experience had by all. It got to the point where just putting on those boots gave me a sense of power and confidence. They became my superhero boots.
Years later, I was a professor at Notre Dame. Like most of my colleagues, I taught in wrinkled khakis and tennis shirts, wearing whatever shoes the weather demanded. But one semester while I was on leave of absence, which was a coveted opportunity to focus on creative work, I was supposed to write a couple of books. And it wasn't happening. I'd sit down and draw a blank. And this went on day after day. My mother had modeled some in her youth, and often bought me suits I'd never wear, except when it was really necessary. One day, it came to me out of the blue that maybe if I dressed up in a suit and tie before showing up to write, I'd be taking myself more seriously as a writer. So I did. And the wildest thing happeed. Ideas poured forth. The muse liked what I had on. So I continued the practice.
Then when I returned to the classroom, I decided that I'd show my students special respect by dressing up for them. Their presence became the special occasion. And they loved it. At the time, it was very different for a professor my age to show up in a suite and tie, or s sport coat and bright bow tie. I then brought into the classroom the new power I had discovered in the study while writing. When I dressed like it was an important occasion, it became one. And I found new power for the challenge.
Does this always work? Some new psychological studies seem to indicate there may be more to it than we might suppose. There's been a recent claim that wearing a suit may even help you think in a more formal and abstract way, transcending the details of what you confront and reaching out creatively to new insights.
Of course, I'm telling you this as I sit at my desk in a crazy tie-dyed T shirt and khaki shorts. So, don't get carried away. But still, consider that how you dress may send signals, not only to others, but also to your own subconscious. And perhaps you can set up the signals as I've done a few times in my life. Then, when you're entering an uncertain or challenging situation, those shoes, or that suit, or that lucky tie may just give you a boost.
So, maybe I need to go change.