The following is a conversation between Laura Huang, a Professor at Harvard Business School and Author of Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Laura Huang, Professor at Harvard Business School and Author of Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage

Denver: How do you find a competitive edge when the obstacles feel insurmountable? How do you get people to take you seriously when they’re predisposed not to, and perhaps have already written you off? My next guest recommends creating your own edge by confronting the factors that seem like shortcomings and turning them into assets that make others take notice. She is Laura Huang, a Professor at the Harvard Business School and Author of Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Laura!

Laura: Thank you! Great to be here. 

Denver: Let me begin with how you got around to writing this book, and what you observed and the research that you were doing that made you say, “You know, a book like this is really needed.”

Laura: I had been doing research for a long time — years, decades — around just this aspect of disadvantage, people who feel underestimated; this main thing around like hard work. It was this aspect of from a young age, we’re taught that hard work is the secret to success, and these days we have such a love affair with hard work and grit and all of these things that we think will lead us to the success and the outcomes that we so crave. 

And yet, what I saw in both my research as well as the interviews that I was doing was that people were really very frustrated because even though hard work is critical — and I would never say that it’s not critical — that hard work alone was not leading people to those sorts of outcomes. In fact, it was leaving them really frustrated because it was really signals and perceptions and stereotypes that were instead dictating who won or lost, or who succeeded and who didn’t. 

And so I was doing lots of research in the area of disadvantage and inequality and all of the perceptions that are bestowed upon people, and as I was presenting this, a lot of people would come to me and say, “Well, you know, this is so depressing. Are there things we can do? Are there ways that we can level the playing field? Are there ways that we can try and inoculate against these stereotypes or these perceptions that others have about us?” 

And something that you and I have discussed before is that so many of the solutions that are out there are structural solutions or system-level solutions. Solutions that are things like: Let’s try and be more equitable in our hiring practices; Let’s try and get more diversity in our top management teams. Let’s try and have more diversity in terms of who is mentoring our junior folks. And the thing is those things are great; they’re a step in the right direction, but they also, again, leave people frustrated because it’s almost like we have to wait around until the hiring practices get more equitable, or until we have more diversity in the top management teams, and there’s no way that we can really empower ourselves. 

And so, this book was really around the research I’ve been doing the last couple of years around strategies and tips and how-tos; and how do we really, even within an imperfect system, still enable ourselves to flip things around, flip stereotypes and perceptions in our favor, so that we can find and create our own advantage and gain our own edge in any sort of circumstance, even when the odds may seem like they’re against us? 

It’s so critical to be able to hone your ability to see how others perceive you because when you see how others perceive you, that’s when you’re able to guide and redirect them to who you authentically are and the value you can provide.

Denver: Let’s talk about those perceptions because I don’t think a lot of people are that self-aware at times. So, how do you know how others are perceiving you? 

Laura: This is one of the key things that I talk about, is that it’s so critical to be able to hone your ability to see how others perceive you because when you see how others perceive you, that’s when you’re able to guide and redirect them to who you authentically are and the value you can provide.

So I’ll give you a couple of examples. So one example that I found in some of my research, for example, that people with accents are less likely to get promoted, less likely to get raises, less likely to get funding for their ventures. We often assume that the lay perception is that they’re not able to communicate as well. But in fact, it’s not about communication at all. It’s about things like: we make assumptions that people with accents are not as interpersonally influential, or they’re not as good of a team player, or that they don’t think outside the box as well. 

And so I ran study after study where I would tell individuals with accents, before they’re going into an interview, for example, “The perception that they have about you is that you’re not as interpersonally influential, or that you’re not as good of a team player.” And so then they would get these interview questions like, “Oh, tell me about a time when…” or something, and I would hear them saying things like, “Let me tell you about a time when I fought for resources for my team.” They would directly address and give examples about how they are interpersonally influential and how they are team players. And not only were they rated higher in terms of all of those attributes, they’re actually rated higher in terms of communication, and they are more likely to get the job, the raise, the promotion, and so on and so forth.

And I replicated this over all of the typical cast of characters: gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, age. Ageism is a huge one where we tend to think… again, the lay perception is that maybe the older employees or older candidates are not as, I don’t know, technologically proficient. But when you’re able to hone– 

Denver: I would agree with that. 

Laura: OK. So right. So that’s what we sort of assume. But when we’re able to hone that underlying perception, what a lot of these individuals realize was that there was one perception and one perception only that they were making, and that was that older employees are not as curious. Just curiosity.

So then what I would tell them, “The perception they have about you is that you’re not as curious,” they would go into these interview situations, and they would give examples of when they were curious. Or they would say things like, “I’m curious about your company’s strategy and how it’s evolved over time” or “I’m curious about your vision for the future of this company.” And not only were they rated higher in terms of curiosity, they were rated higher in terms of technological proficiency, something they didn’t even talk about, and they are more likely to get the job, the raise, the promotion, all those sorts of outcomes. 

So what this shows is it that when we’re able to hone in on those underlying perceptions, we then have a way of guiding and redirecting so that we can create an advantage for ourselves. And so that’s one of the key pieces that I talk about in the book — all of the different ways that you can see how others perceive you and hone that intuition around how others see you. Some of it’s based on stereotypes; about 80% of it is based on stereotypes, but 20% of it is based on context and the industry that you’re in and the mix of people that you’re with. 

And so I give lots of different tips and how-tos around: How do you add these things together and really understand the equation so that you can? Because it’s not a recipe. It’s not step one, do this; step two, do this. It’s really this perspective around who you are and how others see you because it’s going to be different from each individual. 

Denver: Very customized, no question about it. Well, Edge is a mnemonic, and let’s go through it starting with “E” for enriched. That’s the basic goods, as you say, and the value you offer others. What are we trying to do here?

Laura: So the E. So even though the book is entitled Edge, and it’s about how do you create an edge for yourself, the E-D-G-E actually stands for the components of the framework that I’ve developed through my research. 

And so, the E. The first E is really critical. It’s Enrich. It’s: How do you enrich and provide value in any context or any circumstance that you’re going to be in? And so, what we have to remember is that the way in which others see how we enrich and provide value is going to differ based on that context. And so in order to understand that for ourselves, in order to understand our strengths and our weaknesses and our superpowers and our underestimated strengths, I talk about it as identifying your basic goods. 

Your basic goods are the ones that — this is basic. These are your basic ingredients. This is what you’re about. And so, no matter what situation you’re going to be in, you’ll have the same essence, even though there might be these subtle changes and these differences.

And when I talk about basic ingredients, I describe it as very much like that. Like my mother who’s from Taiwan, regardless of what she’s cooking, regardless of whether she’s cooking a dish that’s brand new or something that she’s cooked many times before, or meats or vegetables, she always starts with these core ingredients, her basic ingredients, like soy sauce, and sesame oil, and scallions, and garlic, and ginger. And so, no matter what she’s cooking, it always has that flavor. It has that…like I said… she could be cooking anything, and it’ll be different because it’ll be like chicken versus beef versus something else, but it’ll have that essence. And so that’s what we want– 

To be truly self-aware is to understand that your self is going to ebb and flow based on different circumstances, and we need to understand not just who we are, but also all of those social interactions and all those interpersonal dynamics that really change that awareness of ourselves

Denver: The common thread.

Laura: Yes. That’s what we want to identify for ourselves. 

And so I go into lots of different ways that we can understand that because, again, we know. We had it pounded into our heads that self-awareness is so important. But self-awareness… to be truly self-aware is to understand that your self is going to ebb and flow based on different circumstances, and we need to understand not just who we are, but also all of those social interactions and all those interpersonal dynamics that really change that awareness of ourselves.

Denver: Laura, is there a danger that you’re so concerned about people perceiving your value that you forget to provide the basic value in the first place?

Laura:  I always talk about…especially with companies, companies that are trying to grow and scale and do the… They do. They lose sight of their basic goods because perhaps they’re like, “OK. We need to expand our product line,” or “We need to grow geographically.” Individuals do this as well. Like we see we are social creatures, and we see some people are there, and some people are on this scale, and we lose a part of ourselves. 

And so I always talk about it as, “You need to prune to grow. Just like a tree. A tree is only going to grow taller if you’re pruning things away. You can’t continuously grow in all of these different directions. The trees that grow the tallest and the strongest are the ones that cut things away and really focus on what are those basics. And individuals are the same.” So that’s the risk. If we don’t understand those basic goods, we’re pulled in lots of different directions, and we don’t actually know what to prune away so that we can continue to progress and grow. 

Denver:D” is for delight. What does that do for you? 

Laura: So the thing about Enrich and the way we provide value is that a lot of times, we just don’t have the opportunity to do so. Because even though we have a lot to give, and we have so much that we do enrich based on…we either don’t belong to the right networks, or just doors are closed. Doors are closed. We don’t have the opportunities. We don’t look the right way. We don’t speak the right way. We don’t belong to the right groups. 

Delight is really how you crack that door open just a little bit for yourself so that you have the opportunity. It’s how you can take that exhaustion and that frustration around your hard work not paying off.  When you’re able to delight your counterpart, it gives you that opening and that fresh perspective so that you can show how you enrich and provide value.

And so it’s critical to be able to know both who you are and your basic goods, but also know the ways in which you can be surprising or slightly counterintuitive in such a way that you do get those opportunities.

Denver: Talk a little bit about preparation in this regard. What is the right level of preparation when you’re trying to delight someone?

Laura:  I talk about not preparing and not over-preparing because a lot of times in situations, what we do is — especially when the odds are stacked against us, when we feel like the odds are against us, or when we’re trying to convince someone else about our viewpoint, or we know someone disagrees that with us, but we need to change their minds — what we often do is we do things like, “OK. Here are the five reasons why this person is wrong,” or “Here are the five points I have. And as soon as I explain these, they’re going to see how much this makes sense and how much I’m right and they’re wrong.” 

These are the things we do. So we think about these like five bullet points in our head. And then we go into these meetings where we’re trying to change someone’s mind, and we’re like “OK. First of all, like this…” and second and third and fourth. But that’s actually the opposite of what we need to do because when we do that, number one is, the other person’s going to be defensive. And so they’re going to have reasons why, and it’s going to be really, really difficult to change their minds in that way. 

But instead when we don’t go in over-prepared, instead, we loosely have these ideas, and we do something that’s more like inquiring, like “Tell me about how you…” or like “Tell me how we got to this understanding…” or “Tell me, help me understand how…” That’s when you’re able to ebb and flow and truly delight because you’re able to hear something that the other person says. And then maybe that tangentially links onto one of your three bullet points; and you can guide and navigate them to a way that allows you to really have that deeper, richer connection with that person. 

And so, I talk about how Delight is really about not… we often think about selling, but it’s about starting a conversation. When you start a conversation, and you’re eliciting interest from someone else, that’s really when you have the most power. When someone kind of pauses for a second and says, “Oh.” Regardless of whether you’ve just met them, or you’ve known them for 10 years, if it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t really see you that way.” Or “I didn’t really think about you in that way.” That’s when you really start to wield the power. 

Denver: Let’s face it. The greatest delight we get comes from improv. It doesn’t come from a script. It comes from things that just are spontaneous and natural and organic, and I guess having that right balance is really critical.

Laura: I talk a lot about each of these… so each of these letters is a full section in my book, so I know I’m not even doing it justice to just be describing it in these ways. But I have a full chapter about humor and the art of delight and how it’s improvisational and how it really does… it is a benign humor, and how we actually enable ourselves to do this… and the power of this sort of interaction.

One of the most important pieces of this is that this is not something that is strategic or trying to manage impressions… this is the opposite of that. This is guiding people to who you authentically are because who they think you are is often incorrect. 

Denver: The “G” in Edge is for Guide. Who and what are we attempting to guide? 

Laura: So even when we know how we enrich and provide value, and even when we’re able to delight our counterparts, we need to continue to guide those perceptions that others have about us. We need to be able to guide and redirect people to who we authentically are. When we’re able to do that, that’s something where we continue to be able to have that opportunity to show how we enrich and provide value. 

So, this is really around: people are going to have a perception about you regardless of whether or not you help guide them to who you are or not. And so I talk about the different categories and the different ways that we guide people. People are making assumptions about our traits. Everything from how trustworthy or how warm or how friendly we are, to these questions and answers, the way that we interact with people, the types of questions we ask people, the way in which we respond — those interactional types of perception. And then there’s these trajectories. That it’s not that they’re only perceiving “Oh, is this person trustworthy or warm?” But if they’re making assumptions around “Who is this person now? Where did they come from? Where are they going in the future? What kind of potential do they have?”

And so what I find in my research is that based on who you are and how you speak and what you look like, that we fall into different categories, different ways in which people will ask us questions, for example. Or different trajectories that some people may be a distance travel trajectory like “how far you’ve come” or a second chances trajectory, like “You made some mistakes, and here’s the second chance you have.” Or like a zigzag trajectory. “We’ve done lots of disparate things. How do you combine this into a narrative?” We need to understand all of these different ways that people perceive us so that we can guide and redirect them in a way that really makes sense and leads us to success. 

I think one of the most important pieces of this is that this is not something that is strategic or trying to manage impressions. A lot of people here guide and redirect, and they think, “Oh, this just feels ugh, like gross. I don’t want to be overly strategic.” And we’ve all had instances where we’ve seen someone like kissing up to the boss and we’re like, “Ugh, I don’t want to be that person.” But this is the opposite of that. This is guiding people to who you authentically are because who they think you are is often incorrect. And so you are really doing yourself an injustice if you don’t understand those perceptions and guide those perceptions to who you really are. 

..when you show them the angle of your diamond that’s going to shine the brightest, that’s when you’re going to have the deepest, richest, interpersonal connection with them and be able to really figure out and engage with them in this real way. 

Denver: But to your point, I think a lot of people will feel inauthentic. If I guide my mother or my employee or my boss or my investor, they’re saying there’s a bit of a chameleon here.  And who is the real me?  And sometimes it feels a bit manipulative. What do you have to say about that? 

Laura: We often get this advice, like, “Be yourself.” And that’s actually  horrible advice because there is no “self.” There are “selves.” Who we are with our mother is really different from who we are with our best friend. And that’s really different from who we are with our boss. And that’s really different from who we are with each of these situations, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not the same person.

And so what I talk about is how it’s not inauthentic because I think about it as if each of us, each individual is like a diamond. If you think about a solitary diamond, every single diamond out there has flaws and different cuts and facets and different ways it’s going to shine based on the lighting and the angle and the environmental conditions. And whenever we’re interacting with someone, all we want to do, all we’re trying to do is show them the angle of our diamond that’s going to shine the brightest. You’re still the same diamond with the same flaws and the same cuts and facets. But when you show them the angle of your diamond that’s going to shine the brightest, that’s when you’re going to have the deepest, richest, interpersonal connection with them and be able to really figure out and engage with them in this real way. 

So it’s not that you’re inauthentic, it’s just that diamonds are really… or individuals. We’re complicated, varied individuals. And so, understanding that and understanding that others are also complicated, varied individuals allows us to again, have this deeper, richer connection. 

Denver:  That makes sense. And the final “E” of Edge is for Effort. Laura, a lot of people would think effort and hard work, that should be the first E and not the last E. Why have you made it the final one? 

Laura: It absolutely comes last. Just as you’re saying, we often think that effort and hard work should come first, that if you put in the hard work, your hard work will speak for itself. But we know that hard work doesn’t speak for itself. And so, in fact, when you know how you enrich and delight and guide, that’s when your effort and hard work actually work harder for you.

And so I finish the book and conclude the book with a section on hard work, which is around: How do you actually now take your hard work and get those tailwinds? Where, when you know how you enrich and delight and guide, now, how do you really make that effort and hard work pay off? Because it’s not just that advice of “work twice as hard for half the amount of benefits” because that leaves us frustrated and burnt out and often leaving the various circumstances and conditions where we would thrive the most if things were otherwise… if we did know how we enrich and delight and guide so that that effort and hard work takes us much further. 

Denver: You’ve touched on so many things in this book, I’m just going to run through a handful of them in no particular order. Do these tactics work, let’s say, for small companies trying to fight the big guys, in addition to just individuals?

Laura: Absolutely! So there’s two things there. The first is that for small companies, everything from knowing your basic goods, knowing what are those things that you’re really good at, it’s going to allow you to weather the storms, and it’s going to allow you to dynamically iterate and pivot. How do you delight customers and how do you continue to delight so that you can…? This is classical David and Goliath. How can you be clever? How can you gain an advantage and an edge even when you’ve got these behemoths that are breathing down your neck? And how do you continue to guide that message?

So, absolutely for small businesses, it’s critical. And I give lots of examples of companies like everything from Buc-ee’s, which is a gas station.

Denver: A gas station!

Laura: Yes. It’s a gas station that I’m so enamored with. How is a gas station able to go from simply providing gas and as a rest stop for people on road trips, to this company that has now been voted best bathrooms in America–

Denver: That’s big.

Laura: –and all of these sorts of things that Buc-ee’s is about. So I give lots of examples about companies like that. 

So everything from those small companies to these large companies, where large companies also, when we think about large companies…because a lot of times people sort of say, “Oh. This is a book for individuals. How is this really for leaders of multinational corporations?” But for leaders of multinational corporations, we spend so much money on training and trying to make our employees efficient and satisfied and happy to come to work. We’re trying so hard to give our companies an advantage and give our employees an advantage instead of teaching them how to cultivate their own edge. 

When they learn how to cultivate their own edge and feel empowered, that’s when they’re going to be more creative and innovative and come up with solutions that are really going to benefit themselves and what they can provide value and as well as, at an aggregate, the ways that they can provide value to organizations. 

So I think it’s so critical for large organizations to stop feeling like they need to invest in specific trainings to make their employees more efficient and allow them to train their employees as individuals so that they can figure out how to be efficient because they know their superpowers. They know their basic goods better than you will ever be able to identify it for them. 

Denver: Great point. You also talk about constraints, and constraints are generally looked upon as being negative. They limit you; they close off promising opportunities, but you state that constraints can be looked upon in a different way. Explain that. 

Laura: I think constraints are actually what empower us. There is obviously a continuum of constraints. It can’t be something that’s so limiting, that’s so devastating. It’s sort of like what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger in some ways. It can’t kill you, but these constraints… without them, we don’t allow us to see the advantages. We don’t allow us to see the edge that we can have for ourselves. 

I talk about lots of examples of how constraints don’t have to be constraining.  I talk about everything from corporate incubators and why corporate incubators don’t necessarily work because there’s not enough constraints. It’s almost too easy. Two simple things that I do with my students…a really quick fun thing that I do with my students is I teach them how having zero, having no money at all to start a company is actually better than starting a company with $20 or $200–

Denver: You give them an envelope with $5 in it, don’t you? And then you see what they can do over a week or two.

Laura: I do. And I show them how sometimes having that, we use that as a crutch, and the companies that made the most in my class are those who didn’t see those constraints as being constraining. So, all of those different ways that it pulls us up and allows us to create those advantages and that edge for ourselves. 

Denver: Another thing you did with your students is an exercise called the 10 Noes. What is that and what’s the point?

Laura: Yes. So when I spoke a little bit about before, about really honing our ability to see how others see us, one of the things I do with my students is this exercise. What the point of it is is that they have to get 10 people to say no to them. It has to be 10 different contexts, 10 different people, and what they have to do is, over the course of a week, they have to document each of these 10 noes and write a short paragraph, and then they have to come prepared to present one of their 10 noes. 

What we discover is just really astounding because the thing is, our entire lives, we’re so used to wanting people to say yes to us. We’re always coming from this position of wanting people to agree with us and like us and say yes to us and come to this point of agreement. But when the assignment, when the exercise is that you have to get them to say no to you, you realize all of these different things. You recognize like, “Hey. Why are these people reacting to me in this way when they normally always react to me in that way?” And “Why did they use that tone or that style?” And “Who am I choosing to ask now versus who I normally choose to ask, and how am I interacting with them?” 

And you start to build this really different muscle because we’re so used to building this muscle around only seeing those things that are around agreement and likability and wanting them to say yes and like us and agree with us. But now we’re seeing different types of perceptions and different types of attributions that are still about us, but it’s about coming from this place of “No.” And so we start to build and hone this ability, this intuition around how people see us, and those underlying perceptions that perhaps exist.

Denver:  Also probably good if you’re trying to train a salesforce because you find out people don’t like to say no, and probably you end up asking, you say, “Hey, I can get a lot farther just by doing this.”

Laura:  Yes.  It’s a funny thing that we discovered there, which is people are much more willing to say yes than you think. So I’ve had students who have gotten Super Bowl tickets out of this. I had a student who got like one-week, all-expenses-paid vacation, as someone’s guest in someone’s resort house or whatever.  There’s just some phenomenal things that people say yes to. 

Denver: That is really…that is funny.

One of the great distinctions you make in the book, and I really haven’t seen people make it before is the fear of failure. And my goodness, the fear of failure is so popular. Everybody talks about it. You can’t have a fear of failure, but you also then talk about embarrassment. And really draw for us that distinction and the difference therein.

Laura: Yes. We know. We’ve been told. It’s been pounded into our heads time and time again that failure is actually good, that you can fail–

Denver: It is the secret to success.

Laura: Right. Failure is the secret to success. And so we know this, but yet when it actually comes to failure, we don’t embrace it in the same way. And the reason we don’t embrace it the same way is because the No. 1 emotion that’s associated with failure is actually embarrassment. And when we face embarrassment, what we end up doing is we start to say, “Oh my gosh. Never again. Never again will I place myself in that situation where I would be embarrassed like that again.”

So even though cognitively and intellectually and rationally, we know failure is good; yet embarrassment… we would never put ourselves in that situation. And so we don’t actually experience that failure that we tell ourselves is so good because we avoid it, and we avoid those various situations of failure that are the most valuable to us.

So I talk about how embarrassment… when we are feeling embarrassment, that’s a great opportunity for us to really put ourselves in more situations where we experience that same type of embarrassment because there’s so much data in that. There’s data around why we feel embarrassed. And what does that tell us about our beliefs and our values?  And why do we feel embarrassed when others may not?  Or why are there other situations when others feel embarrassed and we don’t?  And we start to really, again, learn a lot about ourselves, and learn about our values and our beliefs and our basic goods, and all of the things that go into allowing us to create that edge for ourselves. 

Denver: Another thing you do in the book, Laura, is you challenge us to look at things from a different perspective, and the perspective we look at things is pretty much, “Here’s a problem. I am going to go out and find the solution.” And that is not only the one way to look at it, and you kind of highlight the 3D printer as an example of that. Tell us that story. 

Laura:  Yes. So we are linear in a sense that we have problems and we look for solutions, and I talk about it as solutions in search of problems. 

Denver: I like that.

Laura: A lot of times in our lives, we don’t notice those solutions that are in search of problems, and so I use 3D printing as an example. 3D printing is a technology that came out in the early ’80s, in the early 1980s, and we didn’t really pay attention to it. It’s only in the last couple of years that 3D printing has even become a part of our general awareness. And so you have this device, something that since 40 years ago, almost 40 years ago, was able to print basically anything — anything that’s the size of a microwave or smaller. But that solution… really, we didn’t think enough about that solution in search of problems. 

And so, I use that analogy to talk about our own lives and the things that we’re trying to achieve, and how it’s both problems in search of solutions as well as solutions in search of problems. 

Why fight so hard to give your kids an advantage when instead you can teach them how to cultivate their own edge in any context that they’re going to be in? 

Denver: Let me ask you about parents because you know parents, and so many parents will do almost anything to give their kid an advantage. What can parents do, though, to give their kid the edge? 

Laura: It’s similar to what I was saying about large corporations. With parents, especially, we… Recently in the news, everything from people who are paying their kids’ ways into colleges, like paying people to take tests for them, paying for them to get entrance into colleges. But even in a more legal way, parents are trying to give their kids extra tutoring, exposure to lots of extracurricular activities, access to private coaches. Parents are trying so hard to give their kids an advantage. And it will give their kids an advantage to some extent in one dimension, but then their kids are at a loss in lots of other dimensions. 

And so the book, I talk about how:  Why fight so hard to give your kids an advantage when instead you can teach them how to cultivate their own edge in any context that they’re going to be in?  Because what my research talks about is that gaining an advantage is going to be different in every context that you’re going to be in. You change one variable… you change the industry, or you change the mix of people that you’re with and everything shifts — the dynamics, the perception, the ways in which you create an advantage shift.

And so when you understand this perspective, and you teach your kids how to cultivate their own edge, then you can put them in any situation that they’re going to be in, and you don’t have to be trying so hard to give them that advantage because you’ve taught them how to gain that and create that for themselves.

Denver: Teach a person how to fish, no question about it. 

Let me close with this, Laura. Much of what you communicate in the book is captured in the advice that you received in being the proverbial prom queen. Talk about that mindset and how it helped change things for you. 

Laura:  We often think about this as a negative thing, like “be the prom queen,” because there’s this negative connotation. But this was advice that actually my PhD doctoral advisor had given me because I was at a disadvantage. I didn’t come from this very prestigious institution. In fact, the institution that I got my PhD in often doesn’t crack the top 50 or the top 100.  I didn’t have this super famous advisor; I didn’t have a lot of publications…all of the metrics that allow you to be successful in academia. 

And so, I remember before I was setting out onto the job market, she gave me this advice. She said, “Just be the prom queen.”  And I remember thinking like, “What does that even mean?” But fast forward, the short version of this story is that it’s about the aura. It’s the aura of something special. It’s like no one really knows the prom queen. No one really knows, but everyone wants to date the prom queen even though they don’t really know who that person is. So create that aura; create that aura for yourself. 

And I go into a lot more detail around this story. I know we don’t have a lot of time here, but it’s this notion that even things that… I go into a lot more detail just to sort of illustrate that. It sounds like this is horrible advice. It sounds like this is a superficial kind of advice, “Be the prom queen.” But there’s so much depth to what that means and so much depth to all of the types of advice that we receive in the ways in which we present ourselves and the ways in which we really can create that edge for ourselves.

Denver: It’s almost like interviewing for a job. You’ll look at the job description and you can get your mind focused in saying, “I’m not that. I’m not that. I’m not that,” and it can really stymie you. And having written a thousand job descriptions in my life, you never know what you’re doing when you’re writing a job description. You’re just copying a bunch of things down. So just focus on what you can offer and not what you don’t have. 

The book is titled Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage, and everyone has a perception about them that they could benefit from addressing, and this book is a perfect field guide for doing that. And you also have a website, too? 

Laura: Yes. So my website is So you can find lots of extra resources and articles and things on my website. 

Denver: Well, thanks, Laura. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program. 

Laura: Thank you! I appreciate it.

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