Why gravitas is overrated

It’s 2004. I’m having my performance review with my boss at a women’s glossy magazine company. I always had the sense our values weren’t quite aligned, but still I was surprised at her opening gambit.

‘Di, your work is excellent, no issues there - but you’re not glamorous, or memorable, and you lack the gravitas to succeed in this industry’.

The meeting continued awkwardly for a while, with my boss expressing that her boss had given her the same talk 10 years previously and she was eternally grateful for it.

Well. I wasn’t.

I didn’t know what to do with this new information about how people might perceive me. I wanted to attribute it just to her, but I suspected that others also felt I lacked gravitas and it bothered me.

Partly because I do lack gravitas. But also, because I’d always associated gravitas with ‘being an asshole’.

Here’s how Google defines ‘gravitas’:

“dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner.

synonyms: dignity, seriousness, solemnity, gravity, loftiness, grandeur, decorum, sobriety,


"a man of gravitas"”

(I enjoyed the “a man of gravitas” example.)

I don’t really know what decorum means, I don’t rank high on dignity (I’ll fall over putting on tights) and I am sure sobriety is something worth trying but I haven’t got around to it yet.

So, thinking about it now, she was right. But I still wonder - Why is gravitas so revered?

I was less worried about the glamour comments (which I believe came from going to a client event in flat shoes), but this ‘motivated’ me to make even less effort with my appearance (as someone who spent her teenage years at an all girls’ boarding school I didn’t have much further to fall). But the most surprising thing of all was how did I end up working for someone who didn’t value that I was smart, reliable, likeable (ok, your mileage may vary) and made people laugh?

Roll forward 14 years and I still have NO gravitas. Occasionally my passion for data, insights or customer service can hold the attention of a room, and I’ve had (by most people’s standards) a successful career. In fact, my cv - 2 sheets of A4 describing my achievements – probably has gravitas, just not me. On reflection I suspect I’ve spent much of my working life trying to make up for my lack of gravitas, compensating by being a people-pleasing workaholic.

This post isn’t meant to say either “boo hoo poor me” or “I’m so very splendid” - but for anyone who is also a member of the ‘No Gravitas’ club, this is my survival kit:

- Be endlessly curious. Read all the time, ask questions, always want to be better, smarter, more credible and up to date. It’s easier to be curious if you aren’t busy being ‘solemn’.

- Enjoy being really productive. You want something done? Give it to me!

- Swear like anything. I pretend lalochezia* is a real condition. Granted, this one might just be for me.

- Feel free to take the piss out of anyone. You’d do it to yourself, after all.

- BUT - Never let people down. Believe there’s room for us all to be excellent and brilliant, no gravitas should also mean small ego.

And finally, as the fabulous Ingrid Fetell Lee explained much better than I ever could in her Ted Talk (watched by 1.8m and still going up) - be joyful. I can uncover the hidden moments of joy wherever I am, and gravitas can fuck right off because “the drive towards joy is the drive towards life”.

*Lalochezia: Emotional discharge gained by uttering indecent or filthy words

Ingrid Fetell Lee: