Ellsberg hails benefits of eye contact
By Angie Cho , The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, July 20, 2012
Halfway through the sophomore summer corporate recruitment process, author Michael Ellsberg urged students to reconsider taking the traditional corporate track and instead forge their own paths by considering entrepreneurship in his lecture on Thursday afternoon in the Rockefeller Center. Before the lecture, students had the opportunity to attend an eye-gazing party, which emphasized the importance of eye contact in both a business and dating context, a topic highlighted in Ellsberg’s first book “The Power of Eye Contact.”
Ellsberg is an author and blogger who writes for Forbes Magazine. He has written two books and is credited with inventing and popularizing eye-gazing parties, a popular trend starting in 2010.
“Eye contact can be fairly aggressive, or even sexually aggressive, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable to manage,” Ellsberg said.
Ellsberg said he got the idea when he was single and living in New York in his late 20s.
“I was really tired by the dating scene, where young singles hang out in bars and they talk about the most inane topics,” he said.
In an attempt to break this “singles pattern” and find something more substantive, Ellsberg combined a tantric practice called eye gazing, in which people gaze into each other’s eyes for an extended period of time, with the concept of speed dating. A group of singles split into pairs and spend two minutes looking into each other’s eyes without talking, he said. If the pair feels a connection, they have the option of contacting each other after the session.
The New York Times, CNN and Good Morning America have featured Ellsberg’s eye-gazing parties, and the media attention stirred up enough interest that Ellsberg was motivated to write a book about the concept.
Ellsberg conducted a similar eye-gazing party on Wednesday with 14 Dartmouth students, but without the romantic expectation.
“It can be surprising how much of a connection you can make with another human being with just eye contact,” Ellsberg said. “People just aren’t comfortable with the discomfort you feel from the intensity of the connection.”
During five rounds of two-minute eye gazes, Ellsberg conditioned the attendees to deal with the discomfort of making continual eye contact with someone. He urged the students to fight the urge to giggle and try to see the vulnerabilities of their partners.
“It got easier by the later rounds, but it was really hard to deal with the awkwardness throughout the process,” Holly Wakeman ’14, who attended the event, said.
The group agreed they felt the connections and the change in the room’s atmosphere after the exercise.
“It was a very eye-opening process,” Kevin Wang ’14, who organized the event, said. “I feel it’s a skill that can be applicable to any real-life scenario.”
Ellsberg said that if people learned to be more comfortable with the intensity of eye contact, anyone could increase their “personal power capacity” in social situations, from business events to romantic relationships.
Ellsberg’s lecture later in the day was titled after his second book, “The Education of Millionaires.” He began his talk with the radical idea that some students should drop out of college in order to attain success.
In his book, Ellsberg interviewed 50 self-made millionaires and five billionaires, and he saw a familiar trend. People who create successful programs, businesses or products forge their own prescribed course and generally veer away from the path that the educational system has set for many students, he said.
Society’s overemphasis on academia as a prerequisite for success leads to corporate positions where “you are selected for and trained to follow orders,” according to Ellsberg. Although he acknowledged the need for bankers, investors, lawyers and doctors, he said the idea of being a self-employed entrepreneur has become taboo recently. The lauded track of working hard in high school and college and then taking a corporate job is not necessarily the right one for many students.
“My basic assumption is that most of the students here and at other elite academic institutions are erring on the side of taking too little risk with their futures,” Ellsberg said.
Ellsberg discussed his own experience as a successful student at Deerfield Academy and Brown University, where he gradated Phi Beta Kappa.
Without the structure of academia and little preparation for “the real world,” however, Ellsberg found it hard to stand on his own feet in his 20s without the help of his parents.
Ellsberg cited a statistic stating that 85 percent of graduating college seniors move back with their parents.
“That is proof that the system has massively failed when people can’t exist outside the orbit of parental support,” Ellsberg said. “I failed the system and the system failed me.”
Ellsberg criticized the idea that there is a clear distinction between the “suits” and the “hippies.” The “suits” learn how to navigate the paths of power within institutions, which is an economically stable but not necessarily fulfilling lifestyle that is open to many students at the College, he said.
The other option may allow one to embrace his or her passions but does not necessarily guarantee a check to pay the bills.
“One thing in common about all those millionaires and billionaires is that they are entrepreneurs, a path in society that offers the best shot at integrating the hippie and the suit,” Ellsberg said.
He encouraged students to look beyond corporate recruitment and to start looking at small startups around the country that are starved for talent.
While students felt that the message was important, some felt it had already been emphasized to them in the past.
“I was inspired to take a new look at how I plan on approaching life after college, but I don’t think he said anything new,” Troup Wood ’14 said.
In an interview with The Dartmouth, Ellsberg spoke about his own experience working at a venture capital fund and a publishing house, a period of his life that he classified as “empty.” It wasn’t until he combined his passion for writing with the ability to support himself financially that he felt he was making a meaningful impact.
“If you can find a job that supports you reasonably well and doesn’t require you to be in the office 100 hours a week, you can work during the day to pay the bills and you can nurture your passions at night or on the weekends,” Ellsberg said.
Ellsberg said he believes the latter work is much more creative and has “the potential to have a massive impact.”
Moving forward, Ellsberg is working on his next book titled “Investing Yourself.”
The book teaches people how to take their resources and invest it into their own sales and communication skills, instead of bonds or real estate.
“I want to make people think a lot with concrete take-away value for the real world,” Ellsberg said.
The lecture and the eye-gazing party were sponsored by The Rockefeller Center.