Impression Theory

The 70-something woman was fumbling with her purse. The 20-something Post Office employee was being irrationally impatient.

“Ma’am. Hey. Ma’am. I can’t hold up this whole line while you figure out how to pay.”

It was December 2019. The pre-Christmas shipping demand was evident. At least 20 people waited with packages in hand, most of us on our lunch breaks. The room was bored and quiet. The woman was confused (“This credit card always works. It always works”). The worker folded his arms with a big exhalation.

The first hints of Impression Theory were trickling into my head.

What You See in Another

“You only see 2% of another person, and they only see 2% of you. Attune yourself to the hidden 98%.”

Kevin Kelly

Let me tell you about Impression Theory.

You form an Impression on every person you interact with. An Impression is a mental and emotional shadow that you leave in your wake. It lingers. And sometimes, it sticks.

Your life and your impact on the world are nothing more than a sum total of these Impressions. If you add your Impressions up, it’s as if you have a “personal brand.”

Are you funny? Kind? Quick to anger? If I had a crystal ball to review your time-history of Impressions, I could tell you. You are your Impressions!

But your Impressions aren’t equally distributed. Some people receive thousands of your Impressions. They know you well. Other people only get a handful.

As Kevin Kelly pointed out above, these Impressions show but a brief insight into the underlying person. Over time, you can try to “attune yourself to the hidden 98%.”

But most of the time, the “2%” Impressions are all we have to judge a person.

Thus, Impressions are far more valuable than you might assume. People in your life won’t know the 98% of you. They’ll only know your Impressions. And you never know which Impressions will fade away and which will stick around.

Pickup Basketball

We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.

Malcolm Gladwell

I played hundreds of hours of pickup basketball in college. And I admit: I was a wee bit competitive in those games. Some might say, a prick.

My friends, though, knew me. They had hundreds of good Impressions of me. They forgave my occasional Prick Impression. The good outweighed the bad. Thanks guys!

But there were people in those games who I only engaged with through basketball. No shared classes, no social engagements. Just competitive basketball. The only character Impression I left in their lives was Jesse is a capital-P Prick.

They had no awareness that I’m usually a good person. I didn’t Impress that on them.

This isn’t the end of the world. I don’t stay up nights worrying that some stranger thinks badly of me.

But I remind myself of this important lesson from “Impression Theory” as I move forward in my life. If you only leave bad Impressions on a person, they’ll think badly of you.

Here are the rest of the 10 key tenets of Impression Theory…

The 10 Key Tenets of Impression Theory

  1. Every interaction you have — past, present, and future — leaves an Impression.
  2. Most of these Impressions fade to nothingness. They have no lasting effect on you, nor on the other person. We call this “noise.”
  3. Some Impressions divert the very course of your life. They are unbelievably important. Impressions follow a “long tail distribution.” Most people call this “chaos theory” or “the butterfly effect” or “serendipity.”
  4. You rarely know the impact of an Impression before the Impression takes place. It’s “Schrodinger’s Impression.”
  5. Impressions can lie dormant for years and then come full circle.
  6. Impressions can be infectious. They can spread beyond you without your further interaction. This is called “reputation.”
  7. Impressions accrue and accrete. Once an accident, twice a coincidence, three times a pattern.
  8. “Good” Impressions and “Bad” Impressions are not equal in weight. Humans are wired and biased towards “good” social behavior. “Bad” behavior is heavily scrutinized. It takes many “good” Impressions to overcome a “bad” Impression.
  9. Impressions can be unbalanced. Your small compliment can wholly alter a person’s life. A thoughtless insult to a stranger can ruin their day.
  10. You are your Impressions. Period.

Some Takeaways from Impression Theory

There are a few important takeaways and lessons to learn from Impression Theory.

Our ears evolved to hear other human voices. But our brains did not evolve to read others’ written text. Avoiding bad Impressions over email or text-based media (text message, Twitter, Facebook) is very difficult. Therefore, never deliver bad news or argue over text. It’s too hard, and 99% of people are far worse at it than they believe.

For that same reason, don’t judge people — -either positively or negatively — -for their social media. The Impressions we receive on social media are filtered, curated, and algorithmically ranked. They aren’t human. Your over-evolved monkey brain is good at Impression Theory in real life, but bad at Impression Theory over the Internet.

Optimizing your every Impression is a fool’s errand. You’ll never be perfect. Instead, reduce your incidence of negative Impressions. This is a “tiny bit better than average” behavior.

The act of apologizing can atone for a bad Impression while simultaneously making a good Impression. Sure, you’re better off not fucking up in the first place. But we all do. So apologize for it.

Assuming your Impressions are infectious is better than assuming they’re not. We don’t know which Impressions stick, which fade, and which spread like wildfire. Especially in the era of camera phones and social media. Treat every Impression as if it will stick.

Some Impressions will never echo back into your life. You’ll never again see that gas station cashier from your cross-country road trip. Whether you were kind or rude doesn’t matter to you. But that Impression might have a lasting effect — -either good or bad — -in their life. Plus, these “meaningless” Impressions are terrific practice for the Impressions that do matter. If you practice being kind, you’re kind.

The evolutionary point of impulse is to act on it. It’s reflexive, like touching a hot stove. But the recipient of your Impressions might not be gracious enough to forgive you for “acting on impulse.” Stifle negative impulses when you’re able.

About That Post Office…

Back in that post office before Christmas ’19, I thought, “What a twerp. This Postal guy is barking (going Postal?!?!) at an old woman in a room full of strangers. Doesn’t he know how he looks right now?

Well…he probably didn’t know how he looked! He wasn’t much different than me making an ass of myself in pickup basketball.

I walked up to the register and asked, “How much is her package? What’s the shipping charge?”

The cashier furrowed his brow, “It’s $9.59.”

That was the easiest $9.59 I’ve ever spent.

I saved the Postal Worker from further ass-making embarrassment. Everyone in line saved a few minutes of time. The old woman had a personal “holiday miracle” moment. And of course, it was the right thing to do. Someone else would have stepped up if I hadn’t.

But yes — I got an ego boost from doing something nice. And I got the potential boomerang effect from making a unique Impression on the people in that room. AND I got to eventually write an article about it and humblebrag to a few thousand strangers.


I sincerely hope I’ve impressed something on you today. This isn’t a traditional investing article, but a personal investing article. You are your Impressions, big and small. Invest in your Impressions, and you’ll invest in yourself.

Because as Ben Franklin famously wrote, “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”



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