If the Shoe Fits


 Proof that a new pair of shoes can change your life.

In the early 1990’s, I worked for a private nonprofit that administered a battery of aptitude assessments to people and then made career recommendations based on the outcomes. The battery of assessments was developed over decades based on research by Johnson O’Connor, who started as an engineer for General Electric in Lynn, Massachusetts in the 1920’s. Aptitudes are natural talents, special abilities for doing, or learning to do, certain kinds of things. Manual dexterity, musical ability, spatial visualization, and memory for numbers are examples of the aptitudes that the organization tests today in eleven facilities located all over the country.

I really enjoyed the job and I learned a tremendous amount about aptitudes, careers, and job satisfaction, and the position inspired my interest in career coaching. I had a terrific director at the Boston facility, and part of the wisdom he imparted was about reading people’s shoes. Seriously. Each morning, my director Robert would greet the clients in the waiting room of the Beacon Street brownstone where we worked. He’d sweep through the room, confirm names and appointments, and never fail to notice everyone’s footwear. Robert was a sharp dresser himself, but his interest went beyond fashion. He’d assign staff clients based on shoe “fit” so to speak, and shoes were often the deciding factor about how a person would receive the news we were going to deliver. It sounds wacky, but it worked.

Now there is data to indicate that Robert was simply ahead of his time. According to a Yahoo! news article, researchers at the University of Kansas say that people can accurately judge 90 percent of a stranger’s personality simply by looking at the person’s shoes. The article says that researched made judgments “based on the style, cost, color and condition of someone’s shoes.” In the study, students examined photos of 208 different pairs of shoes worn by study participants. Volunteers in the study were photographed in their most commonly worn shoes, and then filled out a personality questionnaire.

My assumption is that the University of Kansas researchers were men; women have known all their lives that you can tell something about people by their shoes and how well they’re kept up. Age and vanity engage in mortal combat as women age and try to feel sexy in comfortable shoes. Geography matters, too; when I lived in Boston I carried my high heeled shoes in a tote and wore sensible flats to navigate the treacherous cobblestone streets and winter snow. The desperate run to safety in New York on 9/11/2001 convinced thousands of women to switch to reasonable shoes in case another disaster ever struck. I was reminded of that as I watched a woman struggle across a Jacksonville street at lunchtime, tottering and perspiring in a pair of red six-inch heels that were a sprained ankle just waiting to happen.

I value my mobility more than fashion; my heels are moderate and provide more support than stilettoes. I couldn’t imagine not being able to move quickly or confidently through the office or not being able to walk a block or two from a parking spot to an event. I am also unwilling to wear ugly shoes. Luckily, there are options that are cute and practical.

For those of you who are skeptical about the validity of shoes and personality links, here’s a closing anecdote from my days in Boston with Robert. At the end of a two and a half day assessment and career coaching session with a client, Robert actually mentioned his shoe reading theory to her. She was intrigued, and she immediately challenged him to “read her shoes” and tell her what her true career choice should be. Robert took a long look and finally turned to her and told her it was impossible to know her from the shoes she was wearing. “Those aren’t your shoes,” he said with finality. He meant to imply that her shoes did not reflect her personality as he’d gotten to know her. But her delighted disbelief took him by surprise; she’d borrowed the shoes that morning from her sister.

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