Michael Metzger

By the age of forty, you get the face you deserve. It’s a billboard, advertising what’s going on inside your mind. That’s good to know, except that those who would benefit most from seeing their billboard are often least aware of what it’s advertising.

During his Presidency, Abraham Lincoln had a friend who advised him to include a certain man in his cabinet. Lincoln refused. His friend asked why. “I don’t like his face,” the President replied. “But the poor man isn’t responsible for his face,” the friend complained. Lincoln disagreed. “Every man over forty is responsible for his face.”

Lincoln might have derived this particular responsibility from the Bible, a book he knew well. The Book of Numbers records Moses preparing the Jews to enter the Promised Land. Moses selects twelve chieftains, sending them into the land as spies. The spies return but only two of them give a favorable report. Ten spies give an unfavorable account.

Joshua and Caleb report that the land is lush, though “the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.” They even see the sons of Anak, who are very big people. No big deal. Joshua and Caleb tell the Jews to take the land.

Ten spies say no way. They too observed the imposing sons of Anak. But in seeing them, the spies note that “we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.” The sons of Anak saw fear written all over the spies’ faces.

“The information on our face is not just a signal of what is going on inside our mind,” writes psychologist Paul Ekman. “It is what is going on inside our mind.” Our face “is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings.”1 It is the primary billboard.

Fearful people routinely fail to read their billboard. The Jewish nation, learning that God deems them as unfit to take the land, decides to try anyway. They’re routed. The Jews will wander in the desert for forty years until that fearful generation—sans Joshua and Caleb—is dead and buried. It will take forty years for the Jewish nation to present a fresh face of leadership.

Recent findings from neuroscience support this. The brain’s neural pathways are pretty much set by the age of twenty (c.f., Over the following twenty years, these pathways shape your outlook, which is slowly but surely written all over your face. By the age of forty, you get the face you deserve. Insecure twenty-year-olds become walking billboards for anxiety and fear by the age of forty.

There is hope, however. Older folks can ask others what their face is advertising. This requires savvy as well as courage. Savvy is selecting the right observer—a right-brain thinker. There is evidence that “the right frontal lobe is of critical importance for recognizing expression through the face.”2 It is mainly in our right hemisphere that we read faces. Find someone who evidences deep right hemisphere pathways.

If you’re not sure where to look, listen for someone gifted in communicating metaphorically. Those who favor the right hemisphere tend to be better with images and illustrative speech. Lincoln for example was a master of metaphor. Francis Carpenter, the artist who spent six months at the White House during 1864 painting a picture of Lincoln and his cabinet, noted that the president’s “most powerful thought almost invariably took on the form of a figure of speech.”3 Lincoln thought in pictures, which is why his cabinet did not include the man with the wrong face.

It’s your responsibility to know what your face is advertising. It’s best to build a sturdy billboard when you’re younger. But if you’re older than twenty and fearful or insecure, do the brave thing and begin tearing down your billboard and erecting a new one.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Malcolm Gladwell, blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Back Bay Books, 2005), p. 206-208.
2 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
3 James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 98.


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  1. Jason Poling is funny. Mike, when you reference right and left hemispheres, is this switched if you’re left-handed or do these hemispheric references remain unchanged? And I wonder – a face is a face – but not for the camera but on a daily basis in unguarded moments is what I’m guessing you’re saying.

  2. Is it actually foolish to believe you are favoring one side of your brain, if they work together ? Starting on one side or the other inevitably leads to including the other.At least that what I understood from the recent neuromyth discourse.

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