What Is Moxie and How Can You Get More of It in Your Life?

Former First Lady Michelle Obama is a great example of someone who has plenty of moxie, according to Alexia Vernon, who wrote a book on the subject. (Photo: Debby Wong/Shutterstock)

It's one of those old-fashioned words that has a uniquely American origin story. Moxie — before it was known as a personality trait — was one of the first soft drinks in the United States, marketed as a nerve tonic beginning in 1884. The Maine-born doctor who invented it used what was originally a Native American word for "dark water" to name his sweet and bitter beverage, which was produced in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was so popular, especially throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic states, that by the 1930s, the name-brand Moxie came to be used as the noun moxie, meaning the quality of being courageous or daring. That's how the drink was originally advertised, with claims that a special ingredient (gentian root), would lend those who imbibed it that extra shot of determination they needed.

Recently, the word has become popular again, almost 100 years after it was first coined as a descriptor.

"I love the word moxie because it suggests a way of thinking, a way of feeling, and a way of behaving that activates speaking up and disrupting the status quo," says Alexia Vernon, author of a book on the subject called "Step Into Your Moxie." Vernon knows of what she speaks: She was first dubbed a "Moxie Maven" by President Obama’s White House Office of Public Engagement for her work on women’s empowerment issues.

Vernon, who talks about the book in the video above, says there has never been a time in U.S. history where moxie was more needed, especially for women. Speaking up for oneself or those less powerful, even if it's incredibly uncomfortable, is paramount. And raising one's voice is just part of what moxie is — it also means digging in to that work, even when it's challenging.

"It’s one thing to go to a rally or broadcast your views in an angry (or empowering) social media post. It’s an altogether different thing to tell yourself, and actually believe, that you possess the power and ability to advocate for yourself — especially if you are in an environment, professionally or personally, in which the people around you are complicit in maintaining the status quo,' says Vernon.

Embodying moxie can be pretty scary.

So, how can you cultivate it? The first part is recognizing when and how to access it within yourself. "Moxie is ... choosing to see yourself as the protagonist in the story of your life, and it's learning how to condition ourselves physiologically to speak up in the world," says Vernon.

That means overcoming fear. The feeling of fear — butterflies in your stomach, or a clamping in your gut — is your body acknowledging that you are "on the cusp of something important," says Vernon, and we need to recognize that feeling as natural and OK. "[Fear] is normal. This is you on the brink of stepping into your moxie. And the last thing you want to do is to shove that sensation back down or create a narrative around it that positions you as a victim or martyr rather than as a protagonist — which is what you are. If you want to consistently step into your moxie, and do it in a way that moves people to take action, you must learn how to get comfortable being uncomfortable," says Vernon.

Easier said than done. She suggests role-playing what you will say; practicing it, so when you're in the situation, you know how it will feel and you'll already know what you need to say. That way, by the time you have an audience, you'll be used to feeling uncomfortable — and saying what you need to say anyway.

That starts with giving yourself ample opportunities to role-play what you plan to say so feeling that uncomfortable sensation and speaking through it is old hat by the time you have an audience, whether that's an audience of one or 1 million, or something in between.

What does that look like? Someone who has stepped into her moxie "... will ask for what she wants (and deserves), speak with (versus at) her audience, be flexible en route to getting what she wants, be present with her emotions, and she will use non-verbal communications that empower her confidence, credibility, presence, and persuasiveness," says Vernon, who cites former First Lady Michelle Obama as a great example of a woman who exemplifies the trait.

In the four decades I've lived, I haven't experienced a culture that encourages anyone to speak out or go against the grain. I was ostracized in high school for doing so, and have consistently gotten the message that to be successful, one must "go along to get along." But I think it's getting easier — or at least more acceptable — to speak out. Embracing the idea of moxie can help almost anyone say what needs to be said when the time comes.