What is an X Factor?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

In the world of mathematics, an "X factor" is an unknown quantity that only becomes known after following a prescribed process. This concept of an unknown but vital quality also extends into other worlds, such as business and entertainment. Interviewers and judges often speak of an "X factor" when they consider a number of candidates for a single open position. In this sense, the term is used to stand for a certain undefinable quality that may promote one candidate over another in the eyes of his or her critics or examiners. This is something rarely included in a job description, but candidates who possess it are more likely to survive early cuts during the culling process.

People who catch the eye of a potential employer are said to have the X factor.
People who catch the eye of a potential employer are said to have the X factor.

The X factor for an actor or actress might be a strong sexual appeal or a sense of mystery, for instance. The casting director may be able to gather 200 young and attractive actresses for a cattle call audition, but only a handful may possess the special quality of a Marilyn Monroe or Angelina Jolie. Hundreds of actors may audition for the role of master spy James Bond, but very few may have the air of mystery required for a successful portrayal. Many casting directors and producers are keenly aware of the particular "it" factor they seek during the auditioning process.

Only a few singers, those who have the X factor, make it to stardom.
Only a few singers, those who have the X factor, make it to stardom.

In the business world, the X factor could be a significant amount of personal charisma or an air of ambition. These qualities would be difficult to quantify, but employers and human resource specialists can usually separate candidates who have it from those who do not. The position may require a high level of diplomacy or discretion or personal charm, qualities which are generally considered key factors during the interview process.

Marilyn Monroe is often said to have possessed a special "X factor" that made her a star.
Marilyn Monroe is often said to have possessed a special "X factor" that made her a star.

This quality definitely becomes a consideration when judging competitive talent events. All of the contestants may demonstrate competent singing and dancing skills, and they may be able to communicate a song to the audience. Only a few singers, however, possess that special something that would propel them into the rarefied air of super stardom. The X factor could be a strong personality or a sense of artistry while interpreting the music. When contestants in a creative contest are fairly equal in terms of training and ability, it often comes down to that undefinable quality before a winner can be determined.

Casting directors may see hundreds of actors before they find one with the "X factor."
Casting directors may see hundreds of actors before they find one with the "X factor."
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Yes, I agree, but most of the people do not understand this.


To me, the X factor is something that I look for in a man. It takes more than just good looks and a nice personality for me to really fall for someone. It takes something that cannot really be defined; it can only be felt.

I found a man with the X factor in 2008, but he broke my heart. He just dripped charisma, and I felt like he was my soulmate.

Even after he left, I had a hard time accepting that he wasn't the one for me. The X factor is a powerful force, and it can rip your heart to shreds once it departs your life.


I think of algebra when I hear the words “X factor.” I had a lot of trouble understanding mathematics in high school, and I spent countless hours being tutored on how to find the value of X in different problems.

All that studying paid off, because I finally got the hang of it. However, I haven't done algebra in years. I wonder if I still remember how to find the value of X in more complicated problems.


The X factor is so important that they named a show after it! This singing competition started out in the UK, but it came to the states in 2011.

I remember hearing X factor contestant Leona Lewis on the radio and being extremely impressed. After seeing her perform on television, I could tell that she had more than just a beautiful voice. She has that ability to convey emotion with her performance, and she also is very beautiful.

I watched the show in its first year in the States, and I was very happy with the winner. I think that this show draws more attention to that certain something than to vocal ability alone, and it doesn't seem to be based on looks.


@anon121740 – I agree with you. There have been contestants on American Idol who oozed X factor, but they did not win because the public did not vote them to the top.

Had it been up to the panel of judges, then these individuals would have most certainly won. The problem with public voting is that the majority of voters are little girls with cell phones who cast their votes for the cutest boy. So, we have a lot of cute boy American Idols who cannot sing nearly as well as some of the other contestants and who possess no X factor.


it's different in different scenarios.


@habura yes, I think it's similar. having that 'it' factor that nobody can really give you a good explanation for -- it's just there.


Something tells me that finding a person with an x factor should not come down to a competition by public vote. Did they find the starring actor for successive James Bond movies by the same method?


well in the game of soccer, the x-factor means someone having extraordinary sense of game or may be a game genius and he can understand the situation and opponents strategies easily.


i still don't understand what the x-factor is. what is it when you are playing a game like soccer?


Thank you so much for the simple answer to "what is an X factor?'

My Dad used to always say: If something doesn't make sense to you, there is an X factor.Find the X factor and you'll understand."

He was probably a math genuis; I was not even close. It took me forever to understand what he was saying and it used to take me forever to explain it to others.

How correct you are that it extends into other worlds.

It extends into all worlds. I cannot thank you enough.


I thought x-factor was something that could come into play and screw you when you were least expecting it!


The X factor is "*joy*". To quote Abraham (Esther Hicks) : 'The joy factor is the key !


Is the x factor the same thing as having "it"?

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