When I was in high school sometimes I used to think of funny things to say in class. This was a thrill for me because I really liked to think of funny things.
But then the whole thought process started. The one inside my head that told me not to say anything because if I DID IT WRONG IT WOULD BE TOO AWFUL TO BEAR.
What if everyone thought I was dumb? What if no one laughed? What if the popular girls thought I was stupid for speaking up? What if I lost the friends that I did have? What if the teacher was mad? What if I couldn’t speak because the heart I felt throbbing in my chest was so loud that no one could even hear the words that I wanted to come out?
Then I tried to do the teenage equivalent of YOLO. I made myself raise my hand. I spoke. Sometimes people laughed. Other times people looked at me like I was dumb. But I remember distinctly, quietly feeling an acute sense of pride. I had done it!
We all have our reasons why we push ourselves to DO IT. For me, it’s because I grew up in kind of a weird household. My dad is blind with a temper that erupts easily on account of having taken two AK-47 rounds to the face in Vietnam. My mom is incredibly shy, hysterically funny, but puts herself down a lot — and my parents had a relationship I think is best to describe as “claws fitting wounds.” I love them both very much, but my dad has sadistic tendencies and my mom has masochistic ones. Perfect fit.
Seeing my parents’ dynamic made me: A) not want to waste my life because fuck it, man, you might get shot twice in the face. It was a miracle my dad was alive, and I wanted to make the most of life. I’d be an asshole not to make the most of my life with him as my dad, right? And B) I did not want to absorb the brunt of someone else’s anger by not having the confidence to stand up for myself.
So those were My Big Personal Reasons for Pushing Myself. I think we all have one or two. Even if you don’t have one, see if you can get one (if you want one, that is). Your reason could just be that you are bored with the way things currently are, you’ve tried everything else and it’s not working, or hey, YOLO.
My Big Personal Reasons pushed me to speak in class that time, heart throbbing, face turning crimson, as a very introverted teen. And it inspired me to keep pushing myself. Here are five ways I did it. Maybe it will help? Maybe it won’t. But I try to share what works for me, so here you go.
#1 Make yourself do things way outside your comfort zone even though you realize that you might screw it up.
I can’t emphasize this strongly enough. Like that time I spoke up in class even though I was sure that I might start crying or hyperventilate, I did it. If you can push yourself to try something that you want to do — but are afraid you might screw up — but you do it anyway, THIS IS A HUGE ACCOMPLISHMENT. Gigantic. Celebrate this! Every time you make yourself do this, IF YOU CAN SEE IT AS A VICTORY (even if it is a huge gigantic OMG devastating embarrassment) BECAUSE YOU ACTUALLY DID IT, you will have all the more confidence the next time. Did you push yourself? And you didn’t die from embarrassment, right? I count that as a huge win! You have to give yourself credit. It helps so much!!!!
Are you terrified of speaking in front of others? Google your city with “open mic,” sign up and go there tonight. You could read a poem for all it matters, but if you make yourself do something you think you can’t do (as long as it isn’t something that puts you or someone else in danger), DO IT! Failure is not true danger. Going up to an open mic and peeing your pants or puking because your nerves got the best of you would not be the end of the world. It just wouldn’t. It would be awful and humiliating, but do you know how much your confidence would grow — just by realizing that The Most Terrible Thing You Thought Could Happen Did Happen and The World Didn’t End?
Hell, you’d probably have the chutzpah to ask for a raise the next day. Nothing would be as bad as peeing your pants at the open mic, right? Exactly.
This is the story of my whole career. Look at all the dumb, stupid, embarrassing shit I’ve written or done. But guess what, the world didn’t end. I just became more fearless in pushing myself to try things that I would have been afraid to try had I never made all these little incremental pushes and dares to myself along the way.
Just say “yes.” In the improv sense. In the my favorite Stephen Colbert speech of all time sense.
Incidentally, as I was writing this a long-pushed-down so-humiliating-I-can-hardly-acknowledge-it memory resurfaced. I tried to do an Ophelia speech for some high school drama contest on stage once, in front of my whole class. Instead I was so nervous that when I got on stage I forgot everything I had memorized and ran off stage.
I actually ran off the stage. Talk about a beautiful, inspiring failure.
Because: I did not die. I tried it. Which made me so much less afraid to try something else the next time.
Here’s another one. I once gave a report on Vietnam to my social studies class, and I was holding up pictures of soldiers from the war, in the middle of the report, I just started crying. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop crying. Standing in front of the class, doing my report, crying uncontrollably.
Didn’t die that time either.
“Really great report, Mandy,” people said awkwardly like I was some about-to-have-a-psychotic-break social leper who needed to be treated super delicately. “Thanks,” I said, dying inside, but not actually dying.
I had done it.
#2 Pretend you are someone else.
The first job I had that required true public speaking was when I was an Internet consultant at marchFIRST when I was 25. I was chubby, with dishwater brown hair, no makeup, no confidence, very cheap suit, but I had gotten the job, and I couldn’t stop pretending now.
When it was announced that I had to go to Pennsylvania and speak to a large group of middle-aged men about how to do “content strategy” on their chemicals website, I think I nearly fled the country.
But I knew I had to do it. So I decided I would just pretend to be someone else. Because the thought of being me and talking to all of these old men (now the age range I mostly date, HEY-O!) made me certain I would drown in my own flop sweat.
I had a boss at the time I’ll call Susie. Susie was the most perky cheerleading gesticulating bubbly blonde boss I had ever experienced at that point in my career. It was 2000 and dot com bullshit-speak was all the rage, so Susie used phrases like “bucketizing content” as often as she might say one of her employees’ names. I knew before I went on this trip that the only way I could get through it was by pretending I was Susie.
When I arrived in Philly, I was in full-on Susie-Clone-Perky-Tits-Robot Zone. “Who’s ready to bucketize some content?” I asked, wildly and enthusiastically gesticulating for perhaps the first time in my life. The crowd bought it. I did not run off stage. I did not start weeping. But, I sure as hell am glad I did it in high school so this experience did not seem nearly as frightening as it might have.
#3 Realize that however you are treating yourself is exactly how others are going to treat you.
I once worked with a young man who was the most name-dropping-est humble-bragger on the block. Wait, there was very little humility. It was just, “Funny you should mention it being sunny outside because I actually had dinner with Cher the other night and as we all know she was once married to Sonny Bono.” I died inside every time I watched this guy operate. I might be cripplingly shy, but at least I wasn’t this douchebag, amirite?
Well, here’s the interesting thing. Everyone treated him with respect. Sure, he was a bit much and his overcompensation read a bit like the small-dicked man with the Ferrari, but he liked himself and was going for it. He was making himself known and constantly trying to demonstrate his value, as naked and brazen and pushy and uncomfortable as it might have read.
Me? I was treated like a toxic waste dump of radioactive low self-esteem. Once I remember I drank too much, felt a bit tipsy, I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, was horrified at how dumpy I looked and returned to the small party I was at with fellow coworkers, and I announced, “I look like a drowned rat.”
No one laughed.
Because it wasn’t funny. It’s never funny when it’s clear how much someone hates themselves and is almost trying to dilute that energy by vomiting it up on others socially.
As much of a jackass as Namedroppy McDoucherbaggs appeared, the dude also seemed like he had confidence and liked himself. Who would yourather be around?
#4 Don’t be afraid you are going to appear like a big self-promotional arrogant jerk if you try to appear socially confident.
So here was the lesson I learned from that guy. When many years had passed and I was returning to a more major leagues job where I knew I would need that same sense of confidence (near entitlement, almost), I thought about how proud I had been years ago that while people may have not invited me to parties because I didn’t have confidence, at least I didn’t come across as a jerky self-promoter like that other guy did.
You know — the one who did get invited to parties. The one who wassuccessful. The one who people liked to be around. Because he was comfortable existing in his own skin.
Solution: I decided to throw my fucks away.
I faked confidence as I emailed or called people to ask what I needed to know for my new major leagues job. I channeled that guy who had been so mortifying for me to watch years ago. And it was fun!
I cannot tell you how fun it is to not need to be liked. Even if you are faking it at first.
There is no need to clear the air each and every time or preface any potential objection people might have to you or your very existence which might distract them from what you are saying or doing. (In other words, no “I look like a drowned rat” not-funny little qualifiers on existing as a human being on the planet in the first place. Uncomfortable in your own skin? Fine. Love it and laugh at it — but, don’t hate it and laugh at it. That’s the difference. That’s the only way “calling something out” can work successfully and not make other people’s skin crawl.)
People saw that I thought I mattered. And they treated me like I mattered in return.
#5 Realize you’ll be dead soon, nothing matters and you might as well enjoy the life that you have — or even the day that you have right in this moment. (I realize this does not abbreviate quite as neatly as YOLO.)
No, don’t take up heroin and then send this link to your parents as proof that it’s a great idea because, hey man, this career advice article said nothing matters! Obviously, long-term planning is incredibly important, but as John Lennon said before he was shot dead way before he thought he’d probably have to leave the planet, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
You will get married. You will get divorced. You will not get married. You will not get divorced. You will get married. You will stay married forever. You will get a job. You will lose a job. You will have a success. You will have a failure. You will be celebrated. You will be a laughingstock. You will undergo so many fucking changes in life that if you try to control it or predict it you will miss out on all the fun.
Do the best you can — right in this moment. And enjoy it.
When you are 80, you will look back on this time and you will see pictures of yourself and you will think how great you look and you will remember little things so fondly, and if you are lucky, you will also laugh at the times when you failed so hard.
There is this one scene I really like in the show “Damages” in the first season. Ted Danson plays Arthur Frobisher, a corrupt businessman who is being taken to court by his former employees. Ellen (played by Rose Byrne) is one of the attorneys prosecuting him, and there is an incredibly awkward moment when the two run into each other at the coffee machine when he is in the middle of an incredibly tense and combative deposition.
Frobisher says to Ellen as the two stand there uncomfortably: “You know, when I was your age, I used to run from moments like this. Standing two feet from somebody who hates your guts. Now, I live for this shit.”
I love that scene.
I love that ability to see the thrill in the body-flooding discomfort of a tense moment where the outcome can be anything. If you can learn to reframe whatever paralytic fear overtakes you when you think about putting yourself out there as being an acute sense of being alive, you will stop running from moments.
Instead, you will own them.