Why I signed up for that poetry class I’ll never know.
It definitely wasn’t my first choice. But it was my last semester of college and I desperately needed a writing elective.
When I entered the room on the first day of class, I saw something I couldn’t believe. I walked back out of the room to double check the room number.
Hmm, it was right. I even stopped a girl in the hallway to ask her if I was in the right building. She said I was.
My poetry class was comprised of 20 women. And me. That’s it. I was the only guy in a class with 20 women at the University of Florida. I love poetry.
I walked into the classroom and made my way to a desk in the back. I looked up and nonchalantly said hi to a girl I was in another class with, not because I was trying to be friendly to her, but because I wanted to look smooth in front of the other girls.
As I walked, I noticed every girl in the room sizing me up. I assumed they were trying to figure out whether I was gay or the really metro guy who’s comfortable with his emotions and ‘sensitive’ side. Now I was blushing.
I sat down. A moment later the teacher walked in. Yep, also a female.
As she took out the syllabus to review it, I kicked my legs up on the book tray in front of me, looked around at the beautiful scenery and mentally did six Tiger Woods fist pumps. You could have offered me an all-inclusive private cabana at the most exotic beach in Bali and I would have said no.
Three to five minutes passed before my mind subconsciously kicked me out of my daze to find the teacher’s words.
“Each class, five people will be chosen to read their poems in front of the class as a part of the participation grade.” She announced.
I flipped the syllabus pages frantically to catch up to her. I discovered that 30% of our grade will come from reading our poems in front of the class.
No big deal right? For most people it’s not. It’s probably an easy way to boost their grade. They’re probably happy to see it.
But not me.
I didn’t do well speaking in front of people. In fact, I was really, really bad at it. I would just get so nervous. So it was hard to imagine performing a personal poem in front of 20 girls that I was trying to impress would be anything close to a pleasurable experience.
I can’t stay in this class was my recurring thought all weekend. But after enough brooding, I came to grips with reality and talked myself down off the ledge.
I wrote my first poem and took it in the following week. I knew I was going to be called on…I didn’t expect to be the first person.
What felt like 10 minutes passed as I stepped up to the podium. I took off the paper clip, collected my papers and smacked the edges against the desk, pretending to organize them, really just buying time. A wave of heat flashed over me like I had just entered a sauna. It was more than butterflies — it was raw adrenaline.
I hysterically searched the depths of my memory for any tips that could possibly help: People in their underwear. The point on the back wall. Naked People. NAKED PEOPLE….Shit. It’s not working.
I began to read but my anxiety was so overpowering that I could barely utter the words on the page. I looked out into the audience and saw so many focused eyes staring back. I felt myself try to slide lower behind the podium as if a slender foot wide and 5 ft tall wood platform could hide me. I thought people took out their phones or fell asleep during presentations?! WTF.
I labored to get about half-way down the page when something REALLY strange happened. The 20 beautiful women in front of me were no longer beautiful. They had somehow transformed into the ghastly villains from the movie Space Jam. That’s right, I was now staring at 20 Monstars.
The rest is a little hazy. I finished the poem. I could tell by the awkward silence and the uncomfortable shuffling in their chairs that people were surprised to see me panic like that. For a guy who never had too many problems socially, something was out of whack when I was asked to perform in front of people.
Growing up I was a model kid.
I always did well in school. I was nice to everyone, was good at sports and I was pretty decent with girls.
There was nothing better for me than knowing that I impressed someone. I was praised when I was considerate, when I followed the rules, and did what was asked of me.
As a result, the majority of my self-worth was based around if people told me I was good or not. I was a confident person when I was liked but when I was well…unsure, I was a wreck. I hated that feeling.
So I devised a strategy to fix it. I was going to become really, really good at being liked. Studying people and getting them to like me became my perverse art. I was a master at detecting people’s emotions and reactions because if I knew what people were thinking and feeling, I felt I could always make them happy.
That strategy worked for me for a while, but around the time I got to college, I noticed a lot of nasty side effects surfacing.
First of all, I was living under a ridiculous amount of pressure. I’m not perfect. I knew that more than anyone. But I felt I had to be. My logic was, “If I’m liked for being good and impressive, I won’t be liked when they find out that I’m actually not.”
So when I fucked up, I hid it. When I disagreed with someone, I kept it to myself. When I looked nervous in front of people, I did everything I could to appear cool.
My true thoughts, wants, beliefs, and emotions became hijacked by my desperate need for approval.
But after that poetry class, everything changed. I got exposed. And now I wanted to know why I felt like I was going to die while reading a poem in front of 20 harmless people.
I graduated and started work for a corporate finance firm, but my mind was elsewhere. My co-workers would go out on the weekends; I devoured mountains of books on social psychology.
I traversed self-help blogs, went to three weekly public speaking clubs, enrolled in several improv and acting classes, went to casting calls, took job interviews for jobs I wasn’t interested in, practiced meditation, studied Buddhism, did liturgy readings at my Church, talked to hundreds of strangers I passed in malls, coffee shops, and gyms. I took Argentine tango classes and even persuaded a Zambian priest to be my therapist for my myriad amount of questions.
These are just a few of the things I did. To some, they might seem silly, meaningless, even crazy. But there was a science behind them, which I know now.
Then, all I knew was that the lessons I had learned along the way had radically changed the way I felt AND behaved around people.
Here are some of those lessons:
LESSON #1 Stop hiding your flaws
Just a few years ago, I would've been too mortified to pick up a pen and write about my panicky moment in poetry class let alone publish it. How embarrassing that you panicked while reading your own poem. That's your image!! Everyone's going to think I'm an anxious loser. Get a grip.
We all live lives of imperfection. We're messy. Sometimes really messy. And yet we pretend that we're not.
As as a guy who was once a virtuoso at hiding my weaknesses ("I'm too shy..." "These people are smarter than me" "no way I'm telling anyone that I watched Finding Nemo last night"), I get why we aren't instinctively open about them. It's our ego fighting us. Everyone else can be flawed, but we can't.
Yet, the most confident and composed people in the world all share a rather paradoxical trait: they're the most open about their weaknesses.
For example, ask Tom Brady about what his weaknesses were in a post game press conference and he'll rattle off a laundry list of things he did poorly (timing was off, missed a throw in 2nd quarter, should've called a timeout here). Watch Jennifer Lawrence spill out her insecurities in every late night talk show interview. My friend Zach Rance, who became an overnight celebrity this summer on Big Brother, is the most confident guy I know. Watch him CRY on national television.
Not only is being open about your flaws extremely liberating, but it's the only way to become comfortable sharing the best version of ourselves. For me, I found my sense of humor come through when I let my protective armor down.
I'm a social skills coach. I believe a person's image is really important because sometimes first impressions are all we have. But the moment you have to hide your flaws from people is the moment you're taking your image too seriously.
If you don't have anything to hide, what is there to fear?
LESSON #2 GET INCREDIBLY SELFISH
Boring finance lesson. Risk wise, is it better to be invested in one stock or five stocks with the same amount of money?
As a finance major in college, one thing that was drilled into us incessantly was the importance of balance and diversification when investing. In other words, it's very risky be to invested in just one thing (stocks) so spread out your investments into other areas (cash, gold, bonds).
Applying the balancing theory to my own life, I was heavily invested in what other people thought. All my eggs were in their basket. By law in my world, if it came down to your needs or mine, your needs won 10/10 times. And let me tell you, depending on other people for your happiness is a risky AND horribly scary world to live in.
I needed to correct this imbalance and the only natural way I could think to do it was to...do the exact opposite. I had to get selfish and invest more in myself.
Get selfish? You mean actually put MY needs first? Are you speaking Chinese?! How in the world do I do that? I had no idea where to start, but after doing some research, I found there’s actually some scientific proof that this works. It’s why:
People who begin to exercise and lose weight start to see positive change across OTHER areas of their life (i.e. career or dating)
The person you're dating becomes infinitely more attractive when they make their own career and social circle
People driving Audi’s and BMW’s don't care what you think about their “wasteful spending”
What did getting selfish look like in my life?
I started saying no to things that didn’t excite me. Like work. I left my corporate finance job and started a new career. I left relationships that weren’t working. I neglected friendships I didn’t have time for.
Professionally, I started investing in myself relentlessly. The first area was my social skills. I flew to California multiple times to meet with professional speakers to take workshops. I found a way to speak in front of groups 3x weekly for 6 months. I approached and started conversation with hundreds of random strangers in malls and coffee shops because I saw the value society placed on being skilled socially.
My example is extreme I know. I got so selfish. And it was scary as hell. But it shifted things for me. What I found was that your social fears dissolve into a larger context when you actually start caring about other important things in life.
LESSON #3 Social confidence is a muscle
Tango dancing aka building my social muscles
A skinny guy hasn’t lifted in over a year. He walks into a gym and picks up two 45 lb plates and puts them on a barbell. He goes to lift but the bar doesn’t budge.
A shy guy who hasn’t spoken to a group of girls in his life finally musters up enough courage to approach a girl in line at a coffee shop and starts a conversion. He’s too anxious to listen and the conversation dies out.
In the past several years as a student of social psychology, I’ve learned that we strengthen our ‘social muscles’ the same way as our bodily ones: through a regimented and consistent plan, a healthy diet of strategic exercises and a mix of nurturing techniques to help them grow.
But when we neglect them, avoid them, and don’t do things consistently to stay in shape, we find ourselves uncertain and uncomfortable in social situations. We are socially weak.
I used to have a very outgoing roommate who was confident in just about any social situation. He was socially ‘jacked.’
On a random Tuesday, we would go out to dinner and he’d approach the 40-year-old blondes eating sushi and drinking martinis out on girls’ night. We would go shopping and he’d tell the retail assistant how hot I thought she was and try to set up a date. I wanted to kill him.
He eventually cajoled me to start doing these things on my own in low stakes environments, mainly with friends and co-workers.
After seeing enough people’s reactions to know I wasn’t going to die of embarrassment, I started becoming more comfortable pushing my limits. I increased my weight. I took an improv class, tango lessons, and volunteered to give talks at work.
Eventually my social muscles weren’t just finely toned, they were strong. That’s when I started going after some world class weight.
One day, I persuaded a 60-year old woman to dance with me to Frank Sinatra in the middle of a department store, because I was terrified of doing ‘unacceptable’ things in public.
Another time, I gave an impromptu speech at the busiest Starbucks in Tampa, FL while pretending to be a Starbucks corporate employee in town from Seattle, because I hated being the center of attention.
I also once intentionally went silent for a 5-minute monologue at an acting workshop, because I hated the idea of looking like a weirdo.
I didn’t know it then, but I was shifting my beliefs and emotions through my behavior — it’s what PhD’s call behavioral therapy.