I TRIED TO BECOME FEARLESS AROUND PEOPLE

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. 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 to my seat, 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 Woodsian’ fist pumps. You could have offered me a private cabana at the most exotic beach in Bali and I would have said no — here’s good.

Three to five minutes passed before my mind 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.” She announced.

I flipped the syllabus pages frantically. I discovered that 50% 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. Not for me. I didn’t do well speaking in front of people. I’m introverted. And shy. I would get really nervous.

It was hard to imagine doing it in front of 20 women I wanted to impress would be anything close to a pleasurable experience.

I wrote my first poem over the weekend. I took it in the following week and while I knew I was going to be called on, I didn’t expect to be the first person.

A wave of primal panic flashed over me like how I imagine it would feel to nose dive in a plane, the pull from the G’s stretching your insides, oxygen’s masks dropping from above and blaring sirens validating the impending doom.

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 felt myself try to slink lower behind the podium as if a slender, foot-wide, 5 ft tall wood platform could hide me.

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 uncomfortable shuffling in chairs that people were surprised to see me panic like that.

I stayed in bed for days.

I had to leave the TV on in the background to drown out my depressing thoughts.

You see, I was always the calm, cool, collected guy. That was my identity. I clung to it like a sloth to a tree.

But it wasn’t real and the reality that it wasn’t, was terrifying.

Deep down, I was scared shitless of what other people thought of me. Now it was out in the open.

What was I going to do about it?

What any sane, rational person would do.

My quest was to become fearless around people.

My initial strategy was predictable and simple: stay at home and read every book on the subject.

You should’ve seen my Amazon orders.

The Pillars of Self Esteem. Performance Fear for Dummies. Social Phobia No More. Hope and Help for Your Nerves. (some of these titles are made up but you get the point)

I was so embarrased by the collection that I hid it whenever I wasn’t home.

The books did help though. I got to know myself and my fears better. Namely, that I had a major self-worth problem and was using approval from others as the primary source for my self-esteem.

It was an encouraging start, but you don’t conquer social fear by sitting inside your bedroom.

So I pivoted the strategy to: go out and do things.

I went to three weekly public speaking clubs, spoke to 6th grade classrooms, enrolled in several improv and acting classes, wore strange things in public, went to casting calls, took 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, went to Argentine tango classes and even persuaded my Zambian priest to be my therapist for my myriad amount of questions.

I dubbed it ‘The Social Workout.’

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.

Eventually those things led to this:

Look at me. I became a fearless professional speaker!!!

Not quite. I did become a professional speaker. Technically. I was paid to do a few gigs, even though I probably didn’t deserve to be. I still got nervous, my hands were still prune-y from the sweat, I said um a lot. But I didn’t care as much anymore.

That’s one thing the Workout taught me. It taught me to care less. It taught me a few other things too that allowed me to ‘move the needle’ in the direction of healthy confidence. To become not fearless, but less fearful.

Here are some of those lessons:

Lesson #1 Stop hiding your flaws

We’re all messy. Sometimes really messy. And yet we pretend that we’re not, that it’s somehow dangerous to show it.

It’s a weird paranoia. If we expose our true selves, are honest about what we don’t know and suck at, we’ll lose our edge. Everyone will view us as weak and then we’ll be lowered on the social food chain.

But no one cares. Seriously, no one gives a f$#* that you’re nervous or scared or flawed. Only you do. And people hate perfection.

What’s ironic is: 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 Patriots quarterback 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.

Watch the most famous actress in the world, Jennifer Lawrence, spill out her insecurities in every late night talk show interview or Vogue feature.

Not only is being open about your flaws a humanizing personality trait, but it’s also absurdly liberating.

If you don’t have anything to hide, what’s there to fear?

Lesson #2: Do the opposite of what you’ve always done

Finance lesson.

Risk wise, is it better to be invested in one stock (say Apple) or five stocks (say Apple, Facebook, McDonalds…you get the drill) with the same amount of money?

I studied finance in college and one thing that was drilled into us incessantly was the importance of balance and diversification.

In other words, it’s very risky be to invested in just one thing (like Apple stock) so spread out your investments into other areas (stocks, cash, gold, bonds).

Applying the balancing theory to my own life, I was heavily invested in what other people thought of me.

All my eggs were in your basket.

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 way I could think to do it was to: do the exact opposite. I had to get selfish and invest more in myself.

After doing some research, I found there’s actually some scientific proof that investing in yourself 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 find a career they love
  • 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 friendships and relationships that weren’t working.

Professionally, I started investing in myself relentlessly.

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 I wanted to improve myself.

I also started spending more time alone to recharge (my introverted need). I meditated. I played more basketball with friends. I watched more basketball with friends. I traveled to Asia.

It was scary as hell. But consciously doing things for me shifted things.

Your social fears dissolve into a larger context when you value yourself.

Lesson #3 Social confidence is a muscle

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.

For both guys, it’s the same problem: weak muscles.

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 2-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.

I wanted to be fearless.

I wanted to be able to walk into any room and feel zero anxiety. That was my goal.

I failed.

But it was a stupid goal. No one is fearless. It’s biological — our need to fit in and be liked is wired into our very being. If you don’t care at least a little, you’re a sociopath.

But while you’ll never be fearless, you can move the needle.

On one side of the meter, you have a panicky poem reader crippled with anxiety.

On the other side you have a guy who’s reading the poem and having fun with it, despite the nerves, despite the judgements, despite the consequences of failure.

Who would you rather be?