How much can a person do in three years? I’d like to present a study in transformation that involves overcoming a phobia, learning a new art form, and racking up credentials.
I had an intense fear of public speaking. It was so bad that simply walking into a room where I knew I would have to stand up and say something would make me break into a sweat. People who have met me refuse to believe this. That’s because I’m a shy extrovert, and talking to people I already know in a social setting does not provoke this phobia.
Now, when I speak or perform, people will come up and exclaim over how great I was. They say, “You sound so natural up there.” How dare you? How dare you say such a cruel and heartless thing? I want to ask. Nothing was more unnatural than this! Of course there’s no way for them to know how hard I worked over the course of three years to battle one of the biggest issues in my life.
I can honestly say that getting punched in the mouth is easier for me than the work I did to get over my fear of public speaking. I can say that because I set a personal goal every year to overcome something that scares me, and after I did public speaking, I went on to martial arts. I promoted up a belt level in two different forms in one year, and that’s another example of how much is possible in a given time period.
All it takes, all it takes to reach any goal, is to show up over and over and over again. Chip away at it in small, measurable increments. Usually these increments are one hour in length.
I made a public commitment in December of 2015 that I would confront my phobic reaction to public speaking by joining Toastmasters. It took me three weeks to force myself to go to an actual meeting. My membership was officially processed on February 1, 2016.
I planned to go to meetings for a few weeks or months or millennia and sit by as a wallflower, watching and listening and learning. Instead, I walked in and several people came up to introduce themselves and shake my hand. Then, moments after the gavel, I was asked to stand up, give my name, and explain how I heard about the club.
I THOUGHT I WOULD DIE. PHYSICALLY DIE.
That inner feeling of panic is a purely physical sensation. It is the secretion of adrenalin by the adrenal gland, a little bean that sits on top of the kidneys. It is not the boss of me. Further, it is the same little bean that sends excitement when I get a check in the mail or open a gift. My job is to use my left brain and verbalize thoughts in reaction to these physical sensations. “You are not dying, body of mine, you dumbass. Stay put.”
I joined Toastmasters, not realizing that I had stumbled into one of the very best clubs in the known world. I wasn’t to know that most of the people in the room that day would still be there three years later, my good friends and colleagues and lunch buddies.
I shook like a leaf when I got up to speak. It would start with my hands, rattle down my arms, and spread through my torso until I felt like I straddled a tectonic fault. One afternoon I went up there, gave a one-minute speech, and almost collapsed on the way back to my seat, as my legs gave out. I’ve run a marathon and I was very disappointed in my hamstrings that day.
Toastmasters is designed to teach leadership and communication skills. Everyone in the club has fought the same problems: being nervous, forgetting chunks of a speech, stammering, flubbing a punchline, losing the point, organizing thoughts poorly. We’re encouraging and compassionate because we’ve all taken our turn to fade at the lectern. We physically know how it feels.
The weirdest thing is that it’s almost impossible to tell, as an audience member, when the speaker is nervous. I’ve said it and I’ve heard it, but the truth is that it’s really hard to tell when someone’s hands are shaking, or even if they’re dripping sweat up there. It never looks even 1% as bad as it feels on the inside. People are listening for the message, that’s all. They’d care if you told them someone’s lights were on in the parking lot, and they’ll care when you share something else with them, whether it’s your life story or a few minutes about golf.
Usually all we’re asking is five minutes of someone’s time, and that’s not much to ask.
It took four months for me to force myself to give my first speech. It was predictably awful. My remit was to give an ice breaker, or talk about myself for four minutes. I ran out of material at about two and a half.
Anyone else would have quit.
I kept showing up, though. I forced myself. There are two me’s, the me that you see and the phantom me, walking behind me with a firm grasp on the back of my neck, frog-marching me hither and yon. When I’ve made a public commitment I follow through.
I gave ten speeches that first year. I took on a club office.
The next year, I earned my Competent Communicator and Competent Leader. I joined a second club.
In 2018, I earned my ACB, ALB, ACS, and a Triple Crown. I served as Area Director and Club Coach.
In the course of three years, I’ve earned five educational awards, held two offices, entered two competitions, been a test speaker, and won a bunch of ribbons for Best Speaker, Best Evaluator, and Best Table Topics. I keep them in a paper lunch sack because they outgrew an envelope.
If all goes according to plan, I’ll be a Distinguished Toastmaster next year, not quite three and a half years after joining as a knock-kneed stress case.
I know I can hold a room. I know that when I walk up to the lectern, people are atingle with anticipation. I look around and I can see their eyes glitter. I can make them all suck in their breath at once. I can make them laugh on command. They’re mine. I’m not a quivering jelly of panic and terror anymore. I’m a star. Not a superstar, just a small one, but I’m sparkling nonetheless.
It wasn’t me, it was the program. It was the support of my club members, who encouraged me and led me by the hand and cheered and hugged me - and convinced me that I’m funny, that I should go out and do improv comedy. I never knew. I never knew I could do all of this.
I did know that I could stay the course, that I have it within me to force myself to do things. I knew I could hold steady and complete three years of work on one goal.
As I near the ultimate goal, I have my eye on that little gold DTM pin. After that, though, what’s next? What will be my next three-year goal?
How about yours?
I’m a shy person, so much so that even standing up to say my name would leave me trembling and turning purple. Shyness has interfered with my friendships, my career, and my love life. A cute boy once asked me to dance, and I was so confounded by my attraction to him that I couldn’t answer. He shrugged and walked off. I’ve struggled even to share such information as whether someone had left their lights on in the parking lot. People who know me well will probably be very surprised by all this, because I’m fine when I’m with familiar faces. Shyness strikes at inconvenient and illogical moments. I didn’t want my shyness to interfere with my ability to make an impact on the world, so I’m pushing myself to learn to overcome these feelings. Maybe my efforts can help you, too.
First off, being shy is totally different from being an introvert. I’m a shy extrovert. It’s possible to be a shy introvert or an introvert who is not shy. Lots of introverts are very famous celebrities such as singers, actors, models, and comedians. They have no problem performing, as long as they get plenty of time to recharge alone. It seems helpful to distinguish shyness from introversion or extraversion, because while introversion is a character trait, shyness is an issue that can be mastered.
Two things have been helpful for me in getting a handle on my shyness. First, it takes a mission, a vision that is compelling enough to make fighting these feelings worthwhile. Second, much of shyness is physiological - it’s a physical state as much as anything.
How do you develop a mission? Many or most people have at least one cause that resonates with them, whether it’s feral cats, literacy, or protecting the Earth from asteroids. The sense of a mission starts to kick in when you start to realize that you can personally make an impact. More, you can influence others and bring them along with you. You don’t necessarily have to appear in public, perform, or give speeches to make this happen. Leading and organizing is based very much on Getting Organized.
I joined Toastmasters in January 2016 to force myself to overcome my intense dread of public speaking. It worked! The process is the same as what I’m learning in martial arts: stress inoculation. Exposing yourself to stress, fear, or pain in small doses can build your resistance and resilience, just like practicing a musical instrument or a foreign language in small increments increases your skill. Learning to give one-minute speeches led to four-minute speeches, then ten minutes, until I can now give hour-long workshops or speak on a microphone without those familiarly awful feelings of trembling, getting choked up, and turning colors.
Now I’m working on a leadership level called an Advanced Leader Silver. This entails an official role as Area Director, meaning I’m in charge of improving performance in five clubs in my area. I have to go to regular district meetings, respond to a certain volume of email, visit my clubs, and track a lot of information. Almost all of the work involved means processing email at home, listening, taking notes, and writing reports. For a shy person, 80% of the tasks are not a big deal. It’s the 20% that involves meeting new people, standing up to speak to them, and overcoming the ‘threshold anxiety’ of walking through a door and joining a group of people. The formalities of a training seminar or club meeting agenda are very helpful in facing this, because there’s a highly predictable structure, and almost all of it involves other people talking.
How is leadership different from anything else? Many people are acting in a leadership role somewhere in their lives, often without realizing it. The parent of a child plays ‘leader’ every day. Driving a car, ordering food, shopping and running errands - all require a certain amount of initiative and organization. Being the leader means taking an aerial view of a situation and spotting opportunities, bottlenecks, and pain points. A leader has a strategy. Here, again, many people have an innate critical mindset that they don’t realize could be useful in a leadership role. This shows up in lengthy product or restaurant reviews, for instance, or in any comments section. Someone always has a bunch of ideas for better ways to copy-edit something, introduce design improvements, or relate to other people or groups in a different way. Why not redirect that energy toward a group or organization that will actually be receptive to that input?
My approach toward leadership is strategic. My first instinct is to move toward the information flow. I want to figure out what the rules are, where I can learn more (handbooks, manuals, FAQs, websites, etc), who is where on the org chart, where I can find contact info, and how I can get to the locations where the action is happening. Other people will move directly toward the people, wanting to start by getting to know everyone, establishing connections, and forming an inner dossier of who knows whom and who does what. I’m most helpful in explaining things when people are confused, doing scut work, and encouraging people to do things when the only thing stopping them is nervousness. My way of earning loyalty is by demonstrating that I will show up, do what I was asked to do, follow through, get questions answered, and stick around to clean up after events. These are ways to get involved without being fried under the spotlight or having to pose for dozens of photographs.
The things we learn to do when we push ourselves are useful in every part of life. What I’m learning as I work on public speaking, leadership, and martial arts is that very few situations are inherently scary. It’s mostly a matter of building emotional intelligence and learning what makes other people tick. Feeling nervous and shy while meeting new people is a near-universal feeling, one that’s so common that you can count on sympathy when you express it. Find whatever means more to you than your physiological struggles with shyness, and you can defeat those feelings while making the world a better place.
World Domination Summit is in full swing. I woke up at 4:30 this morning, for no particular reason other than that I was so keyed up. It’s possible that WDS actually stands for We Don’t Sleep. We’re riding the bus downtown, getting ready for a full day of academies, a meetup, and dinner with my family. That’s a relatively mellow day! This is just one day in a busy week during which almost every minute is scheduled to the hilt. It’s when we have this intense desire to take in every scrap of information and engage with every possible opportunity that we feel like we’re drinking from the fire hose.
The more options we have in any arena, the more likely we are to feel a sense of FoMO. I’m doing everything, but somehow there are still things I am not doing! I wasn’t there! I missed the punchline! Everyone was partying without me! I’m not in the group photo!!! Wait, was there… cake??? I don’t care what they say, I CAN be in three places at once. I am omnipresent. I can apparate at will. I am somehow going to sit in this chair in this room, stand by that window in that other room, and get swept away by a conversation over there in the stairwell. ALL AT THE SAME TIME!
The brain wants what the brain wants.
When I feel this way, I try to pause and remind myself of the existence of this magical thing called the Internet. I can never possibly watch every video, connect with every person, read every article, look at every meme, follow every blog, or use every app. Even if I somehow thought I could, the moment I blinked there would be a trillion new uploads. I’m able to rest with this. Still I struggle with the bleak reality that I will never be able to read every book ever written.
…actually, I need a moment. I think there’s something in my eye.
We were talking the other day about how much I need a time turner (although I’m not Hermione Granger; I’m really more of a Luna Lovegood). I said, “The first thing I would do is leave it in my pocket and accidentally run it through the washing machine.” Accepting that we have to do all this stuff in the time dimension is something of a lifetime-level emotional project.
I’m looking at things differently after leading my own workshop. It’s a peek behind the curtain. As much as I feel FoMO about all the stuff I’m missing and all the things I won’t have time to do, I now recognize that all the speakers and presenters are also feeling a certain amount of FoMO about all the stuff they wish they had said. There’s a whole ocean of information behind the stream that comes out of that fire hose. Spending an hour or three hours in a classroom is only the tiniest drop of what that person could teach, given more time.
MORE TIME! I NEED MORE TIME!
I gave my workshop yesterday. In Toastmasters everyone always says there are three speeches: the speech you wrote, the speech you gave, and the speech you give in the car on the way home. On the surface, mine went well enough. People stayed for the whole thing, they took tons of notes, they laughed, they asked questions. I ran long, fifty percent more than scheduled. Still a half dozen people hung out afterward to ask more questions. As far as listener engagement, I did well. I’m trying to acknowledge myself for that. But…
There was so much more I wanted to say! There were entire sections of my supposed “outline” that I didn’t even touch on! I went totally off-grid, off-script, although fortunately not off-topic. (If I’d started talking about money it would have all been over). Part of why I woke up at 4:30 was that my feeble mortal brain immediately started spinning over all the things I wish I had said. Where’s my rewind button?
That’s not how it works, though. We have the moments we have. It’s life that we’re living, not waiting for the real thing to start, but the actual real thing. That’s the magnificent flaw, that we never realize until later that there was this moment, here and gone, this one half-fledged moment we had to connect and engage and experience. It’s flown off with nary a feather left behind. The rightnow bird is always on the wing.
I’m giving my first workshop later today. Wish me luck! At this time last year, I had a half-formed idea and a tentative image of myself speaking to a group, specifically my fellow World Domination Summit attendees. A year before that, I wouldn’t have done such a thing under any circumstances. In fact, when I was seven years old, I was supposed to recite a verse that I had memorized at the winter recital, and I dove under the table and refused to come out until they promised I wouldn’t have to speak. My mom rightly pointed out that if I had just mumbled through my piece, I would have been done in ten seconds, and that making a scene made it that much worse. Let’s just say that I have no particular hunger for the spotlight. At a certain point, though, you start to realize that you have something important to share and that people will be better off if they know about it. That’s where workshops are sprouted.
The first point is always to have something to say that is both important and interesting. People will listen to you blathering on about anything if you’re funny enough. You can do a stand-up routine about the tiniest thing, like sending a text message or ordering coffee. Note that these routines tend to be very brief. I carry a heavy sense of responsibility that if I’m performing, every minute that someone spends listening to me should be a good use of that person’s time. The larger the audience, the more expensive it is to be irrelevant or boring. One minute of hemming and hawing multiplied by twenty people is twenty life-minutes I’ve just drained away. This is why I’ve spent the last year and a half working on my public speaking skills. Most of the time, I don’t even say ‘um’ anymore, so if I’m boring it will be for other reasons.
After knowing that you have an incredibly useful and interesting topic and that you have a burning desire to share it, it’s time to get specific. What will this workshop be like? Where will it be held? How long will it be? How many people can attend? What will they do? Are you going to talk the whole time, are you going to lead people through a series of exercises, or will it be a combination of both? What level of participation are you expecting?
I’m a shy person - recall the table-dive anecdote I just shared - and I respect that in other people. I can easily recall all the times when even being asked to raise my hand among a group of other people raising their hands was exquisitely embarrassing. I still battle with threshold anxiety, the sense of not even wanting to walk into a room because there are people in there. *gasp* This is why one of my considerations is going to be with allowing shy people to opt out of participation. I’m not one to orchestrate a bunch of group exercises like trust falls. I like to allow the bolder extroverts to chime in, while those with a lower comfort level can observe in peace.
Wait, so why is a shy person conducting a workshop?
I’ve learned that I can switch into performance mode if I feel the need. This is easier to do when the message feels important enough that I’m thinking more about what I’m saying than I am about myself. I can think about myself and my feelings back at home. I try to focus on connecting with my audience. Making eye contact with individual people was really, really hard at first, but with weekly practice I’ve been training it into myself. I’m an extrovert. Note that a shy extrovert can track like an introvert in most ways. The difference is that many introverts are comfortable doing things like giving presentations in a professional setting, while they need a lot of solitude and do their best thinking alone. Shy extroverts such as myself get a charge out of being in groups, we tend to think out loud, we often prefer collaboration, but we find it hard to open up with strangers. “Once you get me going…” This is one reason that public speaking has been so valuable to me, even though it was brutally hard for the first several months. It’s exhilarating to share an idea or a story and to get a positive response from an appreciative audience.
People have started taking notes when I talk, or engaging with me about my work. This is weird and unprecedented for me, but it’s also great feedback. If they keep asking for more, who am I to say no? I’m so thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism that I will definitely notice if I can’t hold the attention of the audience. Eyes up and glistening, good. Heads down, phones up, not so good.
I would never be doing this uncharacteristic, challenging thing if it weren’t for Toastmasters or the World Domination Summit. I can’t praise Toastmasters enough. For a person with an acute, nausea-level dread of public speaking, there’s really no better place to go. Everyone is so encouraging and tactful, and almost every person there has felt the exact same way. When I started, I was so scared that I almost collapsed one time, and that was after I had finished my speech! It took months of concerted effort, and it remains one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but the results have been life-changing. Releasing a fear is one of the most powerful satisfactions in the world.
As for the World Domination Summit, I can hardly begin to describe how much it has changed my life, my marriage, and how I approach problems. This is why I’m pushing myself far outside of my comfort zone and leading my first meetup. I understand how valuable my topic will be for people, and I also have a strong desire to give back to the community that has given so very much to me.
PS The workshop is called ‘Curate Your Stuff’ and I’m going to put together a workbook for download. Since there were only 33 spots, naturally there may be people who are interested in the material but were unable to attend.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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