I’m good at identifying spiders that can be left alone against those you should try to capture or kill instantly. The Huntsman is big and scary looking, but harmless. The Golden Orb Weaver can be a thing of beauty when the sunlight shines on its’ golden web. When I was 11, we caught a deadly Funnel Web at our old place and as it sat in the glass jar I regarded it with fascination, not fear. There’s another thing people widely seem to fear and hate in equal measure, but I love. In fact I could even say I get pumped for it:
I don’t need to picture the audience naked or repeat “I can do this!” until I’m hypnotised. I don’t need to take deep breaths to fight off a panic attack while clutching a sick bag. The more people there are watching me as I stand before them and begin to speak, the more at ease I feel, the more I believe that at least a few people in that audience will connect with me and even take an interest in me or my message. I’ve discovered that often, the personal is universal. What gets us going, gets them going too. What makes us laugh, makes them laugh as well- and if they don’t, I just shrug, say “If I seem a little strange, well…that’s because I am” (to quote Morrissey) and that seems to resonate with them. Fact is you’ll never please everybody, so why worry about the inevitable? I’ve given business presentations, class presentations, made speeches at friends’ parties, speeches at my own parties and even had a friend entrust me to be the M.C at his wedding- and always felt at ease.
So while these common fears have never rattled me, there’s one thing that used to give me that “public speaking” anxiety. Furthermore, beneath that leg-trembling, heart racing, stutter-inducing fear lay a powerful desire. It was like gazing across a raging, stormy sea and sighting the promised land. But there was no sea (usually) and what I’d sighted wasn’t land…
It was the prettiest girl in the room.
She would catch my eye- either a girl I knew or a complete stranger- but the feeling would hit me the same. A dizzying cocktail of arousal, fascination, frustration and self-loathing, all at once. In my awkward teenage years, I’d resort to playing wallflower. I’d keep in the background, occasionally glimpsing the beauty I saw, hoping that somehow I’d be gifted the chance to speak to her. If she could be there right in front of me with none of her friends about? Then I could relax. I’d chat to this girl cool, calm and collected. Despite the other guys who’d chat to her laughing and joking around like it was no big deal, she’d realise there was something different about me, and the rest would be history.
But I discovered soon enough that life isn’t like the movies...
The nice guy doesn’t get the girl just for having good intentions and existing in her world. So I passively kept my distance because I feared what might happen if she rejected me outright- she’d think I was “creepy”, her friends would all scorn me, and soon enough everybody would look at me like I was Gollum obsessing over his “precious” and wondering why I didn’t just scuttle back to my cave for being so disgusting and showing my interest in this girl. Didn’t I realise I only had a right to approach her if I knew what to do 95% of the time and improvised the other 5%with the straight-faced bravado of James Bond? Nope, I couldn’t risk all that. My night (and possibly any future chances) would be ruined!
So instead I remained aloof, going home later that night with my pride still intact. But on the inside, I’d feel like one of those movie ‘loser’ characters unable to accept the painful reality that he’s a failure. I hadn’t been shut down. She didn’t throw her drink over me or act like I’d puked on her high-heels but….for how I felt, it might as well have happened.
These inner punches can only wound you for so long before you die on the inside. I realised there was something worse than losing: not taking the risk of losing to begin with. I thought of the pro’s and con’s- if I did nothing, the best that could happen was no better than what happened anyway. But if I did something, if I took the chance?
I could get rejected. I could be scorned as a social leper, quite possibly. But at least I’d find out for certain. I also realised there was some degree of a chance that the girl in question might not just tolerate me but even like me? The other possibility was mesmerising, even to imagine. That, for some reason, I might just make the same impression on her that she had on me. Even the thought of that was enough for me to decide the risk was worth it- however tiny the chance was of that scenario being the reality…
Now, in all those years since?
The “worst” rejection I ever got was back when I was younger and not yet the charming man writing this now. I was at out for a mates’ birthday drinks one night and I complimented a girl on her attractiveness as she passed. She said “That’s nice” and blew me off completely. Heaps of people saw me get shut down- even people who didn’t know me. Yet as she walked on without a look back I burst out laughing, having just learned everything I needed to about that girl in less than 5 seconds, and got another beer…
On the other hand, whenever I meet someone who makes a great first impression on me I ignore the voice that STILL goes “What the hell are you doing”, and I go and talk to her, before I even know what I’m going to say. You know what? Sometimes great things actually happen as a result of just focusing on my desire instead of worrying about worst-case scenarios. Whatever happens far exceeds the feeling of doing nothing.
I don’t know what (for you) is a spider. Or a cockroach. Or a canetoad. Or the most beautiful stranger in the room. But I know that feeling, how it rushes up and tries to take over all composure and thinking ability when you see it. So even though you know how great public speaking would be for your professional reputation, or how many opportunities open up when you go and chat to people in a crowded room at a networking event, the ropes of doubt restrain your progress. Losers are like the younger version of me. They go home unfulfilled, they don’t go anywhere of note because they don’t take chances. The fear of the worse case scenario takes over their feelings and the image in their minds. But for a winner, the image of success, of winning, the feelings that will come with it are the ones that dominate. That feeling becomes an addiction- an addiction that doesn’t rob you or leave you moping on the bus home. That feeling is the source of wonderful new things to come, possibilities to open up to you like a flower so you can enjoy its’ sweet perfume. But first, you gotta take the chance. As Mark Twain once said: “I’ve been through some terrible things in my life- some of which actually happened!”