I always hated to feel embarrassed.
There is something existentially threatening about everyone seeing me with my (proverbial) pants down.
And over the course of my life I have made choices that helped to avoid that level of embarrassment and always to my detriment. I didn’t raise my hand to volunteer for things, talk to girls I didn’t know or try out for things that I didn’t think that I would be good at, all because I was afraid. And I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to combat that fear.
I think that at times we fear being made a fool of more than we fear death.
(Maybe not as much as we fear creepy puppets)
I remember reading that when Paul Newman was in his late 40s he decided that he wanted to take up auto racing. While he showed that he had definite talent for driving, it was another thing entirely to compete with professionals who have spent their whole life training. The racing world was also fairly skeptical of his ability to handle himself, so they asked that he “audition” before being taken seriously. While Newman understood that he would need to prove his mettle, his one caveat was that it be done on a private track because he didn’t want (and I paraphrase) his “ass hanging out” if it turned that he couldn’t really compete.
(Turns out he was better at driving than at dancing)
The very act of stepping out onto a big stage in front of an audience is a terrible risk of embarrassment and can bring people to a state of paralysis. Even if we have a deep desire to be on that stage, we still risk being exposed. If the concept of the stage is too abstract, then I would say that doing anything that makes us stand out of a crowd (dance in public, sing, play an instrument, speak up in a meeting, sell something) is worth triggering that feeling of embarrassment.
Anyone who has ever had to sell a product or their services knows what I am talking about.
Actors, dancer, musicians and poets all know what this is about.
So, how do we deal with it?
The first thing we have to understand is that we often take ourselves too seriously, especially in the world of business where the stakes are high and the willingness to look ridiculous is very low.
(unless you are this guy)
It is ingrained in our collective psyche to be afraid of being exposed as different. Everything that we learned in Middle School comes into play as we get older, worry about our social standing and our ability to have influence. This is why financial advisers tend to dress like this:
And not like this:
(although some might be missing their calling)
This begs the question, how would we act if we dressed in a way that allowed us to be a little less serious? What if we started off with the premise that we are all ridiculous? How would that change our attitude?
A few years ago I was asked to do a small workshop at a conference. Sounds fairly conventional, except that the workshop was supposed to be for the vendors and not the participants. It was a good idea, and I was new to the business and felt like it would be good practice.
The first day I got there, no one showed up. No one seemed to know what I was doing. I just stood there in this conference room with my little easel and some handouts and felt deeply ridiculous. A few people politely asked me what I was doing there, but most people just ignored me.
(Here is a dramatic recreation of that day)
When I had waited the requisite hour before leaving, I was asked if I would be coming back the next day to do another workshop. My mouth said, “I will have to think about it.” My heart said, “Never, ever, ever again.”
As I was driving home, I called a friend who is a sales guy and who has a lot of experience with conferences. I called to get his sympathy, but what he gave me was much better. He told me that I have to go back.
He pointed out that of course nobody came because I was being passive and they didn’t know me. Nobody was going to come just because I was there. He gave me the task of meeting twenty people that morning and inviting them to the workshop and then seeing what happens.
As embarrassing as it felt to go back again, I did it. I introduced myself to about thirty people, listened to what they did, asked them questions and then invited them to come to my workshop.
I had twenty five people show up and participate.
When I take myself too seriously, it is harder to take the risk of embarrassing myself. Everything I do from that place begins to feel awkward and unnatural.
(Kind of like the 70s)
If I can recognize that we are all a little ridiculous and that there is something valuable to gain from taking the risk, then I have a chance to be a little more brave.
1. Do one thing today that is embarrassing
It might be dancing a little in the street or introducing yourself to a stranger, but try it and see what happens. The worst that could happen is that people think you are ridiculous. (And they would be right.)
2. Choose one thing that you think is ridiculous about yourself and learn to love it
The key to diminishing embarrassment is to love those parts of yourself that you think are ridiculous. Steve Martin basically built his entire comedy routine off of his feeling like an outsider and a weirdo.
(Worked for him)
3. Have a goal you can measure
While it is nice to feel braver and less embarrassed, it is also nice to know that you are moving toward something. Have a goal like speaking more in meetings, or meeting more people. If you are new to sales, make your goal be to feel more comfortable talking with strangers about their lives. Begin to notice how somethings get easier as you do it, and how once you know you can survive the risk of embarrassment, it doesn’t have to feel like such a risk.