Making Friends with Looking Dumb

Thinking Out Loud

The second the topic was revealed to me, my mind went completely blank. Staring at my books, the English language appeared as hieroglyphics bouncing on the page. Doing my best to push through, I scribbled a note or two on a page and eventually scratched out something resembling an outline. Then, I just stared at my knees, completely thunderstruck.

As training settings go, my surroundings were warm and inviting and my co-attendees were likewise kind and interested. I could feel them rooting for me. One-by-one, each person took their place at the podium. To this day, I have no idea what anyone said. When my name was finally called, I made my way up to the speaker’s position and laid my papers down on the stand. I looked at each of the six sets of eyes looking back at me and proceeded to completely bomb my speech.

I mean it. I bombed.

Whatever it was I said, there was nothing coherent about it. I hemmed and hawed and ummed my way through. I could see the pain on people’s faces. They clearly saw how poorly I was doing. There was no salvaging this. Plain and simple, I looked downright dumb – something that, until that day, was absolutely intolerable. In my own estimation, I was already ugly, weak, and poor. I was banking on my smarts to give me something redeemable in this world.

As I type these words, the sadness of that thought still hits me like a tidal wave. I know I am not the only one who has ever engaged in this line of thinking. Every single day, millions of people berate themselves for not being good enough. We look to our left and our right and we find ourselves lacking in comparison to others. Never mind the myriad ways we may struggle in ways not visible to others. We still compare – and compare on a level never before known. No more are the days of competing only with our small-town neighbors. No. Now, the challenge is to compete with the entire world and everyone’s goal is to come out on top. It is absolute madness.

It was not news to me that I was inept at interpersonal skills. I am not sure if it was the day of this speech or not, but sometime around then, I made a very conscious decision to make friends with looking dumb. I knew that if I was ever going to be able to tell my story with any kind of competence, I was going to have to improve my communication skills, and if I was going to do that, I would have to practice.

Folks…practice means, “Try something you don’t already know how to do, again and again, messing up along the way, until you become fluid or proficient at it.” It does not mean, “Decide to do something brand new and come out of the gates perfect at it.”

As a teacher, I understood how learning worked. I had to embrace awkwardness. I also knew I could not continue beating on myself for my mistakes or eventually, I would give up. I had to press on through all the flubs and fails.

This was much easier thought than done.

Our society does not make much room for mistakes. I know very few people who have attended every single day of school all throughout their life and yet there is an expectation that we all know not only everything, but all the same things. As an adult in the Western world, I have seen little grace extended for public faux pas. Everyone knows, though no one actually says, that perfection in all public endeavors is a must. None of us is perfect, so this is a no go from the start, and yet…we do try, don’t we?

When I began the quest to improve my communication, I realized I needed to improve my vocabulary, speed up my ability to speak under pressure, and to appear confident. That last one, I knew, was a must – and yet, the moment I went from frail, mousey, wallflower to contained, thoughtful, and assertive, I was accused of being condescending. It was as if I was not acceptable in my normal chaos nor was I acceptable in an improved state. At first, I wanted to give up – but I realized no one knew what was happening inside of me. For all I knew, they thought I was presenting the same chaos in a different package. I had to give them a break.

Being who I am, I began to read everything I could get my hands on, listen to other teachers, practice new skills, and pray, pray, pray. For over a year, there was scarcely a single waking moment outside of work that I was not either pouring out my heart and desires to God or feeding my brain in some way. I was relentless. I did not initially jump into the deep end. I withdrew and took time for silence, solitude, and contemplation.

When faced with skeptics, I developed the habit of saying, “Just keep watching. You will see.” This helped them as well as me. For them, they understood that I realized how different I appeared, and it gave them the idea I was working on something new. For me, it was a way to remember that changes inside could not be fully seen outwardly yet, but it was me giving myself credit for doing the invisible work.

Slowly, but surely, over time, I began to emerge from the knots I had tied myself in throughout my life. I began to speak up and then to speak out. I found my brain begin to organize itself in a more coherent manner. I developed curiosity and used it to teach, rather than to be presumptuous or overly directive. I am far, far from perfect as a writer or orator – but I am eons from where I was. I have learned along the way that it is okay to do my process in front of others – necessary, actually. Without the input and feedback of those around me, I would never know what works.

Everyone who watched me walk through my healing will tell you, I am not the same. I do not look, act, walk, or talk the same. I am new. I did not get here on the easy road. It was hard. Excruciating at times. But so much more doable and so much more worth it than I could have imagined when I started. I must believe – and I feel I have proof – that I am not the only one who can heal. I want to tell my story because I want you to know that you, too, can be the fullness of yourself.

Not everyone will walk the same path I did – but anyone who wants to rise above your early circumstances and claim the purpose, joy, and abundant life you have always wanted can! Don’t give up. Make friends with looking silly. Trust me when I tell you, the day will come – on this earth and in the world to come – when the work will pay off and every painful step will be redeemed.