I was 17 with a shiny new internship working in the marketing department at a steel company. My mom made me wear these boxy pantsuits with shoulder pads that made me feel more awkward and out of place than I already felt. Soon after starting, I decided I wasn’t smart enough to succeed there. I knew nothing about steel or marketing or how to add any value to this strange corporate world. I wanted to work at the mall like my friends.
They grouped all the interns together and gave us projects to work on throughout the summer. Everything was collaborative and daily we were put on the spot to come up with quick ideas as a team. They told us to think outside the box and bring our honest perspectives to each project. Despite their encouragement, the environment freaked me out and I was too intimidated to be myself and share my thoughts. When we were given an assignment and the pressure was on, my mind would not cooperate. I didn’t believe that I deserved to be there so instead of absorbing the experience in an authentic way, I focused on not embarrassing myself.
The problem is -- you can’t thoroughly experience anything if you are worried about embarrassing yourself. Your ego gets in the way of your natural flow and you play small, afraid of how people will respond if you are free and unashamed. When I first got hired for the internship, I was thrilled. It paid fourteen dollars an hour and I expected it to be easy. Filing. Busy work. Training and development. Group lunches. Maybe a little market research. Maybe a presentation at the end of the summer. No problem. So on the first day when they told us to put together a presentation about the steel industry and the other interns seemed much more knowledgeable than me, I was thrown. All it took was this first hint of a challenge, the fear of exposure, and something inside me turned off. Deflated, I tried to hide my discomfort by being quiet and doing the bare minimum throughout that summer. I didn’t understand the growth that could come from showing up -- especially when you’re scared -- and allowing yourself to be seen right where you are.
Five years later I tried out for the Washington Wizards dance team. I’d just graduated from college where I danced for all four years. Prior to that, I’d had ten years of lessons. I was confident that I could leap my way onto any dance team or company that I wanted. I thought it would be easy. I wore a leotard and tights to the audition because I wanted to be taken seriously. As I looked around at everyone else in sweats and workout clothes, my doubts began to get loud. After some initial screening, including a solo freestyle, they separated us into two groups -- technique and choreography. The technique group would spend the day learning the proper way to do basic pirouettes, leaps and some gymnastics. This group would not be trying out. Meanwhile, the choreography group would actually learn a dance and audition because the instructors saw that they already had the basics mastered.
I was placed in the technique group. The friends I came with all made it into the choreography group.
Embarrassed, I became consumed with negative thoughts. I didn’t leave the audition but I didn’t stay either. Mentally, I checked out. Instead of paying attention and soaking up the free instruction, I passed the time thinking about what the other group was doing and what everyone was thinking of me. Here in my leotard, separated from my friends, learning how to do pirouettes I’d been doing my whole life, I pouted. My bitterness intensified when halfway through the day, the instructors chose four girls from our group to go over and join the choreography group. These girls were underdogs that could have checked out like I did but they stayed open, showing that they were capable and coachable, and that’s how they leveled up.
Staying open means not letting the fear of embarrassment or failure or criticism keep you from anything your heart wants. In hindsight, I can clearly see myself in my own way, blocking two amazing opportunities. Worried about failing publicly and facing rejection. Wanting the rewards without the risks. So many of us make decisions that are based in avoiding embarrassment. This is why we’re afraid to try new things and be seen outside of our comfort zones. At times we even pretend to care less about our passions than we really do, because our genuine feelings make us feel too vulnerable.
Eventually you will have to face embarrassment many times over to win at living a meaningful life. We cannot let our actions be rooted in doubt and insecurity. Don't get caught up in thoughts about how weird you must look or sound when you are expressing yourself. Your brilliance is inside of you waiting to be shared and you can be brave with it, even when there is no guarantee that you will get the response you want. Focus on the energy you are bringing to the situation and the purpose of what you're doing, not on the result. It’s absolutely necessary to show up in the world as your undiluted self so you can attract people and opportunities that inspire you. Risk embarrassment, try new things, share your ideas, and savor your experiences. Live and learn without shame.