If you want to achieve any sort of growth in life, you’re going to have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Experimentation is the fastest path towards experiences that allow you to learn, develop, and push your limits. Whether new skills, tactics, or techniques – growth comes from change.
But it’s easier said than done, especially for introverts. My perfect day is designed around routine, which helps build discipline and focus. I reserve high productivity times of the day for reading, writing, and creating. Although it’s challenging work, it’s a familiar challenge. It doesn’t generate the same type of discomfort for me as something like public speaking or learning a new skill.
If I’m not careful, it’s easy for me to settle into my comfort zone and ignore uncomfortable opportunities for growth that fall outside of my norm. I have a tendency to take discipline past the golden mean and become too rigid, losing flexibility in my day-to-day. To combat this, I have to disrupt my routine on occasion to make sure I’m still focused on the right things and challenging myself in new ways.
A few weeks ago, after months of deliberation, I shadowed an acting class. I wasn’t sure what to expect–it took everything in me just to show up. I have no desire to be an actor and there’s no hidden talent buried within me. In fact, the thought of acting makes me want to curl up and die. So what was I doing there?
My primary motivation was using it as an experiment to improve my public speaking skills. I came across the idea over coffee with a friend and fellow writer, Lily Hansen. She told me how her background in acting helped improve her stage presence and presentation skills. It was an interesting angle that I thought worth testing out.
The fact remained, I was nervous and in no way looking forward to the class. But I followed through because it aligned with an area of my life that I wanted to improve. The acting class was a vote for my desired identity – not as an actor, but as a stronger communicator and storyteller. I looked at it as an opportunity to arm myself with techniques to build greater comfort presenting in front of an audience.
Everyone’s different, but as an introvert, the question remains – when the stakes are at their highest, how do you take the leap and overcome uncertainty? This is how I’ve learned to navigate that anxiety.
Escaping the narrative
It’s important to know your tendencies. Understanding introversion and extroversion is an important part of self-discovery and awareness. It can help you discover where you gain energy and where your limits are. If you know which way you lean, you’ll know yourself better – when to push and when to ease off.
But keep in mind, it’s a spectrum. There’s a difference between awareness and over-identifying. Humans are incredibly complex. Neatly defined categories are only enticing because they’re easy and allow you to avoid navigating the gray area that defines most of life.
Don’t lock yourself into some narrative you can’t escape. Otherwise, it becomes an excuse to avoid uncomfortable situations. The same goes for extroversion–discomfort means different things to different people. If you want to avoid it, you can find plenty of familiar excuses within your comfort zone.
The power of ”who cares?”
Once you’ve escaped the narrative, it’s about taking the leap. Whether a presentation, high-stakes situation, or looking ridiculous when you’re learning a new skill, how do you take the first step?
When Shaun White, legendary snowboarder and three-time Olympic gold medalist, is at the top of an important run, the last thing he tells himself before he goes off is “who cares.” He doesn’t psych himself up or blast Eminem. He knows he’s put in the preparation. At that point, what happens, happens.
You don’t take new risks or perform your best by fueling your nerves. The who cares mindset isn’t about apathy, it’s about a state of relaxed concentration. This is where you do your best work. It’s a strangely empowering self-talk that helps navigate fears of judgment, failure, or general anxiety about drawing attention to yourself.
When I’m about to do something new or uncomfortable, this mindset provides a moment of calm before the storm. I know I’ll probably look like an idiot (the acting class), but if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that most people are too preoccupied with themselves to remember you tomorrow. You’re the only one still thinking about it.
Swim lessons and my life’s finest moments
At twenty-two, after graduating college, I decided to take swim lessons to learn proper technique. I was just getting into triathlons, which necessitate swimming with efficiency unless you want to smuggle in water wings. So I signed up for a month of private lessons at the Vanderbilt aquatics center.
I was prepared to look like a dumbass, but it surpassed even my expectations. The aquatics staff was so accustomed to elementary children signing up for these lessons that they ignored the form I filled out. To their surprise, a grown man, fifteen years older than every other person in the pool, wandered in for lessons.
With seven-year-olds in the lanes to either side, I started my lessons. The instructor (also younger than me) had to come up with a plan on the fly – diving for pool rings in the deep end wasn’t going to cut it. To make matters worse, I couldn’t make it down and back without flailing for air. Overall, these were some of the finest moments of my life.
But the who cares mindset helped me get over my ego and commit to learning proper technique. I looked like a complete noob for the first week, and I was. But with practice and time, I improved. Eight years later, I’m still swimming every week.
I reminded myself of this experience in my anticipation leading up to the acting class. Many of life’s most rewarding experiences happen once you let go of your fear of looking like an idiot. Don’t let your ego hold you back. These people aren’t going to remember you. Show up eager to learn and follow through on what you came to do.
Handling nerves in the moment
Almost always, I find that once I jump off and settle in, my nerves calm. But there are still moments when I get nervous in the middle of a challenging situation or new experience. When that happens, instead of amplifying my focus on myself and fueling my nerves, I shift my attention to externals.
In presentations or high-profile meetings, for example, I focus on non-verbals in the audience or the talking points of other people in the room. This helps keep me from spiraling or thinking ten lines ahead. By focusing outside of myself, I’m able to bring my attention back to the room, settle into the moment, and trust myself.
The All Blacks, New Zealand’s most successful rugby team, have a similar technique they use to bring themselves back to the match and avoid allowing the magnitude of the moment to overcome them. They use breathing techniques to put themselves in a clear, calm state. Then they anchor that state to a specific physical action – scrunching their toes, stamping their feet, or throwing water over their heads. This helps bring them back to the situation at hand and a relaxed state of concentration.
If you get too far ahead in what you’re trying to say or do, you’ll only compound the issue. Instead, come back to now. Project and focus more of your attention outside of yourself. It might be the opposite of your initial instinct to turn within, but it’s far more effective.
Jump when others retreat
If you want to become the best version of yourself, you’re going to have to put yourself out there. Growth comes from pushing your limits, experimenting with different approaches, and learning new skills. The greater tolerance you build for discomfort, the further the reaches of your comfort zone will extend. But this is a lifelong effort.
If you build self-awareness and maintain perspective leading up to, and during, the moment, you’ll be well on your way. Avoid over-identifying, be willing to look like an idiot, and avoid projecting too far into the future. This is how you get out of your own head, take risks, and jump when others retreat to familiar surroundings. It’s here where some of life's most valuable experiences are found.