Also published at my Huffington Post blog.
When I was in college — probably sometime around the second semester of my freshman year — I made a rule for myself: every semester, every class, I had to raise my hand and make some comment sometime in the first week. My comment didn’t have to be brilliant. It didn’t have to be profound. But I did have to do it.
As an introvert (or, more precisely, introvert/ambivert/learned extrovert), I never particularly enjoyed speaking up in class. I’ve always hated the feeling of having all eyes on me. Therefore, prior to making my rule, I often wouldn’t speak in class for weeks, then months — at which point it felt like my raising my hand to say something would be a Major Event. Whatever I was going to say must be monumental and erudite and important, if I was going break the silence of months! As a result, if the professor would allow it, I could go a whole semester without ever talking at all.
The new rule worked. For the rest of my years in college, I spoke up in every class in the first week. I no longer had to worry about whether what I said was important enough or intelligent enough. People perceived me as someone who spoke up in class, so my comments didn’t come with added weight. They didn’t have to be perfect or even sensible. The rule I made for myself took all that daunting pressure off me. It may not work for everyone, but it worked for me.
Still, it wasn’t until recently — many, many years after college — that I realized I’d been approaching life the same way I’d approached my classes — before the new rule. I’d mastered the art of raising my hand in the classroom in college, but somehow the “hold back until I’m sure” mentality pervaded throughout my life.
I’d been living my life waiting for the right moment to get in the game. Thinking that somehow, some day, I’d magically know how to do things the right way and avoid all possible embarrassment or failure.
Of course, I was wrong.
To sum up my past in a nutshell and without going into any psychoanalysis of the causes, for the first four decades of my life, I tried to be as invisible as possible. Not consciously, of course, but looking back, I can see that’s what I was doing. Letting everyone else shine, helping them shine (I am quite good at that “giving” thing, less good at letting others give to me), but never claiming my right to my own time and space in the world.
Then, six years ago [long story] events transpired, and I realized life as I knew it was far from satisfying. I worked with a lot of good people, but I hated my job. I wasn’t going anywhere, I wasn’t doing anything. I was a spectator to the world, not a participant even in my own life.
Realizing this, and recognizing how short life can be, I finally challenged myself to live.
At that point, I left my job to pursue a writing career — or at the very least, to try. I gave myself full permission to fail; I just didn’t want to end life wondering, “What if?” I’ve often said if I’d known how much courage this new path would take I wouldn’t have done it; but I’m glad I didn’t know, because it’s the best thing I ever did.
And really, looking back, this was the beginning of my own journey toward thriving.
I’ve read a lot since then, taken courses and listened to audio books and gone to lectures and participated in workshops, all in the effort to learn to live a better life. From Brené Brown to Shawn Achor to Carol Dweck to Seth Godin to Martha Beck, and so many others, to, most recently Arianna Huffington’s online Thrive course, I’ve been walking the path from being invisible to Being Seen. Arianna’s Thrive course re-affirmed many of the things I am working toward — in particular the idea of “no judgment”; the idea that we do the best we can, then we let our work out into the world, and then we let it go.
It has not been an easy road, but it has most definitely been worth it.
I’m still constantly working to find my way. It is a never-ending struggle to convert the old habits to new ones, but I know I’m making progress and I feel so much stronger now than ever before. My constant challenge to myself now is to live a brave life, to live and lead with “shields down” (a phrase I use in my mind all the time; I’m working on a blog post about this, so stay tuned). To be seen. Not to be fearless, but to be courageous, to be compassionate, and to connect.
My Huffington Post blog is a perfect example of this. Every time I hit “submit,” a wave of nausea hits me over the fear of being seen — or rather, the risks that come along with being seen: rejection, judgment, possible failure. Over at the blog on my own website, I have countless posts still sitting in the drafts folder, waiting for me to decide they are “good enough” — which often, in my mind, they never are. They sit, unfinished, incomplete thoughts that seemed worthy of sharing at one time, but which I could never articulate quite well enough to my liking to share with the greater world.
And therefore, every time I hit “submit” on this blog, it’s a new triumph. A new reminder that I am, in fact, living both the length and width of my life, that I am doing what is most important to me — simply trying. That I am “in the arena,” as Teddy Roosevelt might say. I am not sitting on the sidelines. Win or lose, succeed or fail, I am participating in the world, and to me, that’s what it’s all about. Am I the perfect writer? The best blogger? Of course not. But does it matter? At the end of the day, it really doesn’t. I can’t get better if I’m not trying, whether it’s writing or anything else. So I try.
We too often hold ourselves back. We think we need to write the perfect blog post or novel, finish the marathon in our best time, paint the most beautiful painting, throw the consummate dinner party, be the perfect partner, live the perfect life. And if we can’t be perfect, we shouldn’t try.
Our society doesn’t help in this regard. Mess up, and someone posts a video of your mistake on YouTube in no time. Put out a creative work, and the comment section jumps with criticisms. It’s no wonder we shy away from being seen.
But here’s the thing: We are all going to die. I don’t mean to ruin the surprise. This is not a spoiler. I am going to die, and you are going to die, and all of us are going to die.
What, then, are we going to do while we’re alive?
The blog post that is posted is better than an empty page.
The walk around the block is better than no walk at all.
The game played and lost is more fun than the game never played.
The evening spent with friends in an uncleaned house with a recipe that failed is better than wishing we’d spent more time connecting.
The messy, scary, imperfect life lived richly and fully is better than a life spent on the sidelines, waiting to be good enough before jumping in and giving things a try.
We need to worry less about whether we’re doing things right, and worry more about whether we’re doing them at all.
And we need to be kind with ourselves, and with each other, and with all our imperfections, as we travel this road together, as we step into the arena and into our lives.
Over the past several years, with all these courses and classes and books, I’ve accumulated an abundance of wisdom, ideas, and knowledge. My greatest challenge now, as Arianna said in the Thrive course, is to move from knowing that this is how I want to live, to actually living the ideas and wisdom I’ve learned.
So for now, I keep jumping. I’m jumping all the time, eyes closed tight and wide open at the same time, heart thumping, scared to death, but jumping. Falling a lot. Learning a lot.
Learning that the more I jump, the easier it is to jump, and to get back up when I fall.
That the more I jump, the closer I get to flying.
It’s a never-ending journey, but I’m here. Living. Working toward thriving, toward flourishing.
Speaking up. Getting in the game. Embracing imperfection and the risks of being seen.
Before it’s too late.
Check out Pam’s books!
- The Universes Inside the Lighthouse—YA sci-fi adventure / first in the Balky Point Adventures
- The Wishing Rock series—women’s fiction / wit, wisdom, and recipes
- The Pam on the Map series—travelogues / wit and wanderlust