Self-change is not easy. At times, it requires a head-on confrontation with our deepest fears. Yet, unless you're willing to change yourself, the chances are that you will not fully achieve what you desire.
One of the examples from my own life was my fear of public speaking. About the time I turned 13, I suddenly became very awkward self-conscious, and this in turn led to a deathly fear of any form of speaking in public. Standing in front of a class and giving an oral report was terrifying to me. The mere thought of it brought on a full-blown anxiety attack, complete with palpitating heart, sweaty palms, parched throat and shortness of breath.
Giving oral reports became so noxious that there was only one way I dealt with them.
I refused to give them, no matter what the cost.
This wasn't a big problem during junior high or most of high school. If I was supposed to do an oral report, I just played sick that day or skipped class. By the next day the teacher had usually moved onto something else and forgot about it. If not, I simply took a bad grade and didn't give it further thought.
But when I reached the 12th grade, I decided I wanted to go to engineering school and got more serious about my studies. I signed up for a chemistry course which was taught by the girls basketball coach. This woman was the proverbial Teacher From Hell. She was 6' 3" had a personality that was about as kind and gentle as a freight train. In all fairness, though, she was a fantastic chemistry teacher, and I made straight A's in her class all through the fall semester.
Then, at the beginning of December, she made the following announcement.
"Every student with a B average or higher must do a science project and submit it to the Vanderbilt Science Fair. In April, you must do a 15 minute presentation for our class."
I felt like a nuclear warhead had just been dropped in my lap. I immediately made the decision not to do a science project. If I didn't do one, how could I do an oral report on it? The fact that she said that our entire mark that six weeks would depend on it was bothersome, but I could deal with that later.
By the time April rolled around, I was sweating bullets.
When the day of my presentation came, the teacher looked expectantly at me and nodded. "Mike Wells?"
"I didn't do a science project," I muttered.
The transformation her face underwent was worthy of a horror flick. "Excuse me?"
"I said, I didn't do a science project."
The classroom was dead silent.
"May I talk to you privately?" she said, through gritted teeth. She marched me out into the hallway and shut the door so the rest of the class couldn't hear. Towering over me, she said, "What do you mean, you didn't 'do' a science project?"
I shrugged. "I just didn't do one."
Pointing the classroom, she said, "If you don't get up there and say something, you're getting an F for the entire six weeks. Do you understand me?"
"You do whatever you need to do," I said. "I have nothing to present."
As promised, when I got my report card for chemistry at the end of that six week period, there was an angry-looking red F across the top, with an asterisk next to it. The footnote said Science project—refused to comply.
I'd like to tell you that my bold actions with that teacher was the result of sheer courageousness on my part, but there was more to it than bravado. Two months before science project was due I been admitted to the Vanderbilt School of Engineering. At that point, I was sure that Vanderbilt wouldn't change its mind about letting me in just because of one bad mark in a class.
But my admission to Vanderbilt had a catch. I had a weak background in math and science, so I had to pass a pre-engineering summer school that the engineering school ran for students like me.
The summer school was taught by a heavyset, bearded professor of civil engineering who was even more intimidating than my chemistry teacher had been. The course was broken into eight two-week modules. As he passed out the syllabus to me and the 40 or other slackers who were in the same boat, the blood drained from my face. Module 3 had caught my eye:
Communications Skills: Each student will give a 10 minute oral presentation.
The moment that class was over, I went to the professor's office. He was already sitting behind his big desk, looking very busy.
"Yes?" he said, without even glancing up.
"I'd like to talk to you about that oral report we have to do."
"What about it?"
"It's just that...I can't do it."
He looked up, frowning. "What you do mean, you can't do it?"
"I don't do oral reports."
"Oh? Well, we do do oral reports. And if you don't do one, you don't pass this course."
"And if you don't pass this course, you don't go to engineering school. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," I said.
I was trapped.
The reports were scheduled for mid-July. My anxiety escalated with each passing day.
Finally, I came up with an escape plan. One of my uncles was a physician, I begged my mother to ask him to write me a doctor's excuse to get me out of the presentation.
"A doctor's excuse?" she said. " I don't understand."
"He can say I have a clinical phobia about doing oral presentations."
"Don't be ridiculous, Mike."
"It's not ridiculous! He could say that it would be dangerous for me to do an oral report."
My mother rolled her eyes. "You have stage fright, like everybody else. Just do the report, Mike."
"Mom, I can't! If I have to do it, I'll die!"
I badgered my mother until she finally caved in and asked my uncle to write me the doctor's excuse. Which he did, reluctantly. I'm sure he thought it was as ridiculous as my mother did, but I was certain it would work.
When I presented the paper to my professor, he silently read it, then handed it back to me.
"That's fine. You're excused from the assignment."
"I am?" It had been so easy I was caught off guard
"Of course you'll receive an Incomplete in the summer school." When he saw the look on my face, he said, "You don't think a doctor's excuse gets you out of fulfilling the course requirements, do you? A doctor's excuse gives you an extension to do the work later, when you're well." He smiled. "So as soon as this 'phobia' is cured, you can come give your oral report and join the rest of your friends over in engineering school...that is, if they haven't already graduated by then."
As the day of the report approached, my anxiety escalated to gargantuan proportions. I might as well have been on Death Row, waiting for the electric chair.
I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep.
The morning I was supposed to give the talk, I was so beside myself with anxiety I did not even feel human. My slot was scheduled for 8:15. The only way I could think of to calm myself down was to drink some beer. Just two, I thought. That way I could still think clearly enough to give the report.
At 7 am I was buying a six pack of Budweiser. Tall boys, just in case.
The weather that morning was ominous—cloudy and blustery, with heavy intermittent showers. By 7:20 I was in the woods across from the engineering building, crouched under an umbrella, downing one beer after another. I paused and belched, gauging my anxiety level. Two cans didn't seem to have any affect. I gulped down another. And another. Still no effect...
At 8 am, I made my way over to the engineering building, thoroughly soaked—and not just with rainwater. Despite the fact that I had consumed an entire six pack of tall boys on an empty stomach, my thinking was remarkably clear. When the professor called my name and I started walking to the front of the classroom, I noticed that the gusty wind outside was causing the entire building to sway back and forth so much that made the floor tip to and fro, like the deck of a ship that's being tossed around in a gale. I made a mental note to track down the architect and report it as soon as my talk was over.
I have no recollection anything else. I only know that my worst fears—that the other students would snicker and make fun of me—were not realized. They could not even look at me. It was far too painful for them.
I received a D- on the report. But I didn't care. I may have made a spectacle of myself, but at least I had gotten through the summer school.
From there on out, it was smooth sailing. Freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, senior year...I not only managed to get through engineering school without every doing another oral report, but I earned a master's degree in engineering, too. Most of the classes didn't require oral reports, and in the few that did the reports were for group projects, I always negotiated my way out with the other students– "I'll write everything up if you do the oral report. Deal? Deal."
Then I decided to get a PhD.
My advisor quickly noticed that I was a good writer. By October he had me penning what would be my first academic publication, a joint paper with both our names on it. It was about the research we were doing, and it would be submitted to an electrical engineering conference in San Francisco.
"This is very well-written," my advisor said, as he finished reading my first draft. "You'll have no trouble presenting this in San Francisco."
"I said you'll have no trouble presenting this at the conference in San Francisco."
"Yes, you. Who else?"
"But I can't present a paper at a conference!"
"Because—you don't understand. I don't do public speaking."
"What do you mean, you don't 'do' public speaking?"
"I can't speak in front of groups. It's impossible. I have a phobia."
He stared at me, confused. "How the hell do you think you're going to get a PhD if you can't speak in front of a group? How are you going to defend your dissertation? You'll have four other professors besides me there, plus an audience of five or ten people!"
"And how are you going to teach classes? I thought that was one reason you wanted to get a PhD."
"I do want to teach, but—"
"And how can you have your own business if you don't 'do' presentations? Isn't that what you said when you applied here, that you wanted to start an engineering consulting firm?"
When I tried to argue with him, it only made him madder. Finally, he pointed at me and said, "You're going to San Francisco, and you're presenting this paper. If you don't, you can forget your PhD. Now get out of my office!"
I spent the next few weeks in a deep quandary. I seriously thought about dropping out of the doctoral program...but when I really considered it as an option, it felt so cowardly. And I kept thinking: am I going to let this destroy all my dreams, ruin my career?
In the end, I forced myself to go to San Francisco and present the paper. It was intimidating, let me tell you, especially having only spoken once in front of a group—while drunk—since I was 12 years old. There were 200 people in the meeting room, mostly engineering grad students just like me, along with a bunch of professors. All of them knew just as much or more than I did.
But once I got started, I wasn't as frightened as I thought I would be. I was older, more confident, and the presentation was about my own research, something that I truly cared about. Sharing what I was doing with a lot of other people with common interests sparked a tingling of excitement in me.
I know that on the whole, the presentation was pretty bad. But afterwards, several people in the audience came up to me and asked questions about what I'd said, and seemed genuinely interested in my work. This did a lot to raise my confidence level.
When I got back home and told my advisor about it, he said, "You could be a fine public speaker if you really wanted to, Mike."
I was taken aback. "You think so?"
"I know so. Anyone can be a good public speaker—it's just a matter of wanting to become one, and focusing that. Public speaking is just like anything else. It's something you learn."
Today, 30 years later, I'm no Tony Robbins, but I can stand in front of a crowd of 500 people and give a talk and get decent feedback on it. I feel almost as comfortable standing in front of a group, even a large one, as if I were standing in my own living room.
But back in school, if anyone would have told me, "Mike, one day you'll be a good public speaker and will feel completely at ease talking in front of groups" I would have thought that person was stark, raving mad. I would have argued vehemently against it, explaining why such a notion was impossible, that I have a phobia about it, that it's just not my "personality type", not in my genes, blah blah blah.
We human beings are capable of incredible change, especially when we want decide we want to change. Sometimes we only change as a last resort, when refusing to do so blocks us from achieving our goals and dreams.
The path that I've pursued to become a successful writer has forced me change in many different ways, some of them as dramatic as overcoming my fear of public speaking. Here is a list of various "I can'ts" that, at one point or another, were blocking me from achieving my writing dreams:
I can't promote myself
I can't deal with rejection from agents and editors
I can't write without inspiration
I can't write synopses of my own books
I can't write without an outline
I can't write with an outline
I can't create my own website/blog
I can't design my own book covers
I can't write and work a full-time job
If you are a writer, do any of these sound familiar?