Another example of a significant life-level change that happened almost instantly came from my performing in Follies in business school. You are capable of the same level of change.
The scene was my second semester of business school. I had not performed on stage since third grade, thinking I didn’t want to, thoughtlessly continuing my third grade rebellious streak. When a friend told me he was thinking about joining the group, I mentioned I was thinking of writing a sketch for it.
The next semester I went to the first Follies practice, in which people propose sketch ideas. They liked one of mine — the one from the conversation with my friend — but told me what I was afraid of hearing: they only consider sketches from Follies members and all Follies members must perform on stage.
Somehow I agreed to join, assuming, if memory serves, I’d find some way out of it by the performance.
Fast forward to the day of the performance. Going to every rehearsal led to my getting roles, practicing them, and being prepared for performing.
I didn’t know I was prepared. One of my lines I never once got right in practice. Everyone else in that sketch was prepared with alternatives if I flubbed my line. I even wrote it on the back of a prop in case I forgot it.
More to the point, before going on stage I was scared — hands shaking, can’t talk, almost ready to puke scared. But everyone depended on me, so I had to go on stage.
My fears weren’t realized. I nailed my lines and was on stage for the delivery of the most funny line from the most funny sketch, of which I wrote the first draft (the whole team edited and completed the final draft). The entire audience laughed on cue with the right laugh.
I have felt great, even transcendent, many times in life, but never more so than that night’s two performances of that sketch I wrote. I wish I could describe the feeling that performance gave me. As big a rush of a feeling of emotional reward I could imagine. People who perform regularly tell me they experience it regularly. It was amazing. It lasted intensely all evening and lingered into the next day.
The performance changed my life in about an hour. Public speaking and performing in public in many forms took on new meaning. I began to look for opportunities to perform, not to avoid them.
The experience reinforced an idea I had been playing with for a while. I had noticed that several of the most rewarding things in my life had entered as things that brought about the most anxiety before I got good at them. And the more anxiety they provoked at the beginning, the greater the subsequent joy when I mastered that activity or behavior.
That pattern led to a strategy for improving one’s life: look for the sources of greatest anxiety and master them. Your life will improve — in fact, changing something challenging and scary to awesome. Based on that success, I’ve continued to see increasing my emotional awareness as one of the fundamental paths to a better life because greater awareness makes me more sensitive to areas ripe for improvement. That path has brought me tremendous reward so I tend to feel like that pattern is true, though I know it has as many flaws in it as any.
I’ve been doing that strategy ever since. I observe my emotional and physical state now and for however long an occasion lasts, and seek to master skills to overcome sources of anxiety and related emotions.
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