I was afflicted with a severe stuttering problem somewhere around 7 years old and I have had to deal with it ever since – to this present day. While the problem is manageable after I get to know people, it is very severe, and quite unmanageable in any and all first time conversation scenarios. For people who know me well, it is hard to appreciate the amount of pain and suffering I have endured in various scenarios over the years.
Imagine a teacher in jr high or high school doing roll call, and asking me if I go by Robert, Bob or Rob, and, as a first impression, either stuttering on Bob so long that I just stop talking, or, saying nothing, or, holding up a piece of paper with the word “Bob” written on it. You want to talk about feeling like, and looking like a freak in jr high/high school? Let’s just say those weren’t my best years.
I had always wanted to be a medical doctor growing up, and after finishing the requirements for pre-med in my undergrad studies, and taking the MCAT, I was granted an interview at a University of Illinois Medical School. The dean of the school sat me down across from him at his desk, and asked me, “What makes you think that you can make it as a doctor, nonetheless make it through medical school with such a severe stuttering problem?” Remember, in first impression scenarios, like introductions, interviews, etc., it is way, way worse. I defended my position, and had outstanding grades and MCAT scores, so, “against his better judgment” I was accepted to medical school.
I remember being placed in a study group, and I remember worrying about that first meeting, going around the table and having to introduce myself. When it came around to me I tried to get something out, and just couldn’t. One of the more arrogant guys started laughing and saying, “Can you speak? Maybe he can’t talk?” I quickly pulled out a notebook, wrote my name, and for some reason, it took them like 60 seconds to finally read it. “I think it says, Bill, no…Beth (ha ha ha) no, Bob! It’s Bob right?!?” I was never able to recover from that. Without a source of community I quickly became disengaged and lost. As the dean suspected, I withdrew after that first semester.
Luckily, I had a degree in Electrical Engineering so I was able to get a good job. Went to my first day on the job. Secretary asked me, “Who are you?” I had great difficulty saying my name. “Did you forget who you are?? Ha ha ha?” They had run out of space, so they put me in the office of a guy who had been their 25 years. This was the old days so, old fashioned phone, no answering machine. They instructed me to answer the phone and take notes. We answer the phone here by saying our first and last name, and then “How may I help you?” Yikes. Bad luck. Since he was a 25 year veteran of the company, his phone rang about every 10 minutes. Double bad luck. I tried my best to answer the phone.
I tried all the tricks, even tried getting a tape recorder and recording myself saying, “Bob Clinkert. How can I help you?” None of that worked, and only made the people on the other end really, really angry to talk to me. I was really afraid that I would get fired for screwing it up, so, after a while I crafted a new plan – when the phone would ring, I would immediately get up and go to the bathroom. So, about 6 times an hour, I would be in the bathroom. What kind of first impression do you think that made?
On the daily train ride to the city and back, I would invariably get asked where I worked. I couldn’t say the name of the company without stuttering so I would say “AT&T.” Every now and then, the guy who asked me would say, “Wow. I work there too. What group?” I would have to sheepishly tell the story about my stuttering problem, and the whole company name thing, etc. Ultimately I would have to write out the company name, or play charades with the sound bites I was able to get out. It seems funny in retrospect, but when trying to garner respect, not so funny.
Imagine going out to eat and rarely being able to get what you wanted? Ordering at a restaurant is one of the most stressful situations for a person with a stuttering problem. “I’ll have what he/she ordered.” Yuck!! The guy/gal ordering before me almost always got something I didn’t like. I was really in trouble if the wait person asked me what I wanted first.
I had many job interviews cut short. I have embarrassed the heck out of many bosses, and out of myself in front of many customers. I would always show up late for meetings, so I would miss the “going around the table and introducing yourself” part. I remember being in the bathroom at a nice restaurant once and my boss, the customer and me ended up all washing our hands together. The customer asked me where I lived, and I started stuttering super hard on the N in Naperville. I was watching my boss, who turned super red and I thought his head was going to explode. He finally blurted out, “Naperville! Bob lives in Naperville!” So, the management was always terrified to put me in front of the customer; but, I have typically been in key roles, and they would often times have no choice, leading to even higher pressure speaking situations.
Now that I am a business owner, imagine me going to networking meetings. Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves, our companies and give our 30 second elevator pitch. You want to lose credibility immediately in those scenarios? Fumble saying your name, your company name, and what you do during a round-the-table introduction.
So I have spend almost my whole life being judged by an external, physical trait that I was born with. I have been thought less of in so many scenarios, and I have been held back from being able to fully utilize the gifts and talents inside of me. It has been very frustrating and often times very self-defeating and depressing.
One of the main ways that God has worked this together for good in my life, is that I know how it feels to be judged unfairly because of a physical characteristic that I was born with. I know what it feels like to be frustrated, and desperately want people to judge me by what is on the inside of me, rather than what they can see on the outside.
I have a great deal of empathy for people who are judged, misunderstood, and are trapped working well beneath their potential because of the judgment of people. If compassion means “to suffer with”, God has enabled me to have great compassion for the marginalized through my life experiences with my stuttering affliction.
In 2005, I was introduced to an outreach to street kids in the Philippines. My wife and I love kids and quickly became involved. In 2006, I had the opportunity to go on several outreach trips. My “gift” of compassion, and empathy for the marginalized really kicked into high gear getting to know these street kids. Almost immediately I began to develop a “holy discontent” related to poverty, abuse, lack of opportunity, waste of human resources, etc. This discontent led me to a great deal of study on the issues surrounding poverty, cause, effect and how to fix it.
I typically attract the marginalized and disadvantaged kids in the jr. high and high school groups I have had the privilege of leading over the years. I know what it is like to be marginalized and thought less of as an employee in the workplace. That compassion and empathy allows me to be a champion for the worker, and to bring creativity and resources to bear on creating empowering, workplace environments that unleash the masterpiece created inside every employee in a company. This not only creates nice warm and fuzzies, but also unleashes innovation throughout an entire organization, which, typically results in substantial competitive advantage and success in the marketplace.
I would happily give up my stuttering problem any time, but, I am grateful for the compassion and empathy it has created in me. It has helped shape many of the things that are good about me, who I am and who I am becoming.