I am a big fan of Seth Godin. He wrote a book last year that is an A-B-C, Dr Seuss-like book for grownups. One of my office mates bought the book and I am reading it. “V is for Vulnerable – Life Outside the Comfort Zone.” Seth Godin makes this commentary on the inside cover, “I’m trying to get under your skin. I’m trying to get you to stop being a spectator and a pawn in the industrial system that raised us, and maybe, just maybe, to stand up and do something that scares you. I want you to do what you were meant to do…”
I thought I would comment on Chapter 1.
A is for Anxiety – Seth says that anxiety is “experiencing failure in advance.” That’s a pretty good definition. He goes on to say that anxiety can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you imagine yourself failing in the future, it is more likely that you will actually fail when the time comes. Many people that I have known over the years have experienced anxiety at a level that I would consider to be unhealthy in the Seth Godin view of the word.
I personally have battled a certain type of anxiety over the years. I have had a stuttering problem since I was about 7 years old. In casual conversation it can be barely noticeable. In circumstances where I need to introduce myself, either one-on-one or in a group, or have a first-time conversation with someone or a group, it can be very severe and in some case debilitating.
I experienced a great deal of teasing related to my stuttering during my school age years. One of my teachers in high school would never address me directly. He would ask the girl behind me to translate my stuttering since, according to him, she was the only one in the class who could understand what I was saying. In my medical school interview, the dean asked me why I thought I could become a doctor if my stutter was so bad; and when I did get into medical school and was trying to establish myself in the many different first term group contexts, I eventually started writing out what I wanted to say in my notebook because the stutter was so bad. Stuttering was one of the main reasons I quit medical school.
Of course, the professional business world offers little relief from stuttering anxiety. I have had prospective employers ask for my transcripts because they didn’t believe I had an engineering degree. I have had receptionists laugh and ask me if I have forgotten my name when trying to introduce myself. At times I have made bosses and peers uncomfortable when introducing myself in customer-facing situations.
In my first professional job, I occupied an office of a big exec who was out for 6 months with a heart attack. His phone rang several times an hour and every time it rang I ran out of the office and pretended like I had to go to the bathroom because I couldn’t answer the phone without severely stuttering – great way to make an impression as a new hire. On my first day, I rode in on a Metra train. The guy sitting next to me on the train asked where I worked. I said I worked at “AT&T” because it was easier to say without stuttering than the actual company I worked for, “Sargent and Lundy.” As luck would have it, he worked at AT&T “too” and started diving into deeper questioning. I eventually had to explain to him that I lied because I have a stuttering problem.
These are a few examples of some of the side-effects of going through life with a stuttering problem. Any time I foresee a future situation where I might meet someone, have to engage in small talk, “go around the room and tell everyone a little about myself,” I can become filled with anxiety. I have been to speech therapists, I have been hypnotised, kicked by mules, taken experimental drugs, tried changing the pitch of my voice, tried singing (those who have played rockband with me can guess how long that lasted), tried carrying a small tape player in my pocket that says “Hi! I’m Bob Clinkert.” and everything across the “cure-stuttering” spectrum. I have had pastors lay their hands on me and pray, I have had exorcisms, I’ve fasted, prayed, begged, etc., all to no avail. Throughout the years, I have consistently heard God tell me to “man-up” and deal with it because it ain’t going away.
I can recall the first turning point in my battle with stuttering anxiety. About 15 year ago, I really wanted to start a men’s group with a group of guys who all wanted to help each other grow in their faith. I was asking around, and one of my pastors said he was talking to a bunch of guys who wanted to get into a group, and he gave me one of their phone numbers and asked me to call them. I was all smiles on the outside, but inside I was dreading that introductory phone call. One of the little tricks I learned along the way was to make all of my phone calls at 5AM and leave message on people’s office phones. If I knew no one would answer, I had no anxiety and had no problems talking to the voicemail. People would say, “Wow, you start work early!” So, next day, I rang this guy up at 5AM. Sure enough, he was an early riser and he picked up the phone on the first ring. “Hello, this is Jim.”
Immediately my pulse went up to about 180 and I could feel my throat lock up. I desperately wanted to hang up, but, I didn’t know if he had caller-id or not, and I didn’t want to completely ruin my chances of ever starting this group. In what must have been only a few seconds, but felt like a few minutes, I had this conversation with God. “God, I know you aren’t going to make this a stuttering free conversation, so, I ask you to guide Jim here and his buddies to join the group, regardless of how bad I screw up this call.” Sure enough, it took me about 30 seconds to say my name in an intelligible way. I can’t believe Jim didn’t hang up. I took the next 10 minutes or more to stutter my way through an invitation to my group. He said him and his buddies would love to check it out and he asked for my address and directions to my house (this is pre GPS). Another 10 minutes of tedious, unintelligible bursts of stammering later, and Jim had what he thought he needed.
The following Tuesday, it’s 6:45 and I am waiting for Jim and his buddies to show up. Most people show up early to the first group meeting. The official start time was 7:00. At 7:15, he was still a no show, then 7:30, 7:45, 8:00. I figured that I sounded like such a weirdo on the phone, that they must have decided against coming and didn’t have the heart to tell me. Sure enough, 8:15, doorbell rings. It’s Jim and his three buddies. “Sorry we’re late, but we ended up getting horribly lost. I must have gotten some of the street names wrong when you gave me directions over the phone.” When I reviewed the directions he wrote down I burst out laughing because his translation of the directions I tried to give over the phone through my stuttering was so completely wrong. I honestly have no idea how he ever found the house, or, why he decided to keep driving for more than an hour.
In the months that followed, I build some pretty good friendships with those guys and that group ended up having a significant impact on my spiritual growth and my parenting – most of the guys had teenagers at a time when my kids were very young so I paid close attention to their experiences. It seems as if God showed up, not to heal my stuttering, but to work through it. That experience was the beginning of what would develop into a familiar pattern. I would be confronted with situations on a regular basis where I had a choice between going into a situation knowing that I would stutter, or bail out of the situation. Every time I chose to fight through the anxiety and put myself out there as best I could, God would always seem to show up and develop the relationships in spite of those awkward first conversations.
Over the years I have grown in my engineering career from an individual contributor, to a manager, to a department head over several managers in several different locations in the US and internationally. Since then I have been blessed to be invited into the ownership of a small technology company started by two good friends and we have been on quite a journey of growth, faith, and business as mission over the last decade. The only reason I highlight these aspects of my journey is that they could not have happened, if it were not for the faith, belief and desire that what was on the other side of the difficulties is worth the risk. As I look back at the last 20+ years, my journey has consisted of a long series of opportunities to take a small leap of faith, risk failure and embarrassment in the pursuit of a greater win, and have God get me over the hump to the next small leap of faith.
Anxiety, or “experiencing failure in advance,” has given way to experiencing fear in taking the risk of a small failure for a potentially much bigger win. When I concentrate on the bigger win instead of the smaller risk, and when I concentrate on what a big God can do through small leaps of faith, I move from experiencing failure in advance to expecting success in advance, despite my shortcomings. That doesn’t mean the fear or the risk are removed. I was just at a parenting group a couple days ago and I was asked to introduce myself and almost had a panic attack. I sounded like a potato head, but I pushed on and made my end-goal that everyone would feel welcome and special in my group. That’s worth a little embarrassment on the front-end.
So, start “experiencing success in advance” rather than “failure in advance.” The cure for anxiety is faith, perseverance and having goals worth believing in and worth taking the risk on.