Becoming Brave

becoming brave

The past

It’s been a long journey becoming brave.

Fifty years ago, I was a teenager who, after a single embarrassing moment, gave up dancing in public. For forty years.

Twenty-five years ago I was a college professor who spent hours preparing classes, fearful that students would ask me a question I couldn’t answer. And when I started convening and speaking at conferences I was scared of being “on stage”, even in front of small audiences.

I could share reasons why I was this way, but the reasons — known or not — aren’t what’s important. I felt embarrassment and fear as a response to these kinds of situations. Emotions aren’t susceptible to logic.

The present—an example

On February 16, 2019, I unexpectedly participated in an Italian four-hour drag queen workshop. I say “unexpectedly” because, as twenty of us sat on a coach returning to Milan on the last day of the fourth annual Meeting Design Practicum, we had no idea of what we were about to experience.

“For those who have always dreamed of turning into Marilyn Monroe and want to dance with moves of Raffaella Carrà. For those who torment themselves to understand how they attach false eyelashes and want to know how to walk on heels. For all those who, with a serious but not serious spirit, want to experience a different way of being grotesque on stage.

Because nothing is impossible for a Drag Queen!”

I’d never done anything like this before. It was a tough stretch. Yet when it was time to share our “diva inspiration”, I was the first to step up and demo. (My inspiration was Rihanna in “Shut Up and Drive“, in case you’re interested.)

At the end of the workshop, each group member received another’s photo and we added a word that summed up our experience of this person.

I am proud that Stefano added “Brave” to mine.

Being out there

Also, these days I think nothing of dancing in public (it’s gotta be the right music though).

And I’m comfortable being in front of thousands of people at the largest events I facilitate.

Becoming brave

How did all this happen?

First, a reminder about emotions. Although we don’t like to admit it, they, not our reasoning run our lives. Emotions evolved because they have survival value. I mentioned fear and embarrassment earlier. Embarrassment is a form of shame. Feeling fear is helpful when you come across a tiger in the forest. Feelings of shame strengthen human communities by lessening the likelihood that members will do things they know are bad for others.

Our emotions handicap us, however, when they arise for reasons that are not related to their true survival roots. My feelings about dancing or speaking in public came from being taught when young to feel shame when I made mistakes.

My response to this was to try to be as perfect as possible. To try to hide the mistakes I inevitably made, and avoid situations where I might make them. Believing I wasn’t a “good” dancer, I avoided dancing when others could see. Worrying that I might be tongue-tied or incoherent when speaking, I’d practice for hours, reluctant to risk slipping up “on stage”.

It took participating in a couple of multi-day, experiential, large and small-group workshops, in 2003 and 2005, for me to really see these limiting beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions I held about myself, and receive some experiences of what I could be like when freed of them.

The rest was practice.

Not caring about how others see me

Today, I don’t care what I look like when I dance any more; I dance because I love to dance. I still feel nervous excitement right before I’m about to speak to or facilitate hundreds of people, but it vanishes as soon as I start, because I love what I do and I’m not caught up in being flawless.

Today, when I have opportunities to do things I’ve never done before, I say “yes” to many of them. I love to learn, and I’ve discovered that I learn from trying new things and making “mistakes” along the way. [In fact, the most important learning occurs when you make mistakes.]

Becoming brave is a journey, and mine isn’t over yet.

I’m happy about that.