“To escape fear, you have to go through it, not around.” ~ Richie Norton
It happened eight years ago, yet I could still remember the day as if it were yesterday. I was seated up on a stage along with eight other fellow high school students, forming a line which might as well would’ve been the death row. In my ice-cold hands, I held a small, carefully rolled-up piece of paper that held the key to my possible glory or doom, honor or humiliation, exaltation or execution. My heart was in my throat as I began to roll it out with trembling hands and saw my fate being dramatically revealed in dainty, cursive handwriting:
“In what ways does the World Trade Organization (WTO) destroy small market players?”
At that point, I felt like I suddenly acquired dyslexia and saw the letters all jumbled up so I couldn’t quite make sense of the writing there. After a few moments, I managed to steady my nerves enough to understand the question. And the first thing that came to my mind was,
I was in an impromptu speaking contest. In this type of contest, the contestant picks out a question, is given 3 minutes to prepare, and is granted another 3 minutes to deliver the answer. The questions typically asked are about current issues besetting the country and the world, but may also involve other human interest topics.
It wasn’t my first time to be in such a contest. I had won two lower-level contests preceding that, which was how I got to be in that particular contest at the provincial level. It was the first time, though, that I found myself absolutely clueless on how to answer the question I had picked out. I didn’t know anything much about the World Trade Organization, and even less about its impact on “small market players”—a phrase which, to be honest, I didn’t even know the exact meaning of.
But I had no time to kick myself for picking out a question I didn’t know anything about. The clock was ticking; in less than three minutes some 500 people would have all eyes on me and all ears ready to hear the wisdom of a 15-year old on issues that mattered to the world. I remember telling myself at that moment, “So here I am, sitting in front of a huge audience, basically with no iota of an idea about what is asked of me, and in a matter of seconds I’m about to stand up, go straight to the microphone, and speak up. What the heck am I going to do?”
As I saw it, I had four possible options:
B. Walk out of the stage.
C. Feign a medical emergency (e.g. suddenly clutch my chest in agony, faint, or convulse onstage).
D. Try to deliver an obviously-just-made-up, totally-off-the-mark semblance of an answer.
I decided the first three options were immature, inappropriate ways of dealing with the situation at hand. After all, that day I was all dolled up, looking chic and smart in nice, ladylike clothes. It was totally unfitting for me to act in ways unbecoming of the well-bred, decorous lady I projected myself to be.
So I was left with only the fourth option—to try to make up some sort of a vague answer, so I could get to say something just for the sake of filling up the three minutes allotted for the speech proper. But aside from the fact that it would lead me to grasp for something that I knew was nowhere to be found in my brain, following that option didn’t feel comfortable at all to me. I knew I was nowhere near winning the contest anyway, so I saw no point in struggling to cook up something I had no ingredients for in the first place.
Nevertheless, I knew I would still need to get up to that microphone in a few moments and speak up. For an entire three minutes, the stage would be mine. Everyone surely had a variety of things they imagined I would say, but no one could’ve guessed what I was really brewing up in my head to deliver.
When the three minutes I was given to think was up, a bell rang, signaling the time for me to get up and deliver my answer. I confidently stood up, walked over to the microphone, faced the audience, and readied the piece of paper I then held with hands no longer cold and trembling. I proceeded to speak, and these were the exact words which echoed in the big auditorium:
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is my question: ‘In what ways does the World Trade Organization destroy small market players?’”
– a pause –
“I need to be honest with you, ladies and gentlemen. I have no idea about this question. It’s getting late, and I think I need not fill you with senseless jabber when I know for a fact that I myself do not know anything about this question. That would be all. Good evening everyone.”
That I said with utmost confidence, chin up, with a hint of a smile—and after delivering that brief speech which obviously shocked the entire audience and apparently amused a couple of judges, I turned my back, walked ever so gracefully back to my seat, and sat, with all poise and composure intact.
And I said to myself, “Now, that’s over.”
I could say that not many, if not no one else, had done such a thing in a speech contest or a Q&A portion. Our English Department Head at the time told me that in all the many, many years she had witnessed impromptu speaking contests, never had she encountered anyone else who dared do what I did. My mom said that in the face of not having an idea about the question, some other students might’ve still attempted to give an answer, no matter how far from the mark they got.
But I dared stray from how it’s always been done. Trying too hard to keep my head above the water when I knew the effort would still be in vain just wasn’t my style. I was already in the water; I figured I might as well take a plunge and go down with a bang and not a whimper. Thus I preferred to say a strong and honest “I don’t know” rather than give a confused and confusing answer which would’ve nonetheless told the whole room the same “I don’t know” but in a more indirect way.
In daring to speak the truth the way I wanted to, I couldn’t say I was spared the ugly aftermath of the scandalous act I pulled off that day. Among other violent reactions, our school principal went berserk upon knowing what I did and let out words which would’ve had to be bleeped had it been on video. In the days following that event, I felt awful like I never have and cried for hours on end.
But though scarring, that experience was liberating for me. Instead of traumatizing and deterring me from ever speaking in front of an audience again, it did just the opposite. In a way, it worked similar to what Stephen Covey wrote about exercising patience beyond past limits such that it breaks the emotional fiber, and nature overcompensates by forming something even stronger the next time around.
Precisely because I went through something so bad it broke my emotional fiber, I was able to develop a stronger fiber that was no longer rocked by the prospect of speaking in public. Growing up, I was never much of a speaker myself; in fact I was very quiet and reserved, never raising my hand to recite in class, and speaking only if spoken to. But I dared join impromptu speaking contests (ok, I had to be dragged and threatened by gunpoint to join them), and both the good and bad experiences I got out of them helped me conquer my fear of public speaking.
Since that experience, I’ve become more comfortable speaking my mind and less daunted by moments when I would have to deliver a speech in front of an audience. Hey, I was able to live through a time when I had no idea on what I was asked about, and I had the nerve to say a clear “I don’t know” in front of several hundred people. How else could I be afraid of speaking up in times when I do have something to say, on things that I think should matter?
It’s an irony that it is in the breaking that we are built to be stronger, but there’s an important life lesson underlying this principle that Eleanor Roosevelt beautifully put in these words:
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
What’s the thing you think you cannot do? I dare you to do it. Be it finally trying out for your school’s sports team or drama club, signing up for an adventure of a lifetime, or asking your boss to assign that next big project under your leadership, you’re bound to gain lessons and learn truths about yourself that only experience can award you with.
Looking fear in the face taught me that I can push past my limits to become a better version of myself, and I hope you can experience this for yourself by facing your biggest fears too.
On second thought, scratch that—I’m not hoping that you do it.
I’m daring you to.