Social Skills Mailbag #1: Tips Heading Into And Out Of College

Every now and again I still like to visit r/socialskills, the reddit board that made me realize 90 Strangers In 30 Days had potential to be something much larger than just a blog post. I like to give back by helping others with their social skill questions, putting those answers in a mailbag-type format here.


I start University tomorrow. Any tips for putting myself out there? from socialskills

College is indeed a great time to meet a ton of new people, try new things, and bust out of your shell. It took me about my first three years of college to realize this, so the fact that you are thinking about all this ahead of time tells me you will have little problem identifying situations where you can have new experiences and meet new people.

It’s a cliche as it’s totally what your high school guidance counselors tell you, but just get involved. This is easily my biggest regret about college: I hung out with the same small circle of people (many of whom I went to high school with or just happened to live in my dorm) and then three years in I wondered why I hadn’t met all the types of cool and interesting people I had hoped to.

At the university involvement fair, I dismissed many of the clubs and organizations my school offered because I was so focused on what the group seemed to be about on its banner as opposed to what it was really about: the experience of trying something new with new people. The activity itself is just details. Even if something remotely interests you, dive in and just give it a go. The worst case scenario is it just doesn’t click with you, and quitting is generally as easy as joining was. Even then, chances are there were other people who felt similarly about their time in the club or organization. You may not become best friends with these people right then, but you may see them out a bar or in a class one day and will then have that connection of both trying and hating quilting club or whatever.

Like someone else mentioned, classes are also a goldmine for meeting people. Depending on the size of your school and program of study you may end up having a lot of classes with the same people over several years. My senior year I finally figured out I could make friends in my classes simply by asking things like “Do you know anything about this professor?”, and “Are you taking this as an elective or for your major?” on the first day to whoever was seated next to me. Even if it’s not the first day, just striking up conversation about the homework or something going on at your university with the people sitting next to you can lead to hangouts (even if it’s just to study) and friendships outside of class.

Most people entering college are going to have at least a little bit of anxiety being in a new place where they may not know many people (or anyone at all). But more than probably any other time in your life, people are going to be extremely welcoming to you striking up a conversation with them, and most people are just waiting for the other person to make the first move.

Finally, keep in mind too that it’s impossible to predict who are friends will be and how we will meet them. So say yes to every invite that comes your way (within reason), welcome in new people and experiences with an open mind, and you’re guaranteed to blossom a strong social circle made up of interesting people and experiences.

Maybe getting a job is just what i need? from socialskills

Even if it takes you a while to get hired right out of college (been there), there’s other ways you can still get the same social benefits a job offers. Its mileage can vary based on where you live, but I recommend Meetup.com, which has regular meeting groups for different hobbies and interests in your areas. These range from general (20s and 30s groups) to more specific (Boston Terrier owners, video game developers) but are great ways to socialize with new people and often go to places you might not otherwise. Or, you can always start your own group.

If there’s not a big Meetup scene where you live, chances are there’s some sort of local groups you can get involved in, even if it’s just something like a networking group or Toastmasters. While they may not be as flat-out fun as your summer jobs, they’ll still give you good practice socializing and meeting new people (and who knows, maybe could lead to a job). If where you live has its own subreddit, that can be a good place to find or make open-invitation events too. I know people that have also made great friends off Craigslist (not sure what section–strictly platonic?) and I’ve become good friends with baristas just from going to their coffee shop frequently to read and work. None of this might be as glamorous as a new summer job where everyone becomes best friends within a few weeks, but as you get older it unfortunately takes a little more work to meet and befriend new people.

Trouble Making outgoing Friends at big state school from socialskills

I went to a big college too (50,000+ undergrad) and although I was from in-state and knew quite a few people already, I can closely relate to this.

That’s great you’ve worked on your social skills and it sounds like you’ve had some little ‘wins’ already (you get along with new people at parties, the random kiss, etc.). It also sounds to me like you’re doing everything ‘right’ to make new friends in terms of getting involved by joining organizations you’re interested in, participating in study groups, and so on. That’s great you’ve figured that stuff out already as it takes some (myself included) their entire college careers to do so.

My advice to you now would be persistence and patience. The early college ages especially are a confusing time as all the cozy cliques and identities everyone forged in high school are suddenly shaken up. Everyone is now in a new environment where they can seemingly explore and re-invent themselves. But as college goes on human nature starts to kick in and people start to value the stability of seeing the same people more as opposed to the novelty of hanging out with new people all the time. That said, college kids as a whole are still more welcoming and less defensive of their social circles than perhaps any other demographic you’ll encounter in your life.

Most friendships–be it in high school, college, or even as an adult–aren’t necessarily formed because of some deep existential connection you have with the person upon meeting them the first time. They’re formed out of frequency and convenience (like in home room/classes, dorms, clubs/hobbies, etc). Find a group you like with people you enjoy being around (even if they don’t ‘feel’ like friends right away) and just keep going. Chat people up with a genuine interest in them and their lives, be helpful, and find interesting things to do around campus/your city and extend invitations. Sometimes the easiest way to get invited to more things is to invite a few people to a fun idea of your own now and then, even if it’s just bar trivia some random weeknight or bowling or whatever. Keep putting yourself out there, join new groups you find interesting, say yes to invitations even if it’s not something 100% in your comfort zone.

In regards to connecting with people, it sounds like (from everything else you are saying) that making small talk isn’t necessarily the problem–you just haven’t met the right people yet! When you’re trying to develop a social circle in a new place, it can be easy to feel like you’re a failure if you don’t become friends with everyone right away (again, guilty). But there are undoubtedly people at your school who you will have an effortless time clicking with and even feel like they’re old friends within hours of meeting them. And once you meet one of these people, often you’ll meet many of their friends who you will be equally as compatible with.

You’re doing fine and by the end of next year I’m sure you’ll look back at this post and laugh 🙂

Mailbag is an every-sometimes section I write in between more long-form content. Usually I just pluck these from reddit’s r/socialskills board, but if you have a question you’d like my opinion on, shoot me an email at andrew@andrewelsass.com.

Sticky Lips and a Loose Memory: My TEDx Journey

I told myself a few days earlier I was going to treat this like a weightlifting competition.

“None of this really matters in the grand scheme of things. Clear your mind, go out and rip it, then you can forget about it.”

That seemed great in theory, except with weightlifting or other sports you can throw all that nervous energy into the bar/ball/opponent’s face. But when giving a speech there’s no real acceptable outlet to place all that anxiety at once, lest I start screaming at the audience or begin bustling through the talk at breakneck speed. 

My turn finally arrived (after needing the stagehand to convince me that my mic was indeed on) and I walked out on stage. And despite drinking water most of the morning, I began to feel my lips and mouth dry up immediately as I walked to my mark.

“Hope that doesn’t become a problem,” I thought.

Audition #1

One early morning last spring, I zombily relocated my body from bed to couch, and checked Facebook.

There, I saw a post from TEDxMileHigh, the Denver-region organizers of a number of different TEDx* events. They were accepting applications for speakers, which I assumed required me to submit peer-reviewed research, a boastful investment portfolio, or newspaper clippings about my startup’s IPO. 

But the application seemed simple enough: some standard personal questions, one about what my ‘big idea’ was, another about my public speaking experience.

It didn’t take me long to figure out what I could talk about: 90 Strangers In 30 Days was something that not only had a big impact on my life, but based on the emails I was still receiving long after the fact, clearly had a big impact on a large number of other people, too. Social skills in general are one thing I can talk ad nauseam about, and a rough outline of a potential speech began to form quickly. 

I put it on my to-do-list for that day, submitted the questionnaire, then forgot about it.

First Contact

A week or two later, I received an email from a @tedxmilehigh.com address. Like so many internship and job emails that have tried to let me down soflty over the years, the message began by thanking me for applying. As I began to temper my expectations, I read on, and to my surprise they were instead lifted:

So today was good. #tedtalks #ted #tedex @tedxmilehigh

Una foto publicada por andrewelsass (@slassy) el


The only thing grounding my excitement was the audition date, which gave me just two weeks to write, develop, memorize to some degree, and make slides for an 8.5 minute “sample” of what could become my full speech if accepted (the TED format allows speeches to be up to 18 minutes in length).

Reality not fully set in yet, I pored over my notes from when I read Talk Like TED, watched some TED talks about what makes a good TED Talk, sketched a rough outline, and then a first draft.

My first run-through ran something like 14.5 minutes, included way too many anecdotes exemplifying the same thing, a heavy dose of self-deprecation, and in general wasn’t ordered in any sort of fashion that was going to help me memorize it quickly.

I trimmed heavily from there, and by the time audition day rolled around I had some solid meat on my outline bones, a few slides I thought adhered to TED’s recommendations, and a note sheet with pictures I hoped would help me quickly regain my place if I were to lose it during the audition.

Due to it being April in Denver and snow still being a thing, my girlfriend and I dodged an incoming storm by staying in a nearby hotel the night before. My audition time the next day was mid-morning at a fancy downtown coworking space.

When we arrived, lingering around were a number of my fellow auditioners: a calm, stoic looking lady that undoubtedly was a professor in some field I never had to take a class in; a pacing, middle-aged man nervously fiddling with his iPad; and a guy closer to my age wearing headphones. I guessed he was auditioning for a performance role, as he would occasionally bust out a badass dance move that made me question my own audition approach (“maybe I should dance
”).

Then there was me, bouncing like a pogo stick over by the complimentary coffee and danishes.

I was ready: I held a focus group with friends a few days before; I had scribbled “I will give a TEDx Talk” over 100+ times in my journal the past few weeks; and even meditated daily by a nearby creek (not kidding), envisioning myself onstage at Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House, thunderous applause creating cracks in the building’s foundation as I walked off, the people demanding an encore performance of my speech…everything I thought I was supposed to do, really. This audition was mine.

Finally, I was called into a small room at the end of the hall. To demonstrate that I wasn’t a fraud in regard to my topic, I introduced myself to the three panelists waiting inside and made small talk about the crazy weather. Then, the clock started.

I felt that rush of hyper-aware yet simultaneous calm focus that only public speaking, weightlifting competitions, and marching band (shut up) has given me, and finished a little faster than I had practiced, right around eight minutes. They thanked me, I thanked them, and I left the room content.

I told myself since I had prepared and performed the best I thought I possibly could, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t make it. But that turned out to be a lie, as two days later I received an email saying I wasn’t a fit for their 2016 program. The bit in there about being just one of 40 to audition out of over 600 applicants only made me feel slightly less mopey, but I couldn’t help but mope nonetheless.

I comforted myself that night with Chinese food and playoff hockey. Then, in a day or two, I forgot about it.  

A Second (And Third) Chance

Flash forward six weeks later. Somewhere on my hard drive, I stumbled across my speech notes, and I got curious.

After some quick searching, I found out there were TEDxColorado Springs (where I live) and TEDxDayton (where I’m from) events, and that both just happened to be accepting applications at that very moment.

I had done all that work to iron out my idea and memorize eight minutes worth of speech; why let that all go to waste?

The application questions for both were similar to the one for Denver, except Colorado Springs also wanted me to submit along a video of me performing my speech.

Dayton liked my application and invited me to come audition, however it wasn’t possible for me to travel there on short notice, so they said I could also send in a video audition.

As I learned, every TEDx event likes to do their audition process a little different. Colorado Springs capped their videos at 8.5 minutes while Dayton’s was somewhere in the 4-5 minute range. Feeling only slightly overwhelmed, I worked up until the deadline for both, creating two new versions of the speech (neither of which I had completely memorized by the time I went to film).

Ready to get it over with, I recorded both back-to-back in one take each while balancing my phone on a ladder, then submitted them to the appropriate parties. 

A few days later I received another email with the familiar line thanking me for auditioning, but then also an again-surprising second line inviting me to formally audition for TEDxColorado Springs. The audition would be in just 10 days, and this time they wanted to see a “full” version of the speech, up to 18 minutes in length.

Not wanting to add in new parts that I didn’t have solidly memorized, I went in and delivered basically the same speech I had delivered in my Denver audition and in my video. The setting was similar (a co-working space), but this time I was auditioning for something like 7-10 people that covered the complete gamut of human emotion (minus crying) while I auditioned: two women I thought might have been statues if I hadn’t greeted them when I walked in, a few more-thoughtful looking listeners, and an extremely comforting man on my right that was nodding along with everything I said (and that even chuckled at my dumb jokes).

The panel then asked me a few follow-up questions during which I demonstrated that I had used up all my capacity for eloquence and conciseness during the actual audition. I was complimented on my shoes on the way out by my new head-nodding fan (which I took as either a good sign or as that guy’s way of letting me down softly), and forgot about it.

But I couldn’t for long this time.

Meeting My Fellow TEDdys 

Later that same evening, I received a call from one of the friendlier women in the room saying they would love to have me in their program this year.

A few weeks later we had our first official TEDx meeting, held at a local art gallery. While there, I got to meet my fellow speakers: clothing company president Jan Erickson; graphic designer Jenny Schnell; stage actor and director Jesse Wilson; life coach Jill Davis; world champion Paralympic discus thrower Kevin Broussard; social entrepreneur Kevin White; digital marketing consultant Lauren Hug; and social scientist Mary Boardman.  

For the first time since I was next to the breakdancer and the college professor in the TEDxMileHigh holding area, I started to question my credentials and place at the event. These were all extremely brilliant and accomplished individuals with letters after their names and medals with their names on them. I on the other hand, wrote about 900-words that a bunch of redditors clicked an up arrow on over three years ago.

But after everyone had given a short preview of their talk and received a cool plaque, the time came to mingle, and something happened that would become a reoccurring theme of sorts: people (including my fellow presenters) kept coming up to me saying things like “I wish my nephew/daughter/students could hear your speech”, and “I hope you know that your message is an important one.” I hadn’t really heard praise about 90 Strangers like this in-person before, and it felt good.

plaques

While there, I also met the speech coach that was assigned to me: Ed.

Ed was a fast-talking Long Islander that had countless years of public speaking during his time as a high-ranking official in the Navy. He was also, as I pegged him quickly, an extrovert.

Given the topic of my speech, I wasn’t sure how this relationship was going to work. How could this guy who probably had countless crucial conversations and tense, fate-of-the-world-in-balance negotiations aboard nuclear submarines possibly relate to my message and help me amplify it?

But I decided to trust the assignment, and sent Ed my transcript to look over. A day or two later, I received an email from him full of great feedback on my speech. Maybe extroverts were able to articulate and relate to #socialskillsprobs more than I gave them credit for.

From there, we were mostly left up to our own devices. Ed and I decided to meet bi-weekly when we could, up until a small group rehearsal that was scheduled in August.

These first practices mostly took place in an empty conference room at Ed’s office. There I would run through the entire 14-some minute speech two or three times, Ed fervently scrambling notes on my transcript as I did, feeding me my lines when I would blank on them (which happened often). Several times he recruited his co-workers (one who was a former TV writer) to come listen and offer their feedback, too.

At the mid-August feedback session, we gave a run through of our entire speech in front of our fellow speakers, their coaches, a few past speakers, and some of the event organizers.

Running the show was a consultant that had everyone write their feedback on different slips of scrap paper. On one piece we were to write warm fuzzies (e.g., “I love how you wander around every inch of allotted space while you speak”). On the other, we wrote “critique” that was stated in the form of a question (e.g., “What if you didn’t make all those corny jokes?”). After everyone read their feedback to us, we took home the pieces of paper so that we could later sort through and decide which ones were helpful and discard the ones that were not.

August came and went, and the actual event still seemed impossibly far away. But as the leaves changed, so too did the tone of my voice when I would tell people “oh, it’s not until November 5th” to “it’s on NOVEMBER 5th”, as in less than a month away.

The Struggle Was Real(ly Just Three Things)

My one-to-two week breaks from practicing began to dwindle into just a few days off here and there, and Thursdays at lunch or in the evening became regular practice time with Ed. Tweaks were constantly being made and while I could see improvement every time we met, I would still have bouts of frustration with three things in particular:

1. Memorization: No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to surpass the 95% memorized mark. There were a few spots I would struggle to remember consistently, and during practice these would turn into long pauses and stares at coach Ed.

All I would need is a single word to prompt me into remembering where I left off, but nonetheless it was frustrating. Closer to the event date, our full run-through practices turned into running the same section of speech over and over, sometimes five or six times in a row and drilling down on every phrase and every sentence.

2. Inflection: Many schools of public-speaking thought highly discourage memorizing your speech word-for-word, instead encouraging you to have a set opening, interchangeable ‘body parts’ that can be arranged in the moment as nededed, and then a set closing.

But as a writer, I carry the burden of obsessing over syntax and thus want to say things exactly as I wrote them down. That’s not such a bad thing because I’m far from being a good off-the-cuff speaker, but a consequence of it is that it can make what I am saying sound overly-memorized and monotonous. During parts where I frequently went on autopilot and my emotion would flatline, I’d try my damndest to inject more inflection and enthusiasm. But while in my head I sounded like Mickey Mouse on crack, to Ed it still sounded like Eeyore on downers. Chalk it up to being a ‘chill’ guy I suppose.

3. Slides: I had a few slide ideas I thought would be pretty cool if I could them pull off well. But I also received a lot of feedback along the lines of “you convey your message so well, you probably don’t really need slides”. And so, I put off doing these pretty much as long as I could. 

After a few rounds of feedback, I had slides remaining that I felt happy enough with, but by then the event was just a week or two out and I had to memorize a whole new non-verbal element of my speech: timing my slides to my speaking. Also, one of the organizations I requested permission from to use their logo denied me about a week out, sending me scrambling to try and cover up the hole they left.

The event date continued to creep closer, and as people would ask me how I was feeling, my stock answer became a half-joke/half-truth that “my biggest concern is what to wear so I guess that’s a good sign!” or a more deadpan “It’s like trying to memorize a really long song.”

Memorize This

The Saturday prior to the big day, we had a full dress rehearsal at the actual event venue, Stargazers Theatre. I had been to Stargazers once before for a small concert, but actually being on stage made the venue feel more cavernous than intimate. After being given some details about what the actual event day was going to be like, speaker Jesse led us all in a goofy ‘get loose’ warm up, and then it was time do a full run-through of the show.

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Out of nine speakers, I was penciled in for fifth (despite my low .OBP and never really being much of a power hitter).

My memorization was now up to about 97% in most of my run-throughs. To get that last three ticks, I tried everything from just saying my speech over and over as I was driving around town, to listening to a recording of myself while washing dishes or eating lunch.

What helped the most was using sort of mnemonic memory devices with certain parts of the speech. For instance, near the end of my talk I say this sentence:

More ridiculous perhaps is not that social skills aren’t taught, but is that they can be taught easily and at minimal cost.

I associated the word cost with a Target logo in my head (Target is a store which sells things that all have a cost), which reminded me of my next paragraph:

While talking to random people in the stationary aisle at Target like I did for my experiment might have limited “real world” utility, if you can muster up the courage to just do as much as say ‘Hi, how are you?’ or anything else to a stranger 90 times in a month, I can guarantee that next networking event or party is going to feel a lot less scary, and a lot more fun. Moreover, this idea is infinitely scalable–for someone that’s an even harder case than I was they could simply do 30 Strangers In 30 Days, or while not as catchy, Make Good Eye Contact with 30 People In 30 Days, then build from there.

I associated the word build with a staircase, symbolic for the idea of self-improvement, which reminded me to say:

Over the course of those years as my social skills improved


And so on. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably try memorizing the entire speech using this method from the moment I started practicing it.

So I went on to the roar of the three volunteers in the crowd at this practice rehearsal, and…crushed it. 100% memorized, feeling completely in control of every body movement and inflection of my voice, and I even got laughs in parts of the speech I wasn’t expecting to.

The countdown was now at under seven days, and from day one when we met as a group back in July, we were warned not to practice during this week. So what did I decide to do? Practice once more of course, a run-through the Thursday before the show for some friends that weren’t going to be able to make it to the event.

There, the wave of confidence I was riding came crashing down. In front of my friends I blanked on parts that weren’t in the 3% I hadn’t had completely memorized before, flip-flopped the order of others, and skipped a good 30-45 seconds of the middle. Not practicing didn’t feel like an option after that, and Friday was spent frantically trying to ‘map’ those parts of the speech that I had glossed over deeper into my consciousness.

Despite worrying that I had peaked too early and needed another four months of prep to get back to proper speech form, Saturday came. I felt one part kid-on-Christmas-morning, one part disbelief that the day was actually here, and one big part shit-my-pants-nervous.

I showed up at the theatre and we went through the same ‘be silly’ warm up (which I highly recommend before giving speeches, going into a job interview, in the dentist’s office, anywhere) and then it was showtime.

“Dude, you gotta breathe.”

Backstage, it was interesting to see people’s different preparation methods: some preferred to zone out with headphones in; others chose to pace outside; and some just preferred to chat casually with everyone around them like it was no big deal. In order to prove to myself that I did have this thing memorized, I chose to go in a small hallway and say my speech quietly to a wall at about 2x normal speed.

And then, after a brief application of makeup (though I’m told I can’t call it makeup because it was just powder), I waited. Backstage we had access to anything we could possibly need just short of a bowl of only-red M&M’s. As other speakers went on, I passed the time mostly by trying to decide if I was actually hungry or if my nerves were making my stomach eat itself. After about the first three speakers went on, I settled on something small to eat and began to go into hardcore preparation mode.

I went to scribble a few positive affirmations in my journal, and it was this moment I realized how much trouble I was having trying to calm myself down. If at my Denver audition I was a pogo stick, here I was a runaway jackhammer.

I tried listening to music, breathing deeply, getting fresh air, saying positive affirmations aloud, pooping, and repeating the few trouble parts of the speech to again convince myself that I knew them. Yet when it came time to get mic’d up while the speaker before me was giving his talk, the audio guy took one look at me and said “dude, you gotta breathe.”

By now, I had probably run through this speech (late additions such as my intro notwithstanding) somewhere in the ballpark of 100 times. I walked out, felt my throat and lips turn to desert, did my opening gimmick, and muscle memory took over.

Talk: Why don't we teach social skills

At this point it was kind of an out-of-body experience in the way that on one side of my brain, I had my internal teleprompter running through the speech:

Say this…do this with your hands…pause and smile so they know I am joking…

And then a sort of self-observing (and judgemental) third eye on the other side:

This is *actually* going ok…it’s really not as dark as I expected in here…they’re laughing at *that* part?…you hit your slides early jackass, just go back and keep talking…

I don’t have much more to say about what being on stage was like, because honestly, other than trying to pick out different people at the front tables to talk “to”, then realizing I was doing that maybe a little too much, then trying to talk more to the back of the house, I don’t remember much else.

I sailed through the parts I was struggling with easily, and once I hit the homestretch my inner monologue began celebrating too early, and I ended up skipping a small joke about my days as a video game message board vet. I realized this right away, but couldn’t invent a good way to loop it back in naturally, so I chose to just wrap up the speech as intended.

And as I did, the first thing I felt when I walked on stage came back to haunt me–while trying to slow down and e n u n c i a t e my closing for e m p h a s i s, my dry lips started to stick my teeth. I fought through, prayed there wouldn’t be a close up on my face at that point in the final video, waited for applause, resisted the temptation to bow or curtsy, and walked back off.

I high-fived the next speaker (the amazing Mary Boardman), was de-mic’ed, and slam dunked draft 11 of my transcript in a trashcan.

Back in the speaker room, I was greeted with congratulations (in my head that was short for “congratulations, it’s over!”) and was interviewed by the event videographers. I was told they wanted to do this right after so they could capture the speakers’ “euphoria” fresh off the stage, but I think what my interview captured were pattering nerves and a brain trying to calibrate back to normalcy.

I rambled off some answers, forgetting that I should be looking at the interviewer and not deer-in-headlights into the lens, and then I was officially off the hook of having to speak eloquently.

Ed came and congratulated me, and I watched the rest of the speakers from the upper deck of the venue, head mostly slumped on my girlfriend’s shoulder out of exhaustion and relief.

I felt a kind of eery weightlessness, eight months of stress freed from the back of my head where it had balled up and made a nice little home for itself. A few strangers congratulated me and told me that they agreed with my message and that their niece/son/coworkers needed to hear it, and after some celebratory meatballs and a beer at the afterparty, I went home.

And then I kinda forgot about it.

The Snarky Aftermath

In the weeks that followed I struggled to answer the “how did it go?” question.

In situations where I needed to answer concisely, I decided that, “It went like something that I practiced over 100 times was mostly supposed to,” would sound snarky at best despite its earnestness, and instead settled for, “Well, no one booed or threw anything at me so I guess that’s good.”

While those answers were technically true, more true was that I had trouble coming up with words to describe this thing I did in which every word was scripted.

Speaking at a TEDx event was something I put on my bucket list that I never expected to accomplish or even consider trying for until I was a mid-thirty something and had written a few more books, was more ‘established’, and opened a chain of drive thru-barbershops. Although I know this is a bad line of thinking, it was sort of this pinnacle on a pedestal I felt I would reach when I had ‘arrived’ and made significant contributions to some hyper-niche field, or maybe one of my #ideaaday-s that I post on Twitter would catch on and I’d get to explain how my inspiration was equal parts grogginess, coffee, and needing to scribble something in my journal so I could get on with my day.

Little did I know that TEDx was instead going to represent the beginning of my contributions, and I already knew exactly in what field those would be.

Now that I’ve gone ‘public’ (in a way more than just a blog or reddit post) with some of my feelings and experiences about the state of social skills in our society, I feel I have a level of accountability (read: a kick in the ass) where I have reached a point of no return, and need to make a serious investment in doing what I feel I have known for years now should be my life’s work: helping others become socially stronger.

With the help of the SCORE Association and the support of countless friends and family members, I’ve begun to develop a 90 Strangers-branded social skills course, am actively pitching a book/workbook about the idea to publishers, and am now open for in-person and Skype coaching, something I’ve envisioned myself doing for a while but hadn’t had the guts to start. I’ve even dipped a toe into a medium I’ve admittedly never pictured myself going into: YouTube (branding in development), and have put some serious thought into getting a master’s in developmental psychology.

I like to think I possessed the drive to do all of this someday anyway without needing the affirmation of a few hundred people at Stargazers to know who I am and what I am about. But even though I pride myself on my stubborn independence, I’m not ashamed to admit that…I did.

Now that I reached that pedestal that TED was sitting on in my mind, I can now look behind it and see that if nothing else, it was just a gatekeeper to the climb and real work that lies behind it.

Instead of being the landing strip I thought it would be, TEDx was instead the launching pad.

And I’ll never forget it.

*TEDx events are independently-organized events that follow TED’s structure (18 minute speeches about ideas worth sharing, etc.). Kind of like franchising a fast food restaurant, the organizers must follow certain regulations and rules in order to carry the TEDx license.

Photography by Jay Billups

The Sincerest High

It’s the sincerest high,
Just that—saying ‘hi’.
Over and over,
Countless times in a night.

Many of these people I will never see again,
But I know left my energy and impression with them.
Our buzz shall be amplified by our emotions;
The other way around seems broken.

As I bounce around the floors
My hellos open new doors.
Momentum builds,
This must be what it’s like to have social skills.

It’s something that feels so damn right
Something that used to keep me up at night,
Rolling may be associated with MDMA
But to me it’s not having to think about what to say.

Alcohol and drugs can be a boost or a crutch
But being able to achieve this state without either is a must,
For the most beautiful feelings
Come from this energy, come from belonging.

Journal entry from January 2014, written after a party.

The Paradox of Becoming Socially Stronger

“I only got ten likes in the last five minutes/
Do you think I should take it down?”

–Girl in that Chainsmokers song

Whether it’s inherent or a result of our current digital climate, the amount we (myself included) feed off of positive feedback is alarming. More startling is that the feedback many of us seem to crave most is from people that would otherwise be irrelevant to us if not for social media.

Likes, retweets, and positive praise can easily become the currency of our self-esteems when gone unchecked. I hear it talked about amongst peers and coworkers enough to assume that most are aware of this phenomenon; the involuntary Facebook checks, the obsessive wondering of how many likes on your new Instagram photo, the general digital FOMO.

While being constantly distracted by your phone or inbox is one thing, I think the real trouble begins when this starts to extend off the screen into our personal relationships.

The Proof Is In The Liking

Online, it’s very tangible to know where people stand. They click a button or make a comment of praise, and then it’s there forever to look back on, some sort of physical proof of approval.

Unless you and your closest connections are in the habit of writing physical notes to one another, actual relationships are not quite as material and the proof of approval can be less-obvious. The foundation is more trust-based as opposed to endorsement-driven.

However, voiced words can be craved just like favorites and retweets. They certainly mean something, and almost always more than general Facebook praise. At the same time, their meaning and weight varies from finite to eternal depending on the source and context. Anyone who has ever had a bad breakup can attest to all the wonderful and then-authentic things that their SO once said, but that now seem like nothing more than empty lies.

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All of this praise, it provides a high, a rush of dopamine that is amazing and wonderful in the moment yet can leave someone too attached to the feeling over time, craving more extremely quickly. In my experience, affirmation addiction on social media only worsens these cravings offline.

In one of my last relationships, I became addicted to the positive praise I received. I’ve never told anyone this—even this person—but I kept a Word document of some of the things she said that made me feel good.

Creepy? Maybe a little. However the good intent was there, as I was trying to just provide myself some sort of proof about how this person felt when I had doubt about the relationship. While it was a nice idea and served its purpose occasionally, I always wanted more and was never truly satisfied—a classic sign of addiction. I enjoyed the praise and the moment it came in so much that this was my way of trying to make it last.

While I am over feeling like I need to archive compliments from my relationships anymore, I felt that the idea could be useful in a way that was more than just an emotional crutch.

The Paradox of Becoming Socially Stronger

I recently finished reading Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon (an extremely quick read and the best summary of the creative process I have ever read).

One of the ideas in the book is to keep a “praise file” for when artistic doubt inevitably creeps in. Inside this Word .doc, Evernote, whatever, it suggests placing any compliments received about your work to look at when self-doubt is present. It’s a great idea, and did make me go and compile the few comments, Facebook messages, and emails I have received about my writing. I imagine the next time I find myself in steps 2-4 of the creative process, it will be useful in breeding some positive emotions and thoughts.

I think for those that have battled with both seeking approval and improving their social skills, this idea lends itself perfectly: making a list of positive experiences, interactions, and those small “social victories” where they felt completely like themselves and in a flow state. Especially in the beginning, reflecting on this list and just knowing that it exists is an extremely beneficial way for recovering shys to provide beneficial reinforcement to themselves.

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The difficulty of it all is that anyone that wants to become more social, is in a way, wanting the approval of others in social settings. There is a certain level of positive feedback that is required to become more socially successful—there is obviously no way to increase your social awareness or know if something is a good conversation starter without paying attention to the emotions and actions of the other person in an interaction.

And herein lies the paradox: becoming socially free involves a large degree of not caring about the approval of others, yet the reason most want to develop their social skills is for their approval and acceptance.

Quite the circle, eh?

It’s a fine line, and for someone that struggles with social anxiety, it might take years to figure out that healthy balance (I know that was the case and occasionally still can be for me).

However, if the boundary can be made between keeping this positive feedback in a file (be it just a mental one) as positive reinforcement versus ego fuel and the sole reason for action, then I think this is an overwhelmingly positive thing for recovering shys to do.

Good Proof vs. Bad Proof

I’ve written before about the lasting power of a compliment, and while verbal praise doesn’t mean forever, it doesn’t change the fact that the compliment was about you.

83d821a400e902e88712e0ee3d9b7509Contexts will change, that person will change, the relationship will change, you will change on some level—however that compliment was about a real part YOU, not a mirror bathroom shot, witty status update, or what you ate for lunch today. It was about something deeper, and forgive me for going off the existential deep end, about some sort of energy inside you that will always exist in some form or another. All these ever-changing variables do not make the praise any less valid or valuable as a reference point.

An example would be the random text message compliment about my charisma I received that I mentioned in the wrap up for 90 Compliments. I saved it as a screenshot, and while I’ve since backed up and erased all the photos on my phone, I know it exists somewhere. If I am having a day where I feel like a grump and am doubting that I’ve gained any sort of social skills over the years and am just full of shit, I will think back to it. It’s there, it was said unsolicited, and even if my social skills have actually regressed, it’s still an exhibit of my potential or capabilities.

It might seem like I am contradicting myself by saying that wanting approval on social media is negative but wanting it in person is good. However, if 90 Compliments taught me anything, it is that giving compliments can be genuinely difficult. And as a general rule of thumb for life, typically the most difficult things carry the most meaning in the end.

Verbal praise and having great conversation with someone is not a Facebook like or a starred post—it’s much better, and its value lasts much longer.

I am a work in progress with all of this like anyone else, learning to free myself from this affirmation addiction. However, through reading, meditation, and just experiencing more life in general, it has been one of the most rewarding struggles I have put myself through, similar to an addict starting to remember life before their dependence. Had I not learned to enjoy this battle, for instance, there is no way I would have ever sit down to write a 1300-word piece about my neediness, let alone put it out publicly let alone promote it on social media. *gasp*

In my experience, becoming socially stronger is much more than just learning social acuity. Counterintuitively, it’s more about just doing without any sort of desired outcome and just being you for the sake of being you.

The Rudest Question: “Why are you so shy?”

“Why are you so shy?”

This seemingly innocent question is the most counter-productive and really, deflating, thing someone that struggles with social anxiety* can be asked.

The question implies that there was some sort of deliberate choice in the matter, that people wake up each morning and decide they are going to go about their day timidly while harboring a fear of social judgment, like they were choosing their shirt and tie.

Worse, the question is almost always asked out of pity or contempt and rarely as an attempt to understand or help.

And it makes you feel like something is wrong with you. Something pathological. Like you are defective.

For a long time, I convinced myself I was these things and that I had many other ‘deficiencies’.

Really, I only felt comfortable interacting with those that I had been around for an extended period of time in a ‘safe’ environment, such as a classroom. The lengths at which I would avoid interaction knew no bounds:

  • I used to be too shy to call someone on the phone in junior high school and ask what the homework assignment was. Yes, I would literally rather take a bad grade than talk on the phone with a classmate.
  • I once made up a story about a friend having car trouble to avoid spending a whole evening with a girl I hardly knew and her friend at a baseball game.
  • On more than one occasion I feigned receiving a phone call instead of enduring the torment of standing and waiting with a group of people that I didn’t really know.

And these were all as a teenager (maybe 20 or 21 for the second one). Imagine the stories a grown adult that struggles with a full-blown social phobia could tell.

Being shy sucks. Wanting to be able to participate in the social world around you, wanting more than anything to be able to interact (seemingly) effortlessly like everyone else seems to do, but instead feeling like nothing more than a spectator. Basically, it feels like being a prisoner to your own mind.

So don’t ask people this.

There is really no possible way for the Shy Question to be asked without it sounding accusatory. It automatically puts a shy—somebody already in full-guard—on the defensive even more. The question implies that not speaking is wrong, yet ironically the declination to speak can in part be traced to a fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing. This sub-communicates “you can’t do anything right.”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I’m not proposing that shys should be handled with kid gloves—I believe in most cases the fastest way to break the shell (like with anything) is immersion and repeated practice—but imagine the limiting beliefs this question can instill in a child.

Even if it’s not from a place of ill-will, it’s all counter-productive to what you are really trying to say, which is “Would you like to join the conversation?”

Of course there is no need to be that deliberate about it. Invite the person in subtly. Ask them their opinion on whatever it is being talked about. Ask what the best part of their day was, or if they have any exciting plans for the weekend. Extroverts make their own invitation; introverts and shys sometimes need an invitation to the conversation if it’s not about something they are super passionate for.

Recognize that this person is not in their ideal social setting, and help ease them into it. Only after doing this and showing them that there is nothing to fear, will you defeat the urge to ask them this question to begin with, because they’ll no longer feel anxious.0d4a84d18f36bbf72f7489def114378e

Again, I’m not advocating social handholding; only social awareness and empathy. Not bothering to interact with someone because they’ve been pegged as shy or as someone who doesn’t talk becomes a self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy for both parties.

An example of this can be found in a study discussed in the book Influence by Robert B. Cialdini:

“Carlos (a young student) was not very articulate in English, his second language, and because he was often ridiculed when he had spoken up in the past, he had learned over the years to keep quiet in class. We might even say that Carlos and the teacher had entered into a conspiracy of silence. He would become anonymous, buried in the bustle of classroom activity, and not be embarrassed by having to stumble over answers; she, in turn, would not call on him.

Her decision probably came from the purest of motives; she didn’t want to humiliate him, or watch the other kids make fun of him. But by ignoring Carlos, the teacher had, in effect, written him off. She was implying that he was not worth bothering with; at least that was the message the other kids got. If the teacher wasn’t calling on Carlos, it must be because Carlos is stupid. It is likely that Carlos himself came to the same conclusion.”

The chapter goes on to discuss the jigsaw learning method, in which each student in a classroom is given a set of facts that will appear on a test to be given that same day.

To learn everything that is going to be covered on the assessment, the students must ‘interview’ each classmate to learn their respective pieces of information. Not only does this open communication avenues between the outgoing children and those that are a little more reserved, it provides positive reinforcement to all, showing that both the Carloses and everyone else can all contribute value:

“It began to dawn on these kids that the only chance they had to learn about Carlos’s segment was by paying attention to what Carlos had to say. […] Instead of teasing Carlos or ignoring him, they learned to draw him out, to ask the questions that made it easier  for him to explain out loud what was in his head. Carlos, in turn, relaxed more, and this improved his ability to communicate. After a couple of weeks, the children concluded that Carlos wasn’t nearly as dumb at they thought he was. They saw things in him they hadn’t seen before. They began to like him more, and Carlos began to enjoy school more and think of his classmates not as tormentors, but as friends.”

Another solution to encourage socialization at younger ages comes from the research of psychologist Robert O’Connor with socially withdrawn preschool children (can also be read about in Influence):

“We have all seen children of this sort, terribly shy, standing alone at the fringes of the games and groupings of their peers. O’Connor worried that a long-term pattern of isolation was forming, even at an early age, that would create persistent difficulties in social comfort and adjustment through adulthood. In an attempt to reverse the pattern, O’Connor made a film containing eleven different scenes in a nursery-school setting. Each scene began by showing a different solitary child watching some ongoing social activity and then actively joining the activity, to everyone’s enjoyment. O’Connor selected a group of the most severely withdrawn children from four preschools and showed them his film.

2591a88314528f360c865f10c7e2cf04The impact was impressive. The isolates immediately began to interact with their peers at a level equal to that of the normal children in the schools. Even more astonishing was what O’Connor found when he returned to observe six weeks later. While the withdrawn children who had not seen O’Connor’s film remained as isolated as ever, those who had viewed it were now leading their schools in amount of social activity. It seems that this twenty-three-minute movie, viewed just once, was enough to reverse a potential pattern of lifelong maladaptive behavior. Such is the potency of the principle of social proof.”

Solutions do exist.

While certainly not all schoolteachers are extreme extroverts, typically those in leadership positions (even if it’s just schoolchildren they are leading) were, I am speculating, never shy or can no longer relate to the feeling.

Even I—someone who basically wants to build a professional life around helping people become more social—have found myself guilty of judging children going through the very same things I went through.

For my office job, I was recently working a booth at an event where we were giving away promotional items to children that completed a simple scavenger hunt we were running. Naturally, many kids would approach us wondering if we were just giving out the prizes to anyone who asked. I would then explain as simply as possible how the contest worked.

Several of these children were so
distrusting when I was talking to them that I found myself irritated. They’d make only fleeting instances of eye contact and were basically withdrawing from the interaction the entire time I was explaining. Basically, they seemed petrified a human that wasn’t their parents was talking to them.

Come on, just look at and listen to me, kid. Just talk, what are you so scared of?

I legitimately caught myself thinking this once, then was immediately disgusted with myself. If I could momentarily forget what it was like to feel insufferably shy, then imagine how unrelatable it must be for people who never went through this struggle (and why “Why are you so shy?” might seem like a fair thing to ask).

Even worse, I think many chalk shyness up as nothing more than a phase that kids grow out of. While some certainly do (eventually), if the purpose of education is in part to give children the skills they need to be successful in life, shouldn’t busting them out of their ‘shell’ as soon as possible be a top priority?

As I—and many others—can attest, social skills are something that can be self-taught. But instead of leaving them as something for people to (hopefully) figure out on their own or diagnosing them with SAD and shoving prescription medications down their throat, isn’t it something we can simply be more conscious of and alter our education environment for?

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“Why are you so shy?’ isn’t the question we should be asking.

Instead we should be asking ourselves why we lack the basic empathy to understand that sometimes the seemingly simplest things—like conversing—can be the hardest for others.

It’s not anything that should just be pitied, but instead identified and worked on, like a child who goes to a speech therapist during normal school hours to work on their L’s and R’s. To me, there is zero difference.

Teach basic social skills. Teach what a ‘normal’ conversation is like, and some ways to start one. Stop just teaching about the proper use and structure of language, and start teaching how to actually use it.

Apparently we teach children how to speak when they come around to feeling like it, but giving them the confidence to speak freely? You’re on your own kid.

Ever been asked this question? How did it make you feel, how did you respond, and what do you think we can do to help children (and people in general) overcome severe shyness?

*in this post I use social anxiety, social phobia, and shyness interchangeably. They have their differences but for the purpose of this post it just made sense to group them all together.

Banner photo credit: nmwilhem728 | https://www.flickr.com/photos/43490126@N07/5676996857