I was a very quiet kid. A lot of kids are shy; I was very shy. As a teenager, I even found it difficult to order for myself at a restaurant, so I would eat at home a lot instead. Like a lot of kids, I was at my worst when I was at school.
My sixth grade reading class once assigned a project: to create a small diorama that told the story of a historical figure. I chose aviation heroine Amelia Earhart. My dad and I staged a scene in an old shoebox: a plane and a figurine, held to the bottom with Elmer’s glue, and some tiny trees from a railroad set in the garage.
On the day of the presentation, I realized I had made a mistake. My classmates came prepared not only with a diorama, but a full costume to transform them into their subject, a requirement I had somehow missed.
To make matters worse, parents had come to see the children present their subject’s life details. My parents did not show. After all, we thought I was just handing in the diorama. Yet there they were: famous, if tiny, historic figures like Albert Einstein, Alfred Hitchcock, and even Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog.
Me? All I had was the shoebox. Certainly my attire was doing me no favors. I was dressed in ratty sneakers, worn shorts, and a black Batman t-shirt. I thought it seemed unlikely Amelia would be a big Batman fan, and anyway, there was a larger and more awkward problem: I had chosen a woman as my subject.
It got worse. In the middle of the classroom was a giant, 90s-era video camcorder propped up on a tripod. Every presentation would be recorded.
I began sweating profusely. Sitting at my desk, my body slumped over my sad little shoebox, I pouted into my hands. The classroom bustling as it was, my teacher simply didn’t notice me and began the presentations. I couldn’t summon the courage to explain to my teacher that I would be unable to present because I had failed to understand the directions.
When my name was called I walked toward the back wall of the classroom. Standing before the camera, I stared at my classroom. They quickly fell silent and glared at me perplexingly.
“I didn’t know we were dressing up for this,” I said, blushing, sweating, and ran out of the room.
I have no memory of what happened next. More than likely, I sat out in the hallway, upset, until my teacher sorted things out.
I can’t say things got better after that. I was never bullied or felt very lonely, but all through middle school and high school I simply wasn’t there. I had checked out.
Eight years after the diorama fiasco, I stood before fifty people at a coffee shop in Cary, North Carolina. The event was a Meetup for a presidential candidate whose campaign I worked on. When his plane was delayed, I was asked to fill his shoes at the last minute. Our campaign manager, Nick Baldick, probably thought my job of overseeing our online blog community made me a good fit, or maybe I was just the most expendable staffer.
Unsure at first what to say to my audience, but with intimate knowledge of our campaign’s policies and our candidate’s speaking style, I gave a stump speech that night. I talked about how important the election was, the issues we faced, and then I took questions from the crowd for at least forty-five minutes. I was engaging, concise, and likable. I nailed it. It turns out that speaking in front of people is something I love to do.
What’s more, today my clients and colleagues think of me as outgoing, even outspoken. How I got from a very introverted childhood to an extroverted adulthood is not a miracle, nor did it require any classes or special help. All it took was the inner confidence that I could get somewhere different than where I had been. It was a fifteen year project, but I had time.
Wherever you need help, you have time to make improvements. You don’t ship a product in a day; you don’t lose 20 pounds in a week; and you certainly don’t overcome your greatest fears by seventh grade. We are all built with the tools to survive, and as we survive, we gain the capacity to thrive. Focus on and believe in your absolute ability to get where you need to go, and you will.