Act Smart!: Saying “YES!” to the things you don’t want

On the other side of that gig/commitment/extension-of-self you are sure is the world’s worst idea might be a gift you’d never dreamed you might get.

When my friend Jean asked if I could come to Portland this summer and lead a workshop at her new tech nonprofit, App Camp for Girls, everything in me screamed, “NO!”

No, I’m too busy. No, I’m too broke. No, I haven’t been well; no, I’m tired of traveling. No, I’m sick of giving talks. But I knew that under these logical (if pissy) objections lay the real truth: No—I’m terrified!

What did I know about teaching presentation skills, much less to 13- and 14-year-olds? I’ve had trouble holding the interest of supposedly highly-motivated adults who were paying me to learn how to market their businesses. How much worse would it be to wrangle a gaggle of teenaged girls, there on Mom and Dad’s dime, with brand-new iPod Touches, MacBook Pros, and the potentially deadly combination of wifi and hormones in the air?

No no no no NO: I do NOT want to come to Portland and lead a workshop!

However, I have learned that what I want—or really, what I think I want—is not always the best thing for me.

For example, my natural tendency is to isolate. I enjoy my own company, by which I mean, I love holing up in my cave with books, streaming television, or a long, puttery-rich to-do list to distract me from my mile-a-minute brain, but protect me from the horrifying prospect of having to interact socially with my fellow humans. Yes, I am an introvert, but I am also willful, stubborn, and fearful. It is easy for me to use my introversion as a smokescreen for plain, old terror.

Which brings me back to Portland. Literally, as I’ve agreed to return in August and give the same workshop to a new group of girls.

You see, not only did things not go as poorly as I’d dreaded, they went roughly 100 times better than I could have imagined. This is not to say that the talk was the unqualified triumph I would have called “success” going in; the girls doodled about on their electronic devices, not always paying attention and not unanimously participating. The talk was fine, though, and it got the job done.

Neither did I metamorphose into a brilliant, sensitive teacher. Again, I did well enough that I was able to significantly help each team of four girls to deliver a cohesive, upbeat presentation at the end of the week (not to mention give the other counselors, who’d been working intensively with the girls for three-and-a-half days, a much-needed break!).

But the experience of being able to use my skills to make even a small difference for them made a huge impact on me. As the girls expertly fielded questions I’d prepared them for, I felt a surge of joy at having been used well, and an accompanying burst of gratitude at being allowed to witness their pride of accomplishment. I was not nearly as good as I’d wanted to be, because what I’d wanted to be was perfect—and adored, of course. But in the end, none of that mattered. It was a real revelation.

Of course, you may already be doing things that scare the pants off you. You are, after all, pursuing this dream of acting in the face of kookoo-crazy odds. Throughout my own life, when I’ve wanted something badly enough—to become a working actor, or to get experience speaking, or (let’s be honest) to win the affections of some guy I was crazy for—I’d travel miles outside of my comfort zone to get what I wanted.

But I am starting to see that when it was something that was, perhaps, just good for me—really, really good for me in that deep-down, soul-purpose-fulfilling sense—I’d come up with a lot of reasons why I just couldn’t do it. Too far, too expensive, too undignified, too risky. It just didn’t add up.

Except when it did. And discerning true madness from plain, old fear of failure (or exposure of your tender heart, or whatever sends shivers through you) can be tricky. Yes, you should always do your research. And you should also consult with people whom you trust; it is always prudent to get a second opinion from a wise and neutral party (i.e., not-you). But this is not always possible, and even if it is, I believe it is important to keep a strong stake in your own decision-making.

So in the interest of helping you sort through your own opportunities, here’s what I’ve learned about making smarter choices around risk:

1. Listen to the Small, Still Voice inside you. It may be VERY small, and VERY still, especially if you’re not used to giving it much air time. But it hasn’t been wrong yet. And the good news is that while it can be very quiet, it is also surprisingly persistent. So you may get multiple chances. The first time the idea for my 50th birthday fundraiser floated through my consciousness, I batted it away as if it were a drunk fly. But it kept floating back, from slightly different angles, when I least expected it.

2. Pay attention to “coincidences.” The last time the Small, Still Voice whispered “Portland” in my ear, it told me to go check my frequent-flier miles on an airline I have long ago abandoned. I was sure those miles had expired, but it whispered again, more insistently (pushy SSV!). So grudgingly, at 4pm on a Sunday, I went to the computer and logged on to my account. Lo and behold! Not only did I have exactly enough miles to get me to Portland and back—FIRST CLASS—but they were expiring at midnight that night! (I traded one of the first-class bumps for a free rental car to visit my sister in Bend, but she was worth it!)

Here’s to more “YES!” in your life—and all of the amazing places it will take you!

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