In researching Quiet, I met a scientist performing groundbreaking work on social anxiety disorder. A charming, articulate man, he confided to me that his interest in the field came from his own struggles with shyness. But he asked me not to use his name in my book. “Not everyone is as comfortable as you are exposing their true feelings,” he said.
To which I could only say “ha.”
I am not a natural self-discloser at all. It took me thirty years to realize my childhood dream of becoming a writer, partly because I was afraid to write about personal things—yet these were the subjects I was drawn to.
Eventually, my drive to write grew stronger than my fear, and I’ve never looked back. I still envy friends who write about topics like science or politics. They can show up at dinner parties without everyone announcing: “Here comes the introvert!”
But you get used to it. And really, it’s a small price to pay for the freedom to say what you think.
I tell you all this because I hear often from people who burst with ideas but decline to share them because they dislike the spotlight. Maybe you fear others judging you and your work. Or you’re uncomfortable with self-promotion. Or perhaps you’re afraid of failure, or of success.
So many fears, so many ideas worth sharing. What to do? Here are eight ideas to help you power through these disabling emotions.
1. Know that you’re in good company. People have always had to put themselves out there. We tend to think that in the good old days, no one had to self-promote the way we do today. True—but if they wanted to share, or lead, or create, they had to go public with their thoughts too. And this has always been scary. Darwin waited 34 years to publish his idea that humans evolved from monkeys. Scholars call this “Darwin’s Delay,” and many believe it was due to his fear that others would judge his heretical for the times theory.
2. When it comes to social media, think self-expression, not self-promotion. Blogging and tweeting, if practiced properly, feel more like a creative project than an exercise in self-disclosure even though, of course, they are both. They also don’t require the in-person social multi-tasking that many people find so exhausting.
3. Coffee will deliver you from self-doubt. It gets you excited about new ideas and helps you ignore the chorus of judgers inside your head. It propels your thinking and helps you make connections between seemingly unrelated things. Hence the saying that “a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.”
4. Train yourself to associate idea generation with pleasure. I usually work at a cozy café table and indulge in a chocolate muffin. I would probably be five pounds lighter without this habit, but I don’t care. By now, I so associate writing and idea generation with pleasure that I love it even when I don’t have a café table handy.
5. Work alone (or “alone together”—for example, sitting by yourself in a coffee shop or library). There’s a lot of nonsense floating around these days about how creativity is a fundamentally social act. Ignore this. Yes, creativity is social in the sense that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us; yes, we must share and advance ideas (that’s the whole point of this article); and yes, collaboration is a powerful and beautiful thing (think Lennon and McCartney).
But for many people, the creative thinking process is a solo act. One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from William Whyte’s The Organization Man:
The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a creative vehicle… People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises. But they do not think; they do not create.
6. Work at night when your cortisol levels are lower. When I was a child at summer camp, I noticed a strange pattern. I was horribly homesick first thing in the morning, often waking up with a stomach ache. But as the day wore on, the homesickness faded. By nighttime, I was carefree and having a grand time.
Each night, I was sure I’d wake up the next morning feeling just as strong as I felt in the evening. But the homesickness always came back.
Back then, I couldn’t explain this pattern, but I can now: cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it peaks in the morning and steadily dissipates throughout the day. For some of us, these peaks and falls are especially pronounced.
So while you probably think most clearly first thing in the morning, you may be at your least inhibited at night. I’ve noticed that interesting turns of phrase and associative leaps come to me much more easily in the evening hours. Indeed, creativity researchers believe that a relaxed brain, a brain that is not in the grip of anxiety or blocked by other psychological barriers, is a more creative brain.
7. Strengthen your backbone and, therefore, your confidence in small steps. Get in the habit of asking yourself where you stand on various questions. When you have firm opinions or a strong sense of right or wrong on a given question, savor the feeling. It doesn’t matter what kind of question—it can be how to organize the dishwasher.
The point is to get used to the feeling of having a center and operating from it. Then, produce more consequential ideas from this same place. You’ll still have doubts, of course: "Does it make sense? Will people agree?" That’s normal. But you need to have confidence about the underlying purpose of your undertaking.
8. If you need a role model of fearless idea generation and sharing, you really need look no further than Arianna Huffington and her Third Metric mission. She’s not worried about resistance, criticism, or taking on a mission that could, theoretically, fail.
Or maybe she is worried, but she does it nonetheless. And that really sums it up: be afraid, but do it anyway.
What are your tips for putting your ideas out there fearlessly? I would love to hear from you!
*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain's former blog, The Power of Introverts.
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