At 17 years old, I was a junior in high school in Brooklyn. I was naïve, quiet and wanting to be better, much better. I knew so many kids my age who were smarter, more outgoing, more physically fit, more mentally sharp, and capable of doing much more than me. I wasn’t dumb; I was ambitious, but I didn’t know how to improve. What I had was a desire to be better and the courage to change, but there was no one to show me the way.
When the opportunity to select a public speaking class was open to me, I jumped at the chance. I had no idea what the class was like, but I knew that I wanted to improve, and this class could help. The decision was just instinct without much more information than that. The teacher, whose name I have long forgotten, took 36 kids for the class and put them into six groups of six each. The objective of the class was to learn to speak in front of the class four times during the semester. I wanted to learn to speak formally in front of an audience, but did not know how.
That class changed me by forcing me to deal with my overwhelming fear of speaking in front of a group. You can say and do almost anything once you get beyond your fear. Well, I suffered for five months, day after day, worrying about the four speeches I had to give. At times, the fear of standing in front of my peers and saying something useful without looking like a fool was all-consuming. I thought about my speech day after day, often throughout the evening when I was doing homework. I dreaded the prospect of coming up with the content of what I would say, and dreaded even more the thought that I had to stand in front of the class and speak alone, being evaluated by my teacher as well as the entire class.
Keep in mind that the class was full of very talented students, since this was a one-of-a-kind class. For many of them, speaking in front of the class seemed like an easy thing for them to do, so I was up against very stiff competition. Perhaps other students were scared, but none of them gave me that impression. I was all alone with my fears, and those fears were incredibly debilitating. I worried that I would fail miserably. After all, the only speech I had ever given was at my bar mitzvah, several years earlier, and I almost didn’t give it because of my fear of speaking to an audience. It was only at my father’s urging that I managed to get through it. I had that fear in the back of mind, thinking about speaking in front of my classmates. If you have ever feared something, like going to the dentist, or a medical procedure, or taking an important test, or making a difficult decision, then you know what it’s like. The fear of the unknown, the fear of failure, the fear that other people will judge you poorly all played on my mind day after day.
That class changed me so much for the better. I had to speak four times, and each time it was a battle in my mind. I am sure that I did not improve over those four talks, but it was a five-month process. I couldn’t escape; I didn’t have my father or mother to help me, and I couldn’t share my fears with anyone. But, the process had an effect on me. It wasn’t a dramatic change immediately, but it was the start of a process for change. If I could speak and not die in front of the class, it convinced me that I could do more. The teacher wasn’t my mentor as much as the curriculum was. I put myself in what I thought was harm’s way knowing I couldn’t be physically hurt.
Bottom line: There may be a risk of failure, but often that risk is worth it. Sometimes you just have to jump.