Optimal Number of Embarrassing Shock Experiences

I remember standing in the parking lot outside the offices of potential client several years ago before a big presentation. I was shaking with nervousness. Palms sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy. I was nervous about how I'd win over a group of skeptical managers. I was nervous about not being taken seriously due to my age (14). Nervous about being mentally outmatched.

I remember arriving at a business networking function in San Francisco. I surveyed the room of strangers standing around small tall circular tables holding drinks and chatting. My muscles tightened as I contemplated having to penetrate seemingly closed circles, insert myself into conversation, and then make small talk with all the formally dressed men and women with many more years of experience.

So I made a bee line to the bathroom, went into a stall, locked the door, put the cover seat down, and sat on the toilet for 30 minutes. Eventually I left my self-imposed bathroom stall imprisonment and chatted with the other attendees at the event, but it was not easy-going. The whole while I asked myself questions like, "Am I saying the right things? Do they think I'm dumb?" This happened at most business social functions I attended.

I remember countless phone call screw-ups. One time I called a guy as part of a sales pitch. He was a big deal and I wanted to nail the call. I reached his voicemail, and started leaving a message, and when I was done with my bit I realized I didn't know how to close. I stumbled through a few "OK well look forward to hearing back from you" lines before saying: "thanks so much again Richard, talk to you soon, take care, thanks, thanks thanks." Then I hung up. I literally said "thanks, thanks thanks" three times in a row before hanging up the phone. Man, did I feel like an idiot and not at all on the level of the guy I was courting.

These were shock experiences. Two reflections:

First, as I experienced these embarrassing moments I did not attribute my missteps to social inexperience or immaturity but I instead concluded that I was less intelligent than the other people at these events. This may explain my drive to keep learning and improving so as to avoid this kind of embarrassment in the future.

Second, there is such a thing as an optimal number of embarrassing / failure experiences. Too many too young and it can destroy foundational self-confidence. Too few, and arrogance reigns.

There is such a thing as an optimal level of insecurity in a person.

16 comments on “Optimal Number of Embarrassing Shock Experiences
  • Good observation with reflection #2.

    Regarding #1, I wonder what other people think about the nature of good social skills… I used to think that they were an innate quality — you either had them or you didn’t. You appeared to think they were related to intelligence or knowledge. Now I see them as just being mostly the result of practice and time which seems to be the same conclusion you reached?

  • I would say embarrassing moments are a sign you’re moving outside your comfort zone. If you don’t do that regularly, you don’t improve.

    So, it’s not just arrogance that is risked from too few exposures to awkward situations, it’s competence itself.

    Good thoughts

  • Ben, it’s posts like this that keep me coming back to your blog. Your courage in weaving such intimate personal experiences into your life lessons is inspiring…

    BTW, I read that you will be traveling to Surabaya. I’ve been there a couple of times, and recommend a visit to the Sampoerna cigarette factory. They have a museum and visitor center, but my main recollection is of seeing the hundreds of workers on the factory floor handrolling individual cigarettes – an unforgettable sight.

  • I do appreciate the confessional tone of this post, and your brave honesty, Ben, but the link to the Eminem video set me off.

    Ahhh, Eminem, hip-hop’s ultimate product, the last person on Earth I would consult for wisdom on the subject of relationships.

    Wouldn’t we love to know about all the embarrassing shock experiences he’s had…like the time he got caught blowing…

    Here we have one of his classic pageant plays, a masterpiece of Madison Avenue operant conditioning at its creepiest, straight from B.F. Skinner.

    Of course he couldn’t be black, and never mind that a resurrected Malcolm X would speechify and blow Eminem’s simple rhymes out of the water with ease (talk about being mentally outmatched).

    And only a white man could make rap into an emo extravaganza like Lose Yourself and get away with it.

    But the bit with Em practicing in front of the mirror is perfect in every way, and I must say his lips look tailor-made for something more challenging than projectile-hurling Dre vomitus.

    I bet he’d blow me if I blew him.

    There’s no denying Eminem is a genius marketer– the only surprise is that the bearish mastermind of depravity since Getto Boys days, that bearded guy Rick Rubin, wasn’t involved in the production, since no one knows the economics and psychology of selling to the middle class white-bread hip-hop audience better than he.

    Whenever I see Eminem dance I always think the boy goy got hold of some ergot-infected rye bread and is suffering from the spastic nervous symptoms of St. Vitus’ dance.

  • Experience is a great teacher indeed and it pays to be a little paranoid. But I see the need for hitting an “optimal number” of goof-ups before we begin to execute something as an abstraction. If experience were so important, we’d never have had anyone walk on the moon.

  • “Optimal level of insecurity” articulates the point precisely. I recently came across an excerpt in the blog ‘Life Outside the Box’ <“>http://tynan.net/> that made me consider this issue. The author discusses how insecurity with women at a young age caused him to seriously assess how women think and behave. This research allowed him to gain confidence, experience, and a sense of mastery in how to date and treat women. The insecurity, failure and frustration was the catalyst that drove him to his success. I think many people could benefit from a moderate dose of insecurity.

  • Great post Ben, I wish I had written something similar. Acknowledging insecurity and making a good effort to deal with it, learn from the gaffes, the courage to take the plunge, be yourself – it’s difficult but eventually it leads to gaining what we think we’re missing.

  • >> I think many people could benefit from a moderate dose of insecurity.

    Well said, Lalitha. I think most people have insecurities. What differentiates people is the way they choose to react to them: with a desire for self improvement, believing they always have something to learn and can change; or the ones with a tendency to hide flaws and insecurities behind arrogance, thus rarely accepting there could be improvement and growth.

  • By opening the door to yourself you encourage others/me to do the same. You make me feel better about my many stumbles. I still get nervy talking in front of people – yet push myself to do better the next time. Ben – thanks for your insights and excellent writing.

  • Does anyone else think that reading Vince Williams on here is similar to what a conversation with Robert Downey Jr during his drug days would sound like? Somehow equal parts brilliance and bullshit, emotional yet levelly aimed. Don’t know how he does it.

  • Kevin, I haven’t been so surprised since at least this morning, when I discovered that Ryan Holiday is Tucker Max’s live-in sex-slave.

    This is the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me, although my attorney would be quick to point out that if you weigh my character, the scale tips decidedly to the brilliant side.

    I will acknowledge that a little bullshit is an essential part of my makeup, just as some of the finest perfumes in the world contain just a whiff of excrement.

    I think it gives me that certain je ne sais quoi.;-)


    My drugs are better than Downey’s. That’s the secret.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *