I haven’t always been the social, chatty guy that I appear to be today. In fact as many of my high school friends would tell you, I was pretty awkward and shy in social situations. This never affected my life in college, as I had no problem talking to the group of friends I hung out with, after all we were all nerds who talked about programming and philosophy.
After college, we all went our separate ways and so there was no longer a group of people who I could socialize with. I found myself feeling pretty isolated, I mean I couldn’t even hold a simple conversation with a stranger and talking to girls in loud bars was completely out of the question.
I have studied psychology my entire life. In high school I was somewhat of an amateur psychologist whereby I tried to understand people’s motivations for doing things with the limited models I had available. I have also been heavily involved in self-improvement. I’ve tried everything from hypnosis to NLP, to positive affirmations.
Some things worked sometimes, but nothing really stuck and my “shyness” continued to plague me. It wasn’t until about 4 years ago when something remarkable happened.
I was reading yet another book about how to be more social, in fact I think I had already read the book once. My state of mind on this day was one of frustration. How can it be, I thought, that despite all these things I’ve studied and all these things I’ve done, I still have no idea how to permanently cure my shyness?
As I was reading the book again, a sentence in a paragraph jumped out at me and gripped my temples in a big jolt of excitement! The answer I was seeking, the secret that permanently cured my shyness was right there in front of me. I had missed it!
So what happened?
Before I tell you what happened allow me to set the stage.
I had been exposed to the idea of mental models before; they were called beliefs. Beliefs are essentially generalizations (mental scripts) that we believe without question. They not only lead to automatic behavior but they also tend to define your reality.
For example when you reach a conclusion on your own about something or someone, you’re building a mental model (a belief) about that thing. Now that the “hard work” of thinking is done the brain, ever the effort optimizer, will go on and use that conclusion as the truth in guiding your thoughts and actions.
Ever since I remember I have been labeled as “smart.” I was a little ahead of the other kids when it came to reading and comprehension and I mostly coasted through school getting good grades with minimal effort. My peers always asked me for help with difficult subjects such as math and physics. In fact my nickname was “professor” since I always tried to teach new things to my friends or to explain things to them.
This is all fine and dandy but without realizing it, I had developed a mental barrier to information which I didn’t quite understand. In fact, I was pretty adamant about not being exposed to new information which I didn’t understand (or else run the risk of being labeled stupid)
Carol Dweck explains this phenomenon at length in her book Mindset – The New Psychology of Success She calls it a “fixed” mindset where the fundamental belief is that you cannot learn and grow and get better. I read this book much later after this initial epiphany.
For me as it turned out, protecting my “smart” label had taken on a life of its own inside my head and as I discovered, had been the core driver behind my apparent shyness.
The paragraph that cured my shyness
Getting back to the story, the book I was reading was an eBook by Dr. Georges Sabongui called The Art of Social Networking I don’t think it’s available anymore. The paragraph was this:
“….and if I had no idea about a particular topic, I wouldn’t turn off, I
would turn on. I would get excited about the idea that this person I
was talking to could teach me something I didn’t know about and
broaden my horizons…”
By itself the paragraph is pretty harmless and powerless, but when feel as frustrated with everything as I was and when you read something that fits your specific need so perfectly that it feels as if it was custom tailored to you, the experience is nothing short of an epiphany!
Some of you may recognize this as plain old reframing, and it IS a reframe, but it’s more than that to me. It’s one of maybe dozens of different reframes that would have never worked for that particular situation. That’s why I call it thought refactoring.
In software engineering the concept of refactoring means that you take existing code that works, and you rewrite it in a way that is cleaner, simpler, more readable and more organized without losing the original functionality. It’s a way to go back and rethink about the problem you were trying to solve in a different way.
Thought refactoring works the same way, except that you don’t need to worry about keeping the same functionality as long as the original problem is still solved. It can be as simple as writing down your thoughts and then rewriting them in a more concise manner and as complicated as debugging your own brain.
While I don’t buy into the brain-as-a-computer metaphor, since it’s been proven wrong by modern cognitive science, the idea of going in and replacing “buggy code” in your mind in the exact location where it’s needed, still appeals to me. Ramit Sethi calls it replacing invisible scripts.
What happened next
That same afternoon after my big a-ha I went to a meetup event with a big group of strangers some of whom much smarter than me, and I found myself having absolutely no problem stating my own thoughts and debating (it was a discussion group) In fact I felt so liberated that I went to another meetup right after that one with a guy I met for the first time at the event and had no problem conversing during the train ride. It’s been awesome ever since!