For my first 40 years I was the World Champion Shy Person. There were no close contenders for the title; I was the shyest person ever there was. In fact, I was The Original Shy Person, the one whom everyone else learned their shyness from – I was terrified of people, terrified of speaking, terrified of disagreement, terrified of conflict, terrified of upsetting anyone, terrified of upstaging anyone, terrified of looking at people … terrified of the world, really.
I was afraid to speak so I’d mumble so people couldn’t understand me so they would ignore me so I would feel insignificant so my confidence shrank so I mumbled less coherently … a pathetic little vicious cycle.
I don’t know how or why epiphany moments happen but they do. Perhaps, with 40 years’ terror stuffed down inside, there wasn’t room for any more and something had to give. Perhaps. I don’t really know. What I do know is that, somehow, I realised I’d let all this terror rule my life and, TA DA!, I was no longer a child and I didn’t have to obey it any more. I do remember walking shyly down the street, feeling terrified that people were looking at me giggling at my silliness. But giggle I did, at the folly I’d made of my life. That night I lay awake for hours, trying to think of ways to get myself over it. No ideas came, then but, in the morning, it hit me like a wet fish across the forehead – why not be a lecturer, standing in front of people all day, communicating verbally, incessantly, and I’d have to make myself be heard, be understood, be listened to.
Full of the fires of transformation, I marched into the local polytechnic and asked if they needed any accounting lecturers. The receptionist looked at me, silently, for a moment and then burst out laughing. I felt mortified, stupid. Then she explained that the previous lecturer had been fired the previous day and they were desperate for a replacement. She was laughing at the synchronicity of my arrival; not at me.
I met the Head of Department and after a chat, she gave me an A4 piece of paper with a course outline on it and told me to create a 17-week course from that. I was panicked but determined and, the following week, I started teaching. I was terrified for six months, every day and every night. As I stood outside the lecture room before each lesson, I had to wrestle my demons to the floor, walk over them and enter the room. I could so easily have walked away a hundred times.
Slowly, the fear subsided and I got it that I had something to contribute. My confidence grew and I started, also, running business courses at the Chamber of Commerce and personal development courses in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. For a year I nagged a magazine publisher and, eventually, she gave in and published an article of mine. That article had so much feedback I ended up becoming a columnist for that magazine and several others for around ten years. I became the editor of that magazine and then my wife and I took over and published another one. I wrote and published several books, sang and acted on stage, was in two episodes of the TV serial, Xena, Warrior Princess, and I was interviewed on radio and TV.
I had broken out of my shell and there was no going back.
Then I came to the Land of the Shy People … well, I worked for organisations in England where the hottest topic was the weather and people who had worked with each other for 20 years had never visited each others’ homes. I was confused by this insularity, this inability to venture an opinion or a holiday to anywhere they’d not previously been. I’d returned to my closed-in childhood all over again!
I had trouble getting jobs in England and it was suggested that I tone down my exuberance … which I didn’t see as exuberance at all; I’m just me and others not like me are not-exuberant.
So I wrote a novel about it – The Last Stand Down – a man who is all the closed-down men I ever commuted with on the train and tube to London and who I worked with. I’m sure most of them are itching to break out of their shells. In the novel Arthur breaks out but I wonder how many do in real life. The Last Stand Down is to be published soon.
It’s a scary and exhilarating experience and neither Arthur nor I can go back – why would we want to?