People who know me usually respond with disbelief when I tell them that I am almost pathologically shy. "But you get up in front of crowds of people and play guitar and sing," or "You'd never be able to tell that when you're giving that presentation -- you look so natural." That's the point -- to make it look natural. But it's not.
When I was an undergrad, the shyness was so bad that I couldn't bring myself to speak up at all. For my philosophy courses, where discussion was so important, I'd have to go meet with my professors privately to be able to tell them the things that I couldn't bring myself to speak in front of the dozen people in the class.
I was working in a factory when I decided to go back to school to get my library degree. I remember one fall afternoon, I was taking my break, as usual, by walking outside for awhile (I was too shy to go sit in the break room with the others). As I was kicking through the fall leaves, I knew that I had a choice -- I could let my shyness rule and prevent me from achieving so many of the things that I'd like to accomplish, or I could figure out how to get past it. I couldn't make myself be not shy, but I could keep it from stopping me.
I was thinking about all of this on Sunday when I was doing the media training session as part of my first MLA Board of Directors meeting. Along with the president-elect and the other new member of the board, I spent six hours with several people from PCI, the firm that MLA contracts with, practicing techniques for handling media interviews. The core of the training was being videotaped and then critiqued through a series of mock interviews.
Paradoxically, I was the least apparently nervous and uncomfortable of the three of us. A quarter century after that fall afternoon in Oshkosh, I'm not any less shy, but I have learned how to fake it pretty well. The more structured the situation, the better. I'm still pretty tongue-tied and miserable at a reception or cocktail party -- but the mock interviews were relatively easy.
I have come to understand that my apparent ease is because it is not natural for me -- consequently, I am always focusing on what I'm doing, how I'm coming across, what it is I'm trying to accomplish. And I endlessly critique how I've done, what I need to do better, what I might do differently the next time I'm in a similar situation.
I try to make this point, in particular, when I'm talking with library school students. As a group, we lean toward the shy end of the spectrum, but we're at a point in our history where it is critically important that we not let that hold us back. I know that I will never go into a classroom to do a lecture for four students, or into a ballroom to do a presentation for a thousand, without going through at least an hour or two of stomach churning misery beforehand. But that's not the point. It's not about me and my comfort level, it's about getting the job done. And, as shy as I am, if I can do it, anybody can. The first step is recognizing that it is not natural -- it's just acting.