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I am not fond of clichés, but the older I get, the more I understand the value of stepping outside the comfort zone and broadening your horizons. We often leave this to the young with admonitions off: go to college, discover yourself before you get married and travel before you have kids.
I did none of those things, and as I neared my forties, I realized it was time to stretch myself a bit. People who don’t know me well might mistake me for a confident extrovert. Those closest to me know I have a timid, self-conscious side, and I sometimes hyperventilate when I have to meet new people.
The last few years I have stretched myself socially by attending writer’s conferences. I used to hide in my hotel room during designated networking hours. It was too hard to put myself out there as a real person, instead of the person I write myself to be. The person who can’t hide behind carefully angled selfies, whose waist measurement equals her age, and who tends to say really stupid things when she can’t write, rewrite and send them to an editor first.
My flight to Hartford was delayed, so when I arrived at the hotel, the other conference attendees had already made the two-block trek to a local brewery for dinner. I was hungry and I wanted to see the brewery, but the thought of joining a table full of strangers was overwhelming.
I studied the room service menu and then buoyed my confidence with, “This is stupid! You’re a grown woman. If you want to eat dinner at the brewery, just go!”
I’ve learned that behind every confident woman, there’s a contingency plan. Mine was to scope out the situation, and if it seemed uncomfortable, sit elsewhere.
As I turned to walk away, someone called out, “This seat is available,” and made a sweeping motion toward the one empty chair in the center of the room, at the center of the center table. I did a nice rendition of “pardon me, excuse me, pardon me,” as I squeezed my butt between occupied chairs.
Mom always said the best conversationalists ask questions. I was sitting amongst very interesting people, and while I couldn’t think of a single, intelligent question to ask, she would have been impressed with the man sitting next to me. He asked lots of questions. “What type of writing do you do?” “Did you travel far to get here?” “What is your husband’s line of work?” “Do you travel with him?”
I rambled on about our travels, which in my mind are fairly extensive. Finally, I remembered my manners, and asked if he traveled much, if he was excited about the cross-country move I’d heard him mention earlier, and whether he had a wife and children.
Because I felt welcome my overloaded brain began to relax. Just before leaving the brewery, I remarked, “I feel like I should know you.”
He shrugged and responded, “I don’t know why you would.”
If I had not stepped outside my comfort zone, the obituary being run by all the major news outlets a few months later would have gone relatively unnoticed by me.
“A Pulitzer Prize winner died. That’s unfortunate.” And I would have moved on to the next article.
I smiled when I realized asking if he traveled much was akin to asking the King of Siam if he has many wives. I could have felt foolish, but I was glad I had a first-hand conversation with a man whose international experiences far exceeded what most of us would even want. I am glad that I learned the value of pushing aside the things in my brain that make me want to shrink from uncomfortable situations. That experience alone gave me the confidence to walk up to strangers at my most recent networking event and say, “Hi! I’m Ginger. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
Getting outside of yourself gives you broader horizons and a bigger world. The sum of a multitude of experiences equals a better informed, more intelligent person. Experience as much as you can. Meet as many people as you can. Life is too short to waste on being fearful of looking like a fool.