Shyness can stop you

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I’m a fairly shy guy, although some folks would say otherwise. Maybe I’m shy-converted or shy-reformed. I still prefer to be behind the curtain rather than in the center spotlight. I certainly couldn’t run for public office just because of this. I can be outgoing and extend a hand to a stranger, but I would consider myself more reserved and hesitant than a social butterfly.

Growing up, I would be reluctant to pursue opportunities because of shyness and low self-confidence. I missed out on some things and, afterward, would sit and wallow in regret. I was such a shy introvert when I was younger and lacked the sense of confidence to initiate a conversation or take charge of an opportunity, such as jobs, applications, internships, going to parties or events and getting in line for free samples. And, oh, how I hated public speaking until I was about 25, when I got the hang of it.

I sat in my freshman biology class and admired a girl from afar for weeks. I didn’t have the guts to sit next to her and say hi, so I just tried to use a Jedi mind trick to will her over to sit by me. After about two months of infatuation, I finally got up the nerve and bought a Valentine’s Day card as the ice breaker. My plan was to finally go sit next to her and give her the card when she showed up. But she didn’t show up to class that day. As a matter of fact, she never came back to class! Too little too late.

There’s a line in a song by The Smiths that goes, “Shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you from doing the things in life you’d like to.” I can laugh at it now, but oh how I’ve learned over the years that it’s critical to take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself. Strike while the iron is hot. A coy smile and the hopes that someone can read your mind for you won’t cut it.

Unfortunately, I learned this lesson over and over again. My favorite and most prolific example of letting my reserve get to me was the night I went to a big movie premiere and missed the opportunity to hang out with a rock star I was a big fan of at the time.

The story goes like this:

My cousins had just completed their first feature film and were throwing a celebratory premiere party at the Palace in Hollywood. Since I lived in LA, I was the family representative to attend on our behalf. My cousins had been actors, screenwriters and producers for years, and this was their biggest project coming to fruition.

I brought a date with me and we drove down Hollywood Boulevard to get its nighttime flavor. We parked a few blocks away and walked among the stars while heading Vine and up to the Palace.

That night I got dolled up as much as I knew how to at the time– wearing my blue blazer, khaki pants, loafers and rep tie, looking like…uh…a good young Republican from USC and not so much like a Hollywood type.

The Palace was already packed and plenty loud when we got there. It was full of executives with ponytails, actors dressed in all black, agents, crew members, wannabes, prowlers, A&R people, friends of friends of the doorman and those that could talk their way into parties.

Everyone had drinks in hand and flitted about from room to room trying to look important or find someone important. It all felt very official, especially it being my first premiere. We saw my cousins at the door, and they were feeling really proud of the film and excited for the party. We briefly chatted and congratulated them before they went on to schmooze.

As we made our way to the bar, a few faces became instantly familiar to me, and I became a giddy fan-boy as I recognized them. I wanted to show my date how cool and confident I was, so I mustered all my strength, ditched my shyness and went up and approached them one by one.

First person I saw was Adam Ant, without his fellow Ants bandmembers, hanging out by the bar, so we walked over. I said, “Hi, Adam! I’m a huge fan of your work. Great to meet you.” He was friendly, said thank you, shook my hand and we quickly moved on.

Then I recognized the bartender and got his attention. Singer Marc Anthony Thompson, who had a hit at the time, was surprisingly working the event. I thought that a guy with a new video and song on the radio would just be a guest at a party like this. I said, “Hi! I’m a huge fan of your work. Great to meet you.” He shook my hand and we quickly moved on.

Then we spotted Billy Idol sitting off to the side of the room, and we beelined it over to him. I said, “Hi, Mr. Idol! I’m a huge fan of your work. Great to meet you.” He gave me a I’ve-been-drinking-a-while squinty happy smile. He shook my hand, and we quickly moved on.

Then I was extra geeked-out to see one of my punk-rock idols hanging out with some friends. Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols was intimidating, not just by who he was, but because he had his long-hair urban biker friends all glomming on around him. We walked up anyway.

I said, “Hi, Mr. Jones! I’m a huge fan of your work. Great to meet you.” He gave me a blank stare, held out one finger while not letting go of his beer and said, “Cheers then.” I shook his finger and we quickly moved on. I was happy, but I felt a bit like a child after that one.

My date and I kept moving around the club. We started to head up the stairs to the other lounge area. Just then I saw Martin Fry from the band ABC walking down the stairs toward us. We all met on the landing. I was even more excited to meet him than the other guys. Martin was a charismatic lead singer who had big hits, had bucked the New Wave movement by putting out a neo-disco record as part of the British Invasion and, more importantly to me, was quoted saying, “Kids shouldn’t go to school to learn math or science. They should be taught how to dye their hair.” He was intelligent and a cheeky song writer. This was going to be my real chance to be extra cool.

We stopped on the landing and smiled at each other. I said, “Hi, Martin! I’m a huge fan of your work. Great to meet you.” He was extremely friendly and sincere. His body language was comfortable and inviting. There was no rock-star attitude or pretention. He said, “Nice to meet you both, too. How’s your night?”

This guy actually wanted to chat! I was shocked by the friendliness and realized that I had just about used up all the dialogue I could come up with. I told him we were having fun, it was my cousins’ party and we were checking things out. He then asked, “So what are you up to now?” and gestured in ways like he was looking for someone to hang out with or maybe go get a drink together. It was a pivotal moment. He was alone and seemed to be looking for enthusiastic people to be with rather than go at it alone.

The build-up was huge, and being the nerdy guy I was, I didn’t realize this was my opportunity to hang out with this front man and talk about music, life, dyeing hair– all of those exciting things.

Instead I answered, “We’re headed upstairs to look around. Have a great night.” And on we went stranding him on the landing. We left Martin there blank-faced.
I kicked and cursed myself the rest of the night and all the way down the 101, 110 and 405 freeways.

And since then I have replayed the scene a thousand times with a much better outcome. I pictured the whole night talking about music and creating an actual friendship with the guy. We would probably head to Canter’s for a 4:30am breakfast and part ways as the sun came up over the Hollywood Hills. And I knew he’d call me the next time he was in LA. Instead it was an early night and a drive back to Long Beach.

I have friends with the gift of gab who can extend themselves to others and strike up conversations in any circumstance. My dad can walk into a room of strangers and leave knowing the details of everyone’s life story. Some people can light up a room when they walk in and be the life of the party. Confidence is king. I have gotten better since my 20s, and I certainly don’t get start struck anymore (unless I could come face to face with Bono), but I think I still have some work to do. It’s important to be an extender and someone who can engage people, show genuine interest and have the assertiveness to pursue anything and everything. It’s another important element of the “carpe diem” life mantra. And who knows? If I wasn’t so shy early on, maybe I would have been an investment banker, professional surfer or a singer for a huge rock-and-roll band like I always used to dream about.