There’s a game called Liar’s Poker, in which the last card you are dealt you stick on your forehead (with gum or something). You stick it face out so that all the other players can see what you have, but you have no idea. Except by trying to read their expressions and reactions.
Stay with me a sec so I can show you how this relates to the metamorphosis of my painful shyness, and how it’s helped me do much better work in the world.
I’ve never actually played Liar’s Poker (and I’m pretty bad at most kinds of poker I’ve played) but when I heard about it when I was 15 or so, I thought, “That’s what I feel like! There’s something terribly flawed within me that everyone else can see but I can’t. I have no idea what defective personality card I’ve been dealt, except by trying to read other people’s expressions and reactions.”
Believing that there’s something(s) flawed within us — or wondering if we are good enough to be loved and accepted — is such a widespread condition in humanity that I think almost everyone is afflicted with it, to some degree.
And it’s definitely what was behind me being painfully shy for the first three decades of my life.
“Painfully shy” looked like me talking in a tiny voice and swallowing my words before they left my mouth. Assuming that people didn’t like me, found me boring, couldn’t wait to get away from me, and felt like I was wasting their time.
I found it very tiring spending my days trying to read other people’s expressions and reactions to figure out what damning card was stuck (with cosmic gum) to my forehead.
When I was in my coach training program, as part of a homework assignment to help get over fear of talking to people, I was sent out on the streets and into the subways of New York City (where I lived at the time) to talk to strangers. Thirty strangers a week, or about five strangers each day.
It was horrible and terrifying and awkward at first, as you might imagine.
And then, I did something miraculous.
Before I talked to that random person sitting next to me on the crowded downtown N train, I would first focus on something about them I found interesting and that I could appreciate. I would tell that young woman I liked her sequined clutch purse and she would smile just a bit. I would tell that young man that I’d just finished that same book, what part did he love the most? And he would open up just a bit.
I realized I was on to something. I got kind of pumped up and gutsy.
One day when I was on my way to a dance rehearsal at Lincoln Center, I didn’t say anything but motioned to two German tourists with mohawks to swap headphones with me, so I got to jam out to their music and they got to jam out to mine.
I realized that I could now talk to anyone in the great melting pot of New York City (and beyond). I could generally leave a fellow human with a smile or an open heart or a new favorite song — in some way, better off as a result of our time together.
That same idea I got from Liar’s Poker — that something was terribly flawed within me — I had also been projecting outward onto other people and the world at large, a grim filter of judgment, critique, and flaw-finding. The world and the people in it had become disappointing problems to solve or scary situations to avoid.
So what was miraculous about my appreciation homework wasn’t just that it had helped me leave other people better, but that the world around me looked better, and that I too felt better — about myself — than before I had talked to them.
In my opinion, putting appreciation before flaw-finding is a distinctly “Feminine Genius” skill. Our ability to judge and critique and find flaws to fix and ferret out problems to solve is a “Masculine Genius” one. Which is all well and good, and has a time and a place.
But sometimes we need to reverse the order, and deliberately put our skills of appreciation first. Take off the filter of judgment, critique, and flaw-finding and slip on a different filter of curiosity, connection, and appreciation. It allows us to see ourselves, others, and the world with what I call a “gaze of grace.”
This Feminine Genius skill of appreciation before flaw-fixing draws us closer to our fellow humans rather than isolating us from them. It gets us out of our heads and into our hearts. It opens us and coaxes out our playfulness rather then contracting us into defensiveness and disappointment. It allows us to see things simply as they are rather than as they are not.
Those thirty conversations didn’t single-handedly heal the belief that something was flawed within me (or with other people), but they absolutely got the ball rolling.
Even though I have quirks and idiosyncrasies aplenty, and occasionally i have astoundingly bad judgment, I no longer believe that there is something terribly flawed within me. (Or ever was).
Learning how to appreciate what’s there, rather than focus on what’s flawed and in need of fixing, has been one of the weirdest, best, most potent tools, ever — for my sense of self, my courage, my coaching, and my simple enjoyment of my everyday. It is lasting, permanent, and keeps growing.
Instead of assuming I’m a pain in the tush, I generally assume people will be that much better off as a result of our time together, whether it’s two minutes in the grocery line or two hours in a coaching session.
I do way less gnawing on myself and way more loving on myself.
I speak in a voice that is connected to my deep, truthful belly.
I work in a way that feels sustainable, and when there are stressful deadlines or complex problems to solve, grace and ease seem to stay by my side.
I can talk to anyone, anywhere, and open their heart and brighten their day, just by getting to appreciate the majesty of the ordinary human in front of me.
This simple skill of putting appreciation before flaw-fixing is healing, for ourselves and for others. Or at least, it’s a graceful first step in healing.
I’m not sure it would help me win at an actual game of Liar’s Poker, but it would definitely help me (and the rest of the players) have a great time while we play.