Have you ever had that thought? Yeah, me too. Even in my early sixties, I can still get that twinge of fear that I might make a fool of myself. Last week, it was over approaching one of the tradespeople in Home Depot to ask a plumbing question. You know – “What if he thinks I’m dumb?”

But then I thought, “Wait a minute, Bob. You have your skills and he has his. He’d have to ask you how to make a speech. You have to ask him how to fix a faucet. Besides, the chances are pretty good you’ll never see him again. Who cares what he thinks about your knowledge of plumbing?”

So why do we experience this angst? Simply put, our brains are always trying to protect us from any perceived threat, physical or emotional. When we think about approaching a stranger, our brain reminds us of all the times we’ve been ignored, put off or even rejected by someone we didn’t know. It also introduces the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into our nervous systems to reinforce the point.  All of this conspires to cloud our thinking and dissuade us from thinking logically and preparing adequately.

Is there a cure? Sure. Approach a lot of strangers and move past the apprehension.  Here’s another example: Over the years, I have spoken at more than 1000 association conferences. As a result, I have been invited to more than 1000 receptions where I don’t know a soul. I feel obligated to attend these functions, even though I will never see these people again.  When I arrive, everyone is typically absorbed in reconnecting with colleagues they haven’t seen in a year.

So how do I manage this challenge? I’ve developed a strategy. First, I located my association contact. If I’m lucky, that person will introduce me to a couple of people and identify me as tomorrow’s speaker. Typically, they’ll ask me about my topic. I will tell them and then ask how that issue impact their business. In most cases, they’ll take over and we’ll have a short conversation. (I should mention, by the way, that I always do my homework on their industry and challenges ahead of time. That way I’m prepared for what they say.)

Occasionally, this doesn’t happen. In that case, I take a deep breath and wade into the crowd until I make eye contact with a friendly face. Then I’ll say something like, “Great turnout at the conference this year,” and we’re generally off to the races. Honestly, this kind of interaction tends to consume more of my emotional energy than speaking before several hundred people the next day. I am more introverted than extroverted. But none of this has to do with looking stupid.

Our life outcomes depend on how we make daily decisions. If we allow our fears of what other people think to impact our actions, it will hinder the everyday relationships and successes we’re entitled to. The best decision-makers know that achieving life’s goals is a process involving thousands of incremental steps, like approaching strangers. Begin today. Take the risk. You’ll reap the rewards.

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