It is not easy jumping into a large pond with your dreams in one hand and your concerns in the other while everyone else and their mamma is doing the exact same thing. There is no reason to feel like you are not supposed to feel just the way that you feel because there is nothing wrong with feeling uncomfortable about doing something that is new and is usually, by definition scary. So, just what is the solution to feeling insignificant? What can be done about being caught off guard by unforeseen circumstances while pursuing your dreams? And how are these two questions and their answers related? I will answer these questions and many more.
I have never experienced anything quite so, humbling as walking onto the campus of University of Washington for the first day of class. I finally understand the saying; “Small fish in a large pond,” because over 40,000 students converged into a seemingly endless wave flooding Red Square and classes. I just graduated from North Seattle Community College at the end of last spring and when I graduated I do not think that there were many people on the campus who either did not know me, or know of me. Now that may sound pomp, but not only do I tend to stand out like a sore thumb nowadays, but I was also on the student government and a hip hop head on campus. It is difficult not to be noticed when I do the types of things that I used to be terrified to do.
However, I have not always been popular, or as full of courage as I have been these last couple of years. In truth, I used to be a terrified, scrawny, nobody that people could forget just after I walked away. I could not stand up in front of any one and speak, could not speak to girls, and I used to lack the courage to even set goals, let alone to pursue them. I was as afraid of success as I was of failure, it was a true dilemma. There were many things that led to the change that occurred in my life, but I will start with two sayings that I have now fused themselves into my bones:
1) “I got sick and tired of being sick and tired,” and this was important to me because I finally reached a point in my life that I was fed up with complaining about continuously ending up in the same position.
2) “When the pain outweighs the pain then we change,” and this was important because it means that when the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of doing something different, then it becomes less painful to do something new and we may then begin to change.
These two short and fairly simple sayings were simple enough to get through the fog that was my denial and yet complex enough to provide me with some real benefit. Yet, just being sick and tired of being sick and tired is not quite enough to effect any real change. It is like going onto a diet and jumping back off of it as soon as the weight is lost, only to regain the weight again because none of the long term habits have been revised. For a change to truly take hold and remain consistent, it must not only be sustainable, but it also has to have purpose behind it. That purpose is the direction the goals direct us into.
So, in effect, what I am saying is that for any change to become permanent, there has to be a goal attached to it and further that that goal must not have a completion date to it. I know that this seems counter intuitive, because the usual interpretation of a goal is that it is something to be achieved. However, you may decide to set a goal, like I did many times, actually achieve the goal, and do like I have done over and over again, and revert back to the old behavior once the goal was accomplished. So, the goal must have an achievement date, but for the purposes of manifesting the type of change that we are attempting to make, this needs to be a living goal that never fully comes to an end.
Yet, for a goal to truly take shape, you will have to get down to the roots, the causes and conditions to set a goal that will meet the requirements of what the problem truly is. Otherwise, the goal will answer something that is not the problem, if it answers anything at all. The problem that I had with feeling insignificant was not really that I felt unnoticed, in reality, it was more that I felt lonely. You see the amount of people was not actually that important, it was the quality of the relationships that I had. I will tell you from experience, you can know everyone in a large room and still feel alone. Being a creature, a human being that derives the necessary bonds from being connected with others, that we need the connections formed through relationships. Thus, my goal became to manifest life-long and healthy relationships with people that I was truly invested into their lives.
It is perhaps an ironic occurrence, but one cannot have friends if one is not a friend to others. That is why the essence of my goal was not to earn friends but to actually be a friend to others. It was not until I formed the initial goal, that I truly began to envision why I was so lonely; I had not learned how to be a friend to others. To be a real friend to another human being entails first, listening to them. This is more than just hearing them speak and waiting for your turn to jump in. It requires that you make the time and invest the energy to digest what their opinions, hopes, sorrows and dreams are, to question their assertions and respond to their concerns. Being friends with someone is not just about being heard because relationships are symbiotic in nature consisting of both giving and receiving what we need; each other.
The next component of being a friend, having friends and keeping them is the keeping of your promises. Morals govern our own actions and they also help us to govern our collective actions. And what is requisite for the nurturing of any relationship is that which is the basis of morality; honesty. Honesty entails the honoring of your promises. Without these two conditions being fulfilled, then there can actually be no relationship because without honesty we can never share our true selves or know anyone else’s true self; and without honoring our promises, then what we promise equates to lies and destroys the relationships we have. And without relationships our groups and consequentially all of society with it crumbles and is why honesty is the basis of all morality.
Society is such that we are taught and we learn how to protect that which is most venerable about us. Ironically, we tend to protect that which makes us most human. We protect that which makes us most unique and interesting to others; our idiosyncrasies and nuances, the secret thoughts that reveal our true character, our dreams. And instead of presenting this to the world we learn how to conceal this and put on a cookie-cutter-personality-face so that we can fit in the world and not stick out too much. And while this is a strategy that tends to work to help us survive the tumultuous gauntlet that is public life, it is also insanely difficult to learn how to shut it off. Thus, what tends to happen is that this front, this mask that we put on for the world, we continue to wear for our friends and they do not get to know who we really are because we are afraid to let them into our worlds. Sometimes it gets so bad that we can even forget who we really are. And if we do not know who we are, then how can we share ourselves with someone else? If we cannot share ourselves with someone else, then how can we be a friend? And if we cannot be a friend, then how can we have friends? These are important questions to consider as you think about this mask you wear for the world.
I effect what these masks do for us is to keep the world at a distance. However, therein lies the problem, it keeps the world at a distance and leaves us isolated from the people of the world, which is the opposite of what we truly want. This is the quintessential example of a paradox that we ourselves create whereby, the thing that we want most is also the thing that we are most afraid to allow because we are afraid that we will not be accepted for who we really are. We are afraid that we are not worth loving. I have found though, that when I have taken off my mask and let people know who I really am, that I have not been ostracized, I have not been laughed at, and I have actually been accepted and loved. This is how and when I started to have real relationships, relationships without the masks that I have trained myself to put on for the world so that I can fit in. The crazy part is that the world hates those masks and is just dying for us to take them off because we have been craving for contact with real human beings for so long we have forgotten what it feels like.
By this point you may be asking; “this is all fine and well, but where did you get the courage to approach others from?” And this is an important question because for many of us, and especially me, the act of introducing me to others used to paralyze me. To see me or to know me today, most people, unless they knew me when I was a teenager, would never believe that I was the shiest person you were likely to have ever met. Anyone who has ever witnessed me performing a piece of Spoken Word or a Hip Hop song would blatantly deny that I had ever been shy. However, I used to be terrified to be in front of a crowd of any size and do anything, and that includes walking to class. I used to get so worked up in what I thought other people saw, that I would trip over my own feet attempting to walk a straight line, let alone putting me on a stage to perform something that I had written myself. Nonetheless, that is precisely who I was when I was younger. I was terrified that people would see the chinks in my mask and discover who I truly was, a scared little boy crying out for affection.
Anyone who has ever felt like the all-seeing eye of the public was focused on them, like I did, may think that it is counter intuitive to assert that most people do not focus enough on others to actually notice all of our idiosyncrasies. Psychologists call this the “Spotlight Effect,” whereby we think that others notice all the little minute details about ourselves, but that is just not the case. There is just too many stimuli in the world to them focus on those minute details. For me, this was a true paradox because I felt that nobody noticed me at all and yet, at the same time I was also terrified that they noticed me too much. It is quite comical when I think about it now and I can chuckle, but back then it was the crucible of Hell for me. What I am getting at, is that I was not the center of the universe no matter how much I wanted to be. Nobody focused on me like they focus on the sun in the morning as it raises above the horizon, no, I was just plain old average Michael.
Being sick and tired of being sick and tired, having the pain outweigh the pain, and dying for some change I let all of my fear go and threw away my masks, all of them. At first, it was weird and horrifying, and was like walking around naked. I was like a hatchling bird poking its head in and out of its shell as I broke though getting a little taste of freedom and then diving back into the complacent warmth. They say that all you need is the faith of a mustard seed. Well, all it took was that first taste of liberation and I was hooked. I was like being woke from the Matrix (I took the green pill) and the world became brand new. For the first time in my life I was able to be myself and I could not go back if I wanted to. And that is when the strangest and most unforeseen result started to happen, when the people I met loved this contact with a real human being that they could relate to, I was accepted on the spot.
So, I started breaking all the rules that I had built up in my head. I used to be terrified to walk up to someone and reach out my hand and say, “hi, my name is Michael. How are you? What is your name?” and it was something so simple, but it may as well have been Jupiter that I was trying to reach before then. People are terrified of it, but they are so dying for a connection with another living, breathing, feeling human being that some will recoil in fear and the rest will jump all over the opportunity to be free as well.
The point that I am attempting to drive home is that most people are just as terrified as you are to make that first contact that they will appreciate your making the first move. When I finally realized that, and I knew that people really did love me for who I was, not what my mask showed the world that I was, it all got real easy. And it also allowed me to set the terms for the engagements, which means that I could make the approaches on my terms. The way I learned how to make the approach to other was I just got off my ass and did it!
This is the shape that the goal I initially made to earn friends took. It started out that I did not feel so ostracized, then turned into a goal to not feel lonely, which inevitably evolved into being a friend to others, and how to be a friend. And the goal finally concluded took its full shape with the dynamic of with how to make friends. Thus, I had actually developed a life-long plan of how to live and be a true friend, and this plan in turn has earned me the friends that I had always wanted. Today I no longer feel insignificant.
That answers my first question: “just what is the solution to feeling insignificant?” and now I will address the question of dreams. At the beginning of this discussion I mentioned that I had just begun to attend the University of Washington and how little of a blip that I was walking onto the campus. This effect can the subsequent feeling can be felt regardless of the size of the group you have just entered, but I will tell you from experience it is quite sobering to be confronted with 40,000 other students. It is true, that walking onto a campus of this size that one could feel estranged and unimportant. You may be asking yourself what this has to do with achieving a dream. Well, last year I attended a Students of Color conference hosted by several minority groups and several colleges and universities from the state of Washington and one of the primary things that they drove in was how we needed a network to be successful in a four year university.
If you are like me and have come from, or are coming from a small school where it was possible to know just about everyone, then a campus like this is a huge difference. I come from a place that just about any network that I could have desired was just a stone-throw-away from any place that I stood. By network, I mean a Social Network or rather a collection of people who are all engaged in some specific act and have shared goals. Two of the most important characteristics of a social network are the shared experiences that group members have and the experiences that can be shared about how to overcome adversities. People in these networks understand us and we do not have to explain, they just seem to implicitly know because they have either dealt with or are dealing with the same types of issues that we ourselves are going through.
I cannot even begin to try to explain how many times I have attempt to explain to a European American what it is like being an African American attempting to get an education, or the pain that is associated with it. There are just some things that I have to deal with that group of people are unfamiliar with, but other African Americans know precisely what my struggles are. This is not an attack on any one individual or any group this is simply an observation that has been confirmed repeatedly. And the observation also works in reverse, I am either not aware of all the circumstances that European Americans face or I do not understand them all. Now this is not to say that there are not benefits to forming groups, alliances and friendships with people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, quite the contrary in fact because they can be incalculably valuable. However, when I need help with some specific issue, or I need a confidant that I can express my troubles with it helps to have someone who understands where I am coming from.
Social networks have further importance as well. This is especially true if these social networks are formed around more than just race or ethnicity. Furthermore, there is no rule that states that any person can only be involved in one group. The more groups that we are linked into the more resources become available to us like; job opportunities, scholarship opportunities, events to join in, parties, study groups and the like. And perhaps most important to this discussion is that they gives us groups of people to belong to so that we do not have to feel so alone.
This brings us to the crux of this discussion, which is how not to feel so alone on a campus the size of this the University of Washington. Last week I walked onto the campus and every organization you can imagine that a campus would have; the Hip Hop Student Association, the Black Student Union; the History Honor Society; the Arm Wrestling Club, the Earth Club, and son on were tabling in Red Square and I just went up and got linked in. As I have said, I learned not to have to wear my masks in public any longer, and that people were dying to meet me just as much as I was dying to meet them, so I just walked up to the people that I thought were interesting and introduced myself. That is the purpose of tabling. They were there to meet people, so that is precisely what I did. I found out when they met and I joined in. Now that is not to say that I was not afraid, of course I was afraid, but I was more interested in making those connections and developing the networks that the people at the Students of Color Conference promised me would make all the difference to my success while I attend the university.
For example, I went to the meet and greet hosted by the Black Student Union and although I am of African American descent, sometimes I still feel out of place in a group of all Black people, because I do not speak much slang any longer and I do not do many of the things that (I think) they do, and so I feel as though I stick out. But, I do not have any more masks to wear, so when it came time for me to interact, I only had to choices; run or stay silent, or interact and make the friends that I have always wanted: and I chose to interact and I made those friends. You see, I have learned that who you are is not as important, as it is that you are.
The final component was making friends in class. Now this goes hand-in-hand with social networks because the people in you classes will be going through exactly the same struggles as you are as you are going through them. So, linking up with them will be vitally important to you meeting with success in school because they will have picked out different things as important from the material, will have notes that you missed and can help to make concept clearer for you. Plus, if you have not been to a university lecture hall you are in for a real treat, if you are an undercover nerd like I am because the lecture halls seat a minimum of 200 people. That was quite a shock to me when I walked in because I was used to 30 person classrooms where I could touch my professor. So, having a few friends in the lecture hall will turn that ginormous room into something very manageable for you.
The first thing was that I had to read my books. This may seem like an over simplification and something that need not be said. However, I cannot begin to tell you how many students come to a university and do not read their books. (Why does someone waste the $20,000 + per year on tuition if, they do not want to learn, it makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever, but it happens.) The point is to earn your degree so that we can become successful in life and in order for that to be possible, we have to learn the material and that includes reading our books, but I digress and that is a topic for another discussion. The point is, having a meager understanding of the material as I walk into class allows me to be able to have a dialogue with both the other students in the classroom and the professor before, during and after the lecture. So that when the professor asks a question, I can raise my hand and more often than not, I have the answer because I have read the material. I know you may be like, “you are one of those people,” and let me tell you what, there are more people there who want to be successful than not, so those are the people that the rest of the people want to know because if you are that person then people will want to study with you and thus, you attract the people to you.
Second, is that just like with the Black Student Union, I walked into the classroom the very first day, having completed the reading for the week and I started introducing myself to everyone that was in a close vicinity to me. I sit in the front row and that means that I have to get there early enough to get my seat. I do this because I went to a lecture presented by a man named John Vroman, who wrote a book titled; Living College Life in the Front Row, and gave a lecture on how to be successful in college. Basically what he said was that you have to get right up in the mix. The natural tendency for people that are like me, who have traditionally not liked to stick out is to find a place in the back. And this may have its origin in that African Americans were traditionally told to sit in the back, and the theory of Oppisitional Identity, which states that it is not cool for an African American to be intelligent or academically active and engaged. Thus, what I have learned is that in order for me to be successful is to shatter those negative stereotypes, break my negative perceptions of who I think and other think that I am supposed to be, and to sit in the front row. What I have found is that the other people in the front row were just as engaged and determined to meet with success as I was/am.
The result is that now all of my professors and teachers know me on a first name basis and so do many of the students on campus. On a campus of over 40,000 students I am no longer just an outlier and I am set up with some of the most profound and strongest leaders. As such, I am set to meet with success. When you are a small fish in a large pond, do not just wade in and become an outlier feeling insignificant. Jump in with both feet, Cannon Ball that SHIT!!! And make waves.
This realization came hand in hand with the realization that in order for me to have a friend, I first had to be a friend; and that in order for me to meet with success I had to have friends, I could not do it alone. That I had to throw off the bondage of my pride and get rid of the masks I was wearing so that I could truly be myself and make some real connections. And that myself, without the front was worth being both loved and appreciated. Be yourself and makes waves through the lives of the people who are just dying to meet you, the real you, and set yourself on the path to achieving your dreams.