There are times when we don’t try something new because we are concerned about looking foolish. Who wants to look dumb in front of …anyone? Not me. Not you, either, I suspect. That concern may hold us back from aiming high—getting out of our comfort zone to accomplish something wonderful.
Before this story begins, I feel the need to explain the situation and supply my excuses up front.
Years ago when I was an independent consultant, I booked client engagements on the Tour from Hell. I committed myself to too many cities all over the country, too many client meetings and workshops, and too many hotels back to back. I was in my third different hotel (out of seven total) when I first said to myself, “Jeanne, have you lost your mind? What did you do to yourself?” But it was too late. The proverbial train had left the station—I was on my way.
After I had been on the road for two and a half weeks straight without returning home for R&R (or clean underwear) and had crossed all U.S. time zones three times, I could visualize a faint glimmer of the light on my own front porch. I was almost finished with this craziness. I was going home in only two more days! I had just started my last gig on the Tour from Hell. Just two more days in Atlanta and when Friday night came, I would be on my way back home to Orange County, California.
Then the phone rang. It was my favorite client asking me to please, please, please go there on Saturday morning to work with his project team. He said they were approaching a difficult phase of their project and had lost confidence in their ability to pull it off successfully.
He needed me to help him stabilize and re-build his team.
My exhausted body and good sense were screaming, “NO!” but my mouth said, “Yes.” I got off the phone and worked on talking myself into believing that things would be okay. They were my favorite client…it was only one more event and one more day…I’ve always been able to find one more pittance of energy from somewhere…besides, Saturday work was premium pay!
I arrived in Oakland, California, from Atlanta, around midnight on Friday night. I was so exhausted that I could barely speak, but when I did, it came out super-crabby. The room I was given at the hotel was straight down the hall from the conference rooms where my meeting would take place. The front desk clerk gave me this information like it was an advantage. No, I did not want that room. I did not want to open my door and see hordes of people—some of whom I knew would be in my group—before I had to face them in the meeting. But there was no more room at the Inn. It was right off the conference area or sleep under a bridge. Okay, fine! I stomped away from the desk muttering loudly.
Even though I was tired, I immediately fell into my night-before-a-client-meeting preparation. I laid out my notes for the meeting so that I could run my eyes across them first thing in the morning. I laid out all the clothes I would wear and re-packed everything else. I fell into bed at 1:30 a.m., hoping I could “sleep fast.”
It wasn’t fast enough. When morning came, I thought I could not live through the day. I had to keep chanting my Little Engine Who Could mantra over and over: “I think I can, I think I can. It’s just one more day, Jeanne. You can do this!” While I showered and dressed for the day, I focused intensely on convincing myself that I could not only show up, I could also do a good job.
I opened my door to find what I had suspected the night before.
The hall was filled with people chattering, getting their pre-meeting coffee, getting in my way. I had to get to the end of the long hall and past all those people to put my suitcase into my rental car. (I was eagerly anticipating a fast getaway once I was finished with the meeting.) I chanted to myself again, “You can do this. You can get past this crowd, and you can be congenial and polite. You don’t need to stop and visit with them…just be nice.” I took a deep breath and began walking the gauntlet, pulling my suitcase and computer bag behind me. I was obviously not Moses, and the Red Sea of people did not instantly part. I smiled pleasantly and kept repeating “Good morning. Excuse me. Good morning, excuse me,” as I wove in and out of the tightly-packed crowd.
When I got to the exit where I had parked my car and opened the door, I felt a strange rush of cold air. I looked around and then down to discover that…I had no pants on! Yes, you have read this correctly. No pants! I was wearing panty hose with (thankfully!) hot pink panties underneath. My short red sweater jacket only came to my waist. Not only did the sweater not cover much—it didn’t even match my panties! (Insult to injury!)
Could this be real? Have I really just walked past all these people without my pants? Yes, it was so terribly real.
I stood there with my back to the crowd (how terrible is that pose?!) for what seemed like an eternity trying to will myself to just die on the spot. But I didn’t, and I suddenly knew where those pants where—hanging in the closet in the room at the other end of that people-packed hall. I had to go back. Amazingly, this time I did not have to say, “Excuse me,” even one time. Without a sound, the crowd simply parted for me instantly. With my head down, I walked through the hordes and back to my room as quickly as I could while still dragging along the luggage and computer bag. Yep…the pants were there …hanging right where I had left them the night before.
I went into instant denial. “This did not happen. It was just a bad dream. I think I’ll just take my bags with me through the back way to the restaurant to meet my client for breakfast. Not that I can’t walk through that crowd again…nothing happened to stop me. I just don’t feel like it.” Denial, denial, denial—you are my friend! This approach worked until after breakfast, when it all came rushing back to me and I had to ‘fess up. I just knew my client would hear about this from someone. It would be better if it was me.
I went through the whole scenario with him. When I came to, “I didn’t have my pants on,” he breathed in quickly and his eyes became the size of dinner plates. We just looked at each other for a few seconds, until he literally fell off of his chair onto the floor laughing! Hmmm…I was so glad he was amused. I still wanted to die. But at least I wasn’t kicked off the job. (That was me trying to find a positive spin on this.)
Minutes later, I had to face his team.
I was sure that some (many/all?) of them had been spectators (voyeurs?) to my earlier “performance.” I said nothing about the incident until just before the first break. Then I could no longer ignore their too-wide eyes and repressed grins. I asked, “Did anything unusual happen this morning that you’d like to discuss?” The group of twenty people sat perfectly still and silent, with even bigger eyes. Finally, one man said, “You just lived my worst nightmare.” I responded with, “I’m so glad that I could take that burden from you.”
At that point, the class erupted into exclamations of, “That was unbelievable! How can you get through this? I couldn’t believe my eyes! Good thing you were wearing panties! (from a woman in the group!) That was the most embarrassing thing that could ever happen to someone! (like I didn’t know that?).” It was obvious that even those who hadn’t actually witnessed the horror had heard about it. I couldn’t think of an appropriate way to quell the chattering, so I just stood there and waited for the noise to stop.
Finally, one of the men stood up.
He said, “I’ve been thinking about what happened a lot. (Snickers from the group, which he and I ignored.) No, not that! I mean, I figured that if you showed up for this meeting after what happened, then it would be some kind of sign. If you could live through that and face us, then we can live through what we have to do too.” The team instantly silenced while they processed that Life Lesson. I was so grateful for the man’s intervention that I wanted to take him home and adopt him! Finally I asked the group, “Is he right? If I lived through this, can you live through what you have to do?” They all nodded their heads in agreement, and we had a productive and successful rest of the day.
My husband was less than thrilled when I told him the story that night when I finally landed at home. Before I left for the next several business trips, he felt it necessary to say, “Now, please make sure that you don’t forget to put everything on.”
The next time you are concerned about looking foolish and let that hold you back, consider this story. Much thanks to Jeanne Gulbranson, BBD’s Strategist and award-winning author who shared this true story in her book “Pink Leadership: 15 Life Lessons for Women Leaders.”