As a science major it's sometimes easy to slip into a routine of class, study, research, repeat. But in such a large university, surrounded by endless opportunities and thousands of potential friends, keeping within your comfort zone isn't always the best course of action.
My podcast for "This I Believe" is about one of the most important lessons I've learned from high school and my first semester at Penn State.
I believe in awkwardness.
Several years ago, I decided to confront my worst fear by joining the debate team at my high school.
Just to provide some perspective— I was a stuttering, wide-eyed freshman, new to the school and with absolutely no experience in any kind of public speaking. Class presentations were something to be dreaded and speech assignments would give me nightmares for days. Asking me to speak competitively would be like expecting a penguin to fly north for the winter; it just wasn’t something I would do.
Debate club started out much the way I expected. I chose declamation (giving a ten-minute-long speech from memory), which I thought would be the easiest event. But during the first competition, I forgot everything halfway through the speech and froze for a full minute, in front of the panel of judges and the room full of well-dressed upperclassmen. Not surprisingly, I ranked a solid last place.
So I quickly realized that when it comes to public speaking, there’s no such thing as an "easy event." I went home and read and read and reread my speech. I recited it at the dinner table and chanted it while doing dishes and sang it in the shower; it got to the point where my parents could rattle off entire paragraphs because they’d heard it so many times. Every word was memorized by the second competition. But, it wasn’t until I was actually giving the speech that I suddenly realized how incredibly unnatural I looked and sounded. Everyone could tell that my gestures seemed rehearsed. My tone and expression were nonexistent. It’s possible that I maintained eye contact with the same person for the entire ten minutes.
So this competition was just as uncomfortable as the first one, and my ranking just as low. But now, I knew what I needed to practice. I went home and smoothed out my gestures, worked on my voice, and toned down my eye contact.
In the end, I only stayed on the team for one semester, because the competitions became fiercer and more exclusive as nationals approached. But these few months were enough to change my view of public speaking. How can a Powerpoint presentation seem daunting after I had survived a ten-minute-long speech? I had internalized something that I could never have realized from sitting comfortably at home— I saw the value of awkwardness.
Awkwardness often gets a bad rap. It leaks out from memories of middle school pictures and incompatible friends and social ineptitude, and defines the moments that we would rather forget.
But awkwardness means growth. If we find ourselves in situations where we feel out of place and uncomfortable, it means that we are slipping out of our comfort zone. We’re exploring— attempting to connect with new people who think in a completely different way, or trying something that doesn’t come naturally to us.
So, I believe in awkwardness. I believe in the polite awkwardness of meeting a new friend, and the cold, petrifying awkwardness of doing something for the first time and failing. Embracing awkwardness allows us to face our fears, and grow to be better than we are now.