This is a photo of me at the 2015 Quora Top Writer conference in New York.
I attended alone—and the only person I knew (from a few emails back and forth here on the Internet) who was going to be there was Brandon Lee.
Rewind a few years, and never in a million years would you have found me showing up to an event, in another city, at a bar & restaurant, with a whole bunch of people I had never met before in my life — and honestly, even if I had known all of them, I still probably wouldn’t have gone.
I was the epitome of the shy kid growing up.
I was either shy, and didn’t talk to anyone, or I sought attention by being the class clown. For some reason, not raising my hand and shouting out obscene answers seemed like a logical way to go about making friends. Instead, I was removed from class often, and endured many parent/teacher conferences that started with, “Is everything alright at home? Cole has been very disruptive lately.”
My first year of college, I had such bad social anxiety that I barely talked to anyone.
I spent the majority of my time hanging out with the same four people, smoking weed and slithering around campus from quiet place to quiet place, hoping to just avoid society altogether. The thought of turning to the girl next to me in class and asking her if she wanted to go out for coffee was debilitating — and when the thought ever did cross my mind, I would end up sitting in class for the entire hour, my heart racing, unsure of whether I might (without my own consent) suddenly turn to her and say those horrifying words.
My outfit of choice were worn gym shoes, loose-fitting black sweat pants, and a brown hoodie.
My second year of college, I transferred to an art school in Chicago.
It was my first time living downtown in a big city, my first time living in a massive apartment complex that had been reserved for students. Every single day, I would find myself on an elevator with a handful of other kids my age. The worst days were when it was just me and someone else, and for those 28 seconds I would have to sit in the asphyxiating silence between us.
It was that year I began to realize my social anxiety.
It was unwarranted, truly, and I found myself obsessively wondering what every single person in the entire world thought of me. I constantly felt judged — and yet, no one was judging me. In fact, as I would come to learn much later, many people actually felt the same from me. I was told that I was the intimidating one. That my head always seemed somewhere else, and that I wasn’t interested in talking to anyone. Oh, if only they knew the inner struggle I had felt for so many years, wondering why no one ever said a word to me.
That second year, living in that massive apartment complex, I came to the realization that if I ever wanted to make friends with people, if I ever wanted to overcome my social anxiety, then I needed to find a way to practice being a more confident person. That is, after all, the key to everything in life: you are what you practice.
I challenged myself to talk to one person on that elevator each day.
Even if it was just as simple as saying, “It’s so hot out today, can you believe it?”
And don’t think for a second that it wasn’t terrifying! Or that I didn’t make a complete fool of myself. I remember one time in particular, it was just me and this girl on the elevator, and I said something like, “How’s your day going?”
She said, “Good, you?”
And I said, “Pretty good. So is your day going well?”
She looked at me like I was a malfunctioning robot, but played along and said, “Yeah, it’s really nice out today. I think I’m going to go to the park.”
I was so amazed that I’d even made it this far in the conversation that my response to that was, “Yeah you too.” We both just sort of stood there, and I wanted to apologize but didn’t know how to explain. The elevator door opened, I awkwardly waved goodbye, and she rushed out ahead of me. This was my life.
I illustrate this moment in time because as humiliating as those moments were, they also showed me something very, very important.
People who lack confidence all share one thing in common, and I would know because I was one of them: They live in their head. So much so, that they can’t even hear what the other person is actually saying.
People who I thought hated me, actually liked me. Girls I thought never wanted me to speak to them, actually wanted me to ask them out. Guys I thought were making fun of me, were game to chill and hang out. But I couldn’t hear any of those things because I was so in my head about everything, my own inner dialogue drowning out the reality of the situation.
So, I think it’s a combination of two things that allowed me to change so drastically — and when I say drastically, I mean drastically.
1. You have to practice confidence if you want to be confident.
I am not exaggerating when I say that after I came to the realization of what I needed to practice, I pushed myself to talk to at least one random person, every single day, all throughout college. It didn’t matter if it was someone on the elevator, the 60 year old woman ringing me up at Walgreens, or the homeless man on the corner, I saw every single person as an opportunity to practice getting over my fear of being myself to someone new.
2. You have to get out of your head.
This is a lesson I continue to learn and re-learn, and I think it plagues more people than we all think. All insecurity is rooted in our thoughts. All our fears, judgments, all of it exists in our head. And the more we sit in there, and listen to ourselves, the less we can hear the rest of the world — and truly, all of the positive things around us.
I will never forget the first moment I actually got outside of my head. I swear, it felt like I had teleported to a different world, had an entire conversation with someone, and then returned to my thoughts and wondered, “Woah, what just happened? Where did I go?” Listening, and doing so without all the chatter that goes on up in the attic, is the doorway to being present. And when you’re present, you are confident.
That’s really the root of the root.
I thought for a long time confidence was your posture, or the way you dressed, or the way you talked, or “carried yourself,” or how successful you were. And sure, all of those things play a role, sure — but they are not the root of the root.
The REAL root of confidence is how present you are.
If you can get out of your own head, if you can listen to the other person more than you’re listening to your own fears and judgments, and if you can keep yourself open to receive instead of worrying about what the other person thinks about you, you will be present. You will be in the moment, and they will feel that.
True confidence is that presence.
And when someone is fully present with you, you can feel it.