Life Happens in Public. Get Used to It.

This piece is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Courage is Calling: Fortune Favors The Brave. Part 1 of the book is about the forces that stand between you and doing what you want, can, and should. It’s about the battle we all fight—the battle against fear. Because real greatness is impossible if we don’t win that battle, if we don’t learn how to conquer fear. 

Jerry Weintraub wanted to be an actor.

He made it into the Neighborhood Playhouse. He studied under Sandy Meisner. One of his classmates was James Caan. There’s a reason you’ve seen movies with James Caan and none with Jerry Weintraub, and that reason is fear.

Or rather, fear by its other identity: Shame.

Sent to get clothes for a dance class—taught by Martha Graham, no less—Jerry and Hames went to a store on Broadway. As he tried on tights, Jerry, a tough kid from the Bronx, took one look in the mirror and knew there was no way he’d ever let himself be seen this way in public. James Caan, who came from the same neighborhood, whose father had been a butcher, who had the same view of himself as a tough guy, looked in the same mirror. He did not let self-consciousness win.

As the author Rich Cohen writes, “This was the dividing line, the moment of truth. Jimmy Caan put on the slippers and tights, so his name appears in the credits as, say, Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Jerry Weintraub, because he was filled with normal, decent human shame, did not put on the slippers and tights, so his name appears in movie credits as producer.”

One would be nominated for Academy Awards, the other would package The Karate Kid. Both would be successful, but only one realized that shared early dream—only one was able to stand boldly, bravely in front of the camera, and own it.

While most of us will not make our living on the screen, we all have to face this reluctance to be seen. Our fear of what other people think, of embarrassment or awkwardness, is not the same fear that holds a man back from running into battle, but it is a limitation, a deficiency of courage that deprives us of our destiny all the same.

There is no change, no attempt, no reach that does not look strange to someone. There’s almost no accomplishment that is possible without calling some attention on yourself. To gamble on yourself is to risk failure. To do it in public is to risk humiliation.

Anyone who tries to leave their comfort zone has to know that.

Yet we’d almost rather die than be uncomfortable.

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once noted that people rank public speaking as worse than the fear of death, which means, quite insanely, that at a funeral the average person would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.

In ancient Rome, there was perhaps no better orator than Crassus, famed for his brilliant speeches and prosecutions of the corrupt and the evil. At least that’s how he appeared to his audiences. You would not have known, as he later admitted, that at the outset of every speech he would “Feel a tremor through my whole thoughts, as it were, and limbs.” Even as a master, he still experienced doubt—still felt waves of overwhelming anxiety and fear crash over him before he went onstage.

At the beginning of his career, it was even worse. He recounts his eternal debt and gratitude to a judge who, at one of Crassus’s first public appearances, could tell how “absolutely disheartened and incapacitated with fear” the boy was, and adjourned the hearing until a later date. We can imagine those merciful words from the judge, sparing Crassus as he no doubt prayed he would be spared, as we have prayed a thousand times, second only to his hope that he might be struck down and killed rather than have to go on.

Yet we would not be talking about Crassus had he not pushed through that fear.

Would he have rather practiced law from the privacy of his study? Sure, just as Serpico probably wished he could’ve dressed as he liked without comment. Such is life. It doesn’t care about our rathers. You will have to stand alone from time to time. If you can’t even do that to deliver a talk, how will you possibly have the courage to do it when it counts?

You put on the tights. You push through the stage fright—the fright that persists even after you’ve mastered the art of public speaking. You enter the witness stand. You deliver the hard news to the assembled employees. You just learn to stop thinking about what they think. You’ll never do original work if you can’t. You have to be willing not only to step away from the herd but get up in front of them and say what you truly think or feel. It’s called “public life” for a reason.

We don’t get to succeed privately.

It’s ironic, the Stoics would say, that for all our selfish cares about ourselves, we seem to value other people’s opinions about us more than our own. The freed slave Epictetus says, “If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid.” Can you do that? You’ll have to.

When we flee in the direction of comfort, of raising no eyebrows, of standing in the back of the room instead of the front, what we are fleeing is opportunity. When we defer to fear, when we let it decide what we will and won’t do, we miss so much. Not just success, but actualization.

Who might we be if we didn’t care about blushing? What could we accomplish if we didn’t mind the spotlight? If we were tough enough to put on the tights? If we were willing not only to fail but to do so in front of others?

P.S. If you have gotten anything out of my writing, I’d love for you to consider pre-ordering  Courage is Calling. Pre-orders make a huge difference for authors as they try to get a book off the ground. And to make it worth your while, I’ve put together a bunch of cool pre-order bonuses, including signed pages from the drafts of the book as I wrote them. Click here to learn more about all the bonuses and how to receive them!

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.