For most of my life, I have battled against something that I considered an imperfection. I even personalized it and began thinking of it as my imperfection.
In the beginning, it wasn’t a battle to correct my imperfection as much as it was a battle to hide it. The goal was to seem perfect (even though I wasn’t). While I realized that almost everyone has something about them they wish they could change (or at least hide), my imperfection was obvious the first time I spoke to someone. Or to paraphrase a famous movie line, “I had them at hello”. So I tried to come up with ways to not say “hello”, or anything else for that matter. It certainly sounded like a great plan: Don’t talk, then no one can know that you stutter.
First problem: That’s not a great way to go through life. More importantly, life won’t let you go through it that way. I needed to answer the phone. I needed to order a meal. I needed to ask a girl out (even if she might say “no”).
Second problem: I had things to say. I wanted to be heard. There is nothing as frustrating as sitting in class hearing your classmates give the wrong answer to a question that you knew the right answer to. Not just the right answer but the definitive RIGHT ANSWER: The answer to the question that would make all other answers to that question appear inferior. If I could just build up the courage to raise my hand and give the answer, boy would I “wow” them. But what if I stutter? What if I can’t get it out? What if the other kids laugh or the teacher looses patience? How do you overcome THAT fear? Only with a really strong desire to be heard – and that’s what I had.
Since the plan to remain silent wasn’t going to work, I needed to come up with a new plan. This plan was going to require some hard work on my part and a lot of guts.
Part One: I started with Speech Therapy in school. For the first time, someone understood and wanted to help. Someone told me what to do when the words get stuck in your mouth and gave me strategies for improvement. More importantly, they built up my courage by making me feel better about myself.
Part Two: I began looking inward. Who am I and what kind of life do I want to have? What I found was that I was someone that had things to say. I didn’t want to be quiet. I realized that the things that I had to say mattered much more than the manner in which I said them. So, one way or the other, I was going to find a way to say them.
Part Three: Have the guts to try it and don’t get down on yourself when it doesn’t work out the way you want.
Slowly and ever so cautiously, I began crawling out from under the rock that I was under. I began raising my hand in class – at one point even standing up to give the answer so everyone could hear me. The feeling of really being heard and of seeing the positive reaction from the audience was a new and exciting thrill for me. I started craving that feeling more. I volunteered and was cast in school plays. I took every opportunity to stand in front of an audience and speak. Through my teen years, I continued to take on leadership positions and found myself time and again speaking in front of crowds. This pattern (need?) continued throughout my adult life and now, I am a Senior Vice President in charge of a large business unit of a major financial institution. I am also the father of three including a daughter who is a Speech Pathologist (how’s that for irony). I frequently make presentations in front of hundreds of people and last year was featured in a company promotional video which was seen by tens of thousands. Not only do I not let my imperfection stop me, I actually use it to propel me forward.
I now understand that my stutter is not an imperfection. It is a unique aspect of me. Like my fingerprints or my DNA, it makes me who I am.
I am quite sure that I would be a different person if I didn’t have to think before I spoke. Maybe I would say stupid things if I was more fluent. Maybe I would be another one of those people that just talks too much and says nothing. Maybe I would be one of those people that fly off the handle at the slightest provocation and yell and scream for seemingly no reason. Certainly, that’s not the kind of person I would like to be.
The point is that once I understood that this one aspect of my life doesn’t define me as a failure or as handicapped in any way, I began to be more comfortable with me. Instead of a person with a speech impediment, I began to define myself as a courageous person. I am someone that didn’t let his inability to always speak perfectly hold him back. I am someone that continues to put himself in uncomfortable situations; situations that many fluent people fear. Situations that constantly and continuously put my faith in myself and my determination to be heard on the line.
And so, I no longer refer to my stutter as my imperfection. I now call it my Opportunity: my Opportunity to surprise; my Opportunity to overcome; my Opportunity to be different.
Am I perfect? Absolutely not. In fact, my Opportunity continues to present itself to me, sometimes even during presentations.
Do I still think about it before I speak? Yes and I probably always will. It will always be there lingering right near the surface.
Do I still get upset when it happens or when I see that odd look on someone’s face when I stumble on my name (“did you forget your name?” – they sometimes say)? You bet I do.
Do I still get nervous when we have to go around a room and introduce ourselves for the first time? Sure. But I don’t let it stop me from speaking when it’s my turn.
Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to be able to speak without first having to think and fret about it as intensively as I do. In the end, while it might be a relief, I would be weaker person for it.
My advice to everyone out there who has the same Opportunity as I have is this: work hard and continue to see your speech therapists, they can help you a lot – but also, embrace who you are, accept the fact that you are not like everyone else – and that’s a good thing.
Don’t let your inability to say everything perfectly stop you from saying it at all. Don’t let your Opportunity hold you back, let it propel you forward.