How to Stop Stunting Your Potential

I spent the summer before my sophomore year preparing for a season of football glory. I left my friends behind in order to play for the new coach of what had previously been my rival high school. I spent the summer practicing with the team. After months of hard work it came time for the annual red and white scrimmage. The scrimmage was an event for the freshman to play against the sophomores, for the sophomores to play the juniors and for the juniors to play the seniors. It was an annual tradition held to promote school pride and to kick off the football season. For me it was a chance to prove that I was worth my weight and to earn a full time spot on the team. Sadly, my fantasy of football stardom ended almost as quickly as it began.

Not even five plays into the scrimmage disaster struck. The quarterback came running in from the sideline and told us the play dictated to him by our couch. We broke the huddle and I ran to my position on the right side of the field. The play was a run to my side and my job was to block the defensive back. The quarterback took the snap and handed it to the running back. The defensive back in front of me saw the running back coming to my side and quickly shifted his attention from me to the running back. I attempted to give my teammate a chance to skirt around me with a well timed block. Instead of going around me and breaking downfield, he ran full speed, with his head down, directly into the side of my helmet and pow, the lights went out. I learned later that they called this phenomenon “ear-holing.” I haven’t played a contact sport since. After the doctor told me about second-impact syndrome, I was sufficiently convinced that football was too dangerous to continue with my damaged and fragile brain. Turns out that seven concussions is too many.

So there I was, the friendless new kid. I had left everyone and everything I knew behind to play football at a new school and now I couldn’t even play. I was lost and alone. At the time, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. After all I had sacrificed, everything I had been working for was taken away in an instant. I was thrown into a world of self-pity, insecurity and doubt. Fortunately for me, and despite my initial complaints, my mom had put me into a drama class for the first semester of the school year. I was skeptical about the class. I had assumed that it would be a waste of time. I thought that people would think I was a loser and label me a “drama kid,” permanently damaging my potential for popularity. I had a tendency to overthink things, and I cared way too much about what people thought. What I discovered however, is that acting is actually a lot of fun. It was a perfect outlet for my self-repressed inner weirdo. I broke down some of my own barriers and started to throw out my perceptions of what people thought. I was able to be creative and explore a side of myself that previously I had only sought to get rid of out of embarrassment and fear of judgement. I must’ve had a knack for it because the drama teacher suggested I try out for the school play. I took his advice and I was cast in a small part. I was instantly hooked. Being on stage in front of a hundred people pretending to be someone else was intoxicating. The drama kids turned out to be very accepting. They were amazing, loving, talented and creative people. I found a home, where I was loved despite my own insecurities and strange teenage behaviors. A new world opened up before my eyes.

Fast forward to 2019.

I’m sitting in a Starbucks nestled neatly into the corner of a Barnes & Noble writing this post. Although a few things have remained consistent over the last nine years, a lot of things have changed for me. I still want to entertain people but I’ve learned a lot about myself in my journey since the ear-hole incident of 2010. I no longer lust after fame. I’ve come to realize that there are more meaningful and important things in life than notoriety. My focus has shifted from the emptiness of fame and fortune to the fulfillment that comes from using my unique abilities and talents to truly bring value to the lives of others. I’m working to stop agonizing about the opinions of others. I choose instead to think about the positive changes I can bring about in my own life and the lives of others. I want to share as many genuine experiences with the people I love as possible. I’ve decided to dedicate my life to the pursuit of knowledge and experiences that are rich in purpose and meaning. My goal is to help others in any way that I can, even if it means opening up about my own weaknesses, struggles and insecurities.

Everyone experiences unique pitfalls in life and I want to be an open book about mine. If reading this helps even one person avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made then it will be worth it. If there are lessons you’ve learned through your unique path please feel free to share them for the benefit of us all in the comment section below.

I always had a tendency to take personal responsibility for the experiences of others. I would often overthink my role within a group. If I was hanging out with friends I wanted to make sure everyone was having a good time, sometimes to my own detriment. Usually everyone was feeling just fine or having a great time, but I would make myself miserable trying to ensure that when someone said “yeah dude I’m good” that they weren’t lying to me to appease my neuroses. I came off as pushy, over-concerned or even a little crazy.

The main thing I’ve come to realize is that no matter how hard I try, I can’t control the experiences of others. Especially not by endlessly pestering them with questions about how they’re doing or by offering to do things for them. Have you ever had someone look at your normal, resting face and ask you if you’re mad? Usually you just say no and then they reply with something like, “oh ok, you just looked mad.” If it ends there it’s not an issue. After all it’s good to check in with people from time to time. But if they persist with a follow up, “are you sure you’re not mad?” you’re forced to repeat yourself. If asked a third time you actually start to feel mad. You feel your heart rate elevate and your head gets hot; “NO I’M NOT MAD!” Then comes the inevitable insult to injury, “see, I knew you were mad.”

When you worry too much about the experience of others, you quite often cause what you’re trying to prevent. Worrying is the best way to kill any creative openness, collaborative potential or enjoyment of shared experiences. The key to fixing this tendency is by learning to remove your ego from the equation. Learn to allow a childlike, playful spirit to overtake you. Play off of your collaborators. Do things that make you laugh. Experiment with your creativity. The best way to make sure others have a positive experience is to make sure that YOU are having a positive experience independent of what they think (never in spite of their experience but not dependent on it.) We are all collaborators on this work of art we call life, don’t kill the collaborative spirit, just relax and make sure you take care of yourself. Pay attention to what effect your actions ACTUALLY have on others and on your own mental states, instead of stirring up negative emotions in them with your misguided “good” intentions.

In my opinion, the desire for the approval of others and the avoidance of judgement are two of the main causes of destructive behaviors. There have been way too many instances in my life where the thought of what others would think has stopped me from doing the things that genuinely interest me and stopped me from engaging in social situations. Fantasies and scenarios in my head about the potential embarrassment could make me depressed or self-conscious for weeks and they weren’t even real. They were just made up scenarios in my mind. The only way to avoid this is by not avoiding it. Put yourself into situations where you’re doing the things you think you will be judged for as often as possible. (I only mean the good things, don’t go out and start hurting people, that will help no one.) It will be difficult and initially feel counterproductive. It will often drudge up feelings of embarrassment and make you feel stupid but this is a normal part of the process. It is necessary to show your subconscious that you aren’t going to die if you allow yourself to be vulnerable. As you start to realize that the reality of uncomfortable experiences is only half as bad as the horrible stories you invent in your head, it will become easier for you to navigate the difficulties you face every day.

Kids are good at playing without fear of judgement because they haven’t been suffocated by the set of acceptable behaviors assigned by society. This set of behaviors is why you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when you’re in public and an adult does something strange or out of the norm, but you don’t feel any negative emotions when a child does because they’re just being a kid, it’s what kids do. Kids talk to themselves all the time when they play, no one bats an eye; but if a drunk homeless man talks to himself then watch out, he’s crazy. This structure society has created; this list of acceptable behaviors, is good. It keeps people generally civil and makes the world less scary to operate in, but it doesn’t mean that all the individual behaviors on the list are there correctly. Removing the behaviors that shouldn’t be on the list is something only the individuals within the society can do. You must begin by testing the boundaries of the list. Do this as often as you can, and you will slowly retrain your brain to understand where it was incorrectly placing behaviors/thoughts or actions on the list. I can’t tell you where you have it wrong, the only way for you to find out is by challenging these behaviors one at a time in your own life. Does this mean you immediately go out and start acting like a child? Well…no. Start with the lowest risk behavior to test and go from there, whatever you deem that to be for yourself. You could start by making eye contact with every cashier you come into contact with. Even something this small can open up a new world of possibilities. Start with the little things and I promise, eventually the big things will become obvious. You will even start to find it fun and exciting to test these boundaries. Find someone who you can be your authentic self with, someone who loves you for who you really are. If you can’t readily identify someone like this ask yourself this question; “who do I know that I’ve been a jackass to over and over again that still wants to talk/call/associate with me.” That’s where you’ll find the genuine people. Regardless of how poorly you’ve treated them in the past, these are the people who love you for who you really are. Invite them to lunch or coffee and have a genuine five minute conversation with them and make it your goal to tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You will be amazed how many things will be made readily apparent for you to start fixing through this process. This will help you start to be a genuine loving person to everyone you meet. It will help you to understand that you won’t be judged for being your authentic self in fact, you will be loved for it. Being your authentic self as often as possible is the only way to be truly loved. It’s much easier to love someone when you know you’re looking at who they really are.

I thought for a long time that creativity was only for the arts and entertainment or people with genius minds. The truth is that creativity is a part of every aspect of life. Almost all of the things in your life including the majority of your immediate surroundings are the result of one person being creative with the inventions or discoveries of another person. This process is how we have invented so many amazing tools, conveniences and concepts. Being creative just means that you are doing something unique with the tools and concepts at your disposal. It isn’t the result of divine inspiration reserved for super geniuses or the elite. It’s something that’s a part of human nature. People use what is available to them in order to solve a problem or to embellish a certain aspect of life. This process is how our species has learned to build things like cars, skyscrapers and pyramids. It’s how we invented language, math and music. It’s how we invented space travel and went to the moon. Almost everything that seems part of everyday normal life now started as the crazy idea of a single human. If people let their worries about the opinions of others dictate their actions we wouldn’t have half of the amazing things we have today. Don’t let what others think of you stop you from fulfilling your potential. It’s illogical to imagine scenarios about what people will think of you. You never know what’s going on in another person’s head. Most of the time you don’t even know what’s going on in yours.

Practice recognizing your self-destructive mindsets. Learn how to pay attention to your thoughts. This is the first step in reprogramming your socially dictated perspective on acceptable behavior. Practice mindfulness. Just one minute a day will help you build the mental strength and awareness to recognize the thoughts and mental patterns that you want to change. Use the RAIN technique when you start to feel the negative emotions that are causing you to be too hard on yourself or to hold yourself back from realizing your creative potential:

  • R – Recognize what’s going on. Is your heart rate elevating? Is your face burning? What emotions are you experiencing?
  • A – Allow the experience to be there, just as it is. Don’t try to change what’s happening just pay attention to it.
  • I – investigate the experience with kindness. Don’t judge yourself for what you’re feeling.
  • N – Natural awareness. This is the state of mind that comes from recognizing that the experience isn’t you — by not identifying with the experience.

There are a lot of resources for learning about mindfulness and meditation. If there is a demand I will put together a list of my recommendations and my own mindfulness practices in another post. If this post has brought you some value please consider sharing it with someone who you think could benefit from it as well. Thank you all for your love and support.

Humbly,

Teddy Schultz

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