Redefining Success

An article by Larisa Hohenboken.

I’ve recently become a fan of Invisibilia, an NPR podcast about “the invisible forces”—that is, the emotions, assumptions and ideas—“that shape our lives.” It uses stories of fascinating outliers, such as a woman who can’t feel fear, or a blind man who taught himself to echolocate, to shed light on universal human experiences.

One particular story seems especially relevant to dancing—or, indeed, any other human venture that involves a little confidence and grit. It’s from the episode Fearless.

Some of you may have heard this one back when it first aired. It involved a man, an engineer, so paralyzed by social anxiety that he rarely left the house. Eventually he got sick of his situation, and decided to turn the whole thing on its head. Instead of fearing social rejection, he resolved, he would seek it out. He wrote up a set of index cards with potentially embarrassing prompts: Ask a stranger for a ride. Ask someone on a date. Each day he’d pull one out at random, and every time he got a “no,” it was a win.

Over time, the scary situation got less scary. He was rejected over and over, and the earth still turned.

I’ve been thinking about this anecdote after several friends recently mentioned their fears about not dancing well enough. “That couple is so intimidatingly good, I don’t even want to be out on the floor at the same time as them.” “I dance well with my husband, but am way too nervous with anybody else.”

Part of the self-recrimination, I think, is due to our societal values around humility. No one wants to be seen as a braggart, or, even worse, oblivious to our own inadequacy. So we lampshade our perceived flaws, which only serves to draw attention to them.

What’s the answer to all this? Well, there are lots of options—Spencer Nelson’s earlier post on the fear of dancing has some excellent suggestions, both for new and experienced dancers alike— but I’ve had pretty good luck with redefining success, myself.

When I first started swing dancing last winter, it was a replacement activity for rock climbing. I had gotten out of shape after an injury, and was feeling really frustrated. Instead of just enjoying being back on the wall, I was obsessing over not recovering my ability fast enough.

What I needed, I decided, was a different pursuit: something I would be too novice at to expect anything but failure, at least at the start. And man, was I terrible. But that was exactly the goal, so I shoved the embarrassment down and kept going.

Most people don’t start dancing as an anti-ego hack, of course. Nor am I dissuading anyone from trying to be a better dancer—far from it! But if you find that self-consciousness is getting in the way of having fun, or being able to improve, don’t forget that there are so many other things to focus on than your own ability. Why not make it your goal to be a fun dancer, or a considerate one?

“I’m going to try to make people laugh tonight.”
“I’m going to genuinely compliment my partner when they impress me.”
“I’m going to remember to socialize, and talk to someone new.”

Those are just a few ideas. How else can you redefine success?