This is the final essay in a three-part story of self-discovery that coincidentally culminated with my attendance at the World Domination Summit (#WDS2013) in Portland, Oregon July 5- 7, 2013. Click here for Part I in this series.
We can dance if we want to
I was grateful to wake up without an alarm Sunday morning until I realized it was 6:45. I needed to check out and change hotels, and I had a 7:30 meeting. I jumped up, showered, extended my checkout time, and ran to meet Tami for a Working Life Project interview. Tami shared a powerful story of entrepreneurial spirit, and it was perfect for the project. I was energized and ready for the day’s sessions.
Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, kicked off the morning sessions with a talk about our search for happiness.
“Self-knowledge is the key to happiness,” she said. “There’s a certain sadness to self-knowledge because when we acknowledge who we are, we also acknowledge who we aren’t and who we’ll probably never be.”
She talked more about how it was okay to let go of those fantasies so we could have more time to do the things we love. It sounded like a good plan, provided I could figure out what I loved doing.
“Shine a light on the things you love, even if it doesn’t fit the image you have established for yourself,” she continued.
Oh, so there’s the catch, I thought, Not only do I have to find the thing I love doing, but I also have to call attention to it, even if it’s not something I want to share with others. My level of cynicism was on the upswing.
Tess Vigeland, formerly of NPR’s Marketplace Money, followed with a heartfelt talk on how it feels to jump from the security of a job without a safety net. I could relate. I’ve been where she is several times. Toward the end of her talk, she offered this advice, “The only way to get back to remarkable is to redefine what remarkable means to you.”
I could feel my brain working to assemble the patterns, skillfully ignoring the cynicism I had introduced earlier. When my brain is doing this work, it feels like mental alertness and physical exhaustion simultaneously. My body is ready to recharge, but my mind is in high gear. I knew something was coming, but the connections were not solid. The picture was not clear.
On the afternoon break, I went back to the hotel, packed, checked out, and moved to another hotel in a planned bit of loyalty-point juggling. I grabbed lunch and then walked to the park where I sat for a few hours reflecting and watching people. I even talked briefly with Tess, who took a bench nearby, about how the Universe manages things on its time, not ours.
We returned from the afternoon break to hear several moving pieces from actor, songwriter, and musician Steve Schalchin’s musical, The Last Session. Christian author Donald Miller was the closing speaker for the event. I was intrigued when Miller suggested most of us hide our “true self”—the person we were as a child—because of some “shame” we experienced early in life. Our adult personality is the result of what we have built to cover and protect our true self—an inner child—from the shame. He had my attention.
For months I had been thinking about why some of my friends find it so easy to be vulnerable and open, while I only open up to a few very close friends. And by few, I mean one. Maybe two. I wondered if those who wore their vulnerability as armor lived a fuller life than I did because sharing so openly seem to give them deeper and more meaningful connections.
Then Miller caught me off guard with this question, “What if we are not the identities we project? What happens when we operate outside of our ‘false’ selves? Maybe, we get to impress fewer people, but connect more.”
Then it was over. A little closing fanfare, some acknowledgments, and the World Domination Summit ended for another year.
Well, that was fun, I thought. Still, did I learn anything? I wasn’t sure.
I walked back to the hotel and recharged for a while, wrestling with myself about going to the closing party at Pioneer Courthouse Square Park. I was hungry, and the party had food, so I made my way to the park and walked directly to a food line.
An hour later I sat down to eat a Philly Cheesesteak while watching a large group of dancers move in unison to Bollywood music in the middle of the park. My original plan was to eat and then leave. The weather was nice, though, so I opted to get in line for a drink. Once in line, the couple in front of me turned to introduce themselves. It was the couple that sat next to me Saturday, Andrew, and Christine.
I remembered them because of the energy I felt from them when we first met, but I didn’t think they remembered me.
“We met yesterday,” I said. “You sat next to me in the morning session.”
“We did?” Andrew asked. He told me he wasn’t good with names or faces, and jokingly said he had a short-term memory issue.
“Yes. You’re from like, a mile away, and she’s from like, four miles away.”
Christine seemed surprised at my recollection. Andrew jumped in with, “No, no… that’s not right. I’m from four miles away, and she’s from sixty miles away.”
We laughed. The ice was broken.
We talked about the day’s sessions while standing in the long line. Donald Miller’s session seemed to be most intriguing to us all. Suddenly, Andrew shared a story about his “shame,” as Donald Miller called it, the one thing that drives us to create a personality to hide our true self. In the seconds it took Andrew to tell his story, my brain had assembled the connections it had been working on for days. It had identified my shame.
My “shame” occurred after my family moved across town and I started 8th grade in a different, more affluent school. I was talking with a group of friends at lunch one day and improperly pronounced the word “wash” using a more typical southern West Virginia pronunciation, “warsh.” One of the boys in the group made fun of my pronunciation, and all the others laughed. The embarrassment of seeming uneducated and backward hurt. I remember the names of everyone standing there that day, and the boy who lead the charge. I can still see their faces.
It was in that moment of embarrassment I began building a different personality to hide my shame. I would become educated, informed, and articulate. I would become private and reserved so as not to endure that shame again. I would become whom the majority of people in my life know today as “David Harkins.”
In what I can only describe as an impulsive moment, I did something my friends and family would say is out of character: I allowed myself to become vulnerable. I shared my moment of shame with Andrew and Christine. I doubt they realized the importance I placed on the moment because they didn’t know the personality I began building all those years ago. They only knew me at this moment.
The three of us talked most of the evening about business, some about life, and a little about close friendships. Andrew and I confided that we have few close friends “on purpose,” immediately recognizing, I think, how our created personalities were the words, “on purpose.” Our true personalities made friends effortlessly, as we proved with our near instant connection that night.
While we talked, the Bollywood music gave way to 80’s dance music, and Andrew and Christine began to talk about dancing. They prodded me for a while to dance with them, but I resisted. The heart and feet heard the beats, but the head would not let them move. “David Harkins” had not danced since most of the music playing through the speakers was first released. To dance in public would risk looking foolish. “David Harkins” does not like to look foolish.
They didn’t give up, though. Christine kept asking me to dance with them, and Andrew occasionally chimed in with encouragement. Jeff walked by, sat down, and we talked for a while about the problem he was having with a foot and how the strobes affected his balance. Jeff could not have danced that night, even if he had wanted to dance.
I took a Porta-John® break and when I returned the song, “Walk Like An Egyptian” was playing. The goofy 12-year-old I keep tucked inside broke through to prove he could still “walk like an Egyptian.” Christine saw me, laughed, and asked me to do it again. I was not embarrassed at all.
By the time “Footloose” began, my toes were tapping quietly inside my shoes. It took the song, “The Safety Dance,” and Andrew’s battle cry, “I’m going in…all the way in…” to get me into the dancing crowd of people with the two of them.
And I danced. Not as freely as I would have liked, but I danced.
Over the last year, a few of my closest friends have noted how little of my true personality I let the rest of the world see. Apparently, the “true” David Harkins is more creative, charming, generous, and loving, or something. Go figure. Of course, I could not fix what I didn’t know was broken, and once I became aware I still needed to identify the cause. Sunday night, thirty-five years later in Portland Oregon with 3,000 people trying to find a way to be remarkable in a conventional world, I identified that cause.
There are greater powers at work in the world, I think. There are lessons to learn and people to meet to help guide our life journey. I am convinced it takes the Universe time to line up all of the stars—to get everyone ready—for the work we are called to do, often unknowingly, for each other. Until that stage is set, the play cannot begin. This is why life does not always happen on the schedule we plan for ourselves.
Traveling home Monday I realized the Universe might have put this plan in motion for me over a year ago. A string of events, seen only in hindsight, opened the door to make it possible for me attend the 2013 World Domination Summit. There I heard diverse voices, each carrying to me the same message—it’s time for the “true” David Harkins to come out and play. I encountered the energy of Andrew and Christine, who were placed in my life, not once, but twice to make sure I heard the message and to help me facilitate this transformation.
So, if you’re reading this, thank you, Chris and Patti, for opening the space. For gently encouraging me to let down my guard more often and to expose that vulnerable “soft underbelly,” thank you Katherine, Kristi, and Greg. For giving me a place to temporarily call home while I unknowingly prepared for what was to come, thank you, John and Steve. Thank you, Nancy, Jia, Gretchen, Tess, Steve, and Don for using different words, but sending a singular message I needed to hear. Thank you Jeff for appearing out of nowhere to keep me grounded in those moments when I needed it most. Thank you, Andrew, for sharing your story, your passion, and your gentle humor that helped us make a connection. Thank you, Christine, for your kindness and persistence, but most of all for helping me remember how much fun it is to let go and just dance.
Sunday night in Pioneer Courthouse Square, I discovered I was free from the shackles of the single mispronounced word, which had shaped so much my life. Andrew and Christine saw, without even realizing it, something so few people in my life have ever seen, the “true” David Harkins.
And they saw him…no they saw me, dance.
The title of this post is taken from the lyrics of “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.