I have never considered communication to be my strong suit. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. I grew up as an only child in rural/backwoods North Carolina. I didn’t speak much with my parents about day to day things. I attended a small private school after 2 years of homeschooling. I had only three fantastic friends until high school. My high school was a slightly larger charter school. Still less than a thousand enrolled students but it felt huge to me.
During this period, I had maybe five friends but I would only talk and visit with two of them regularly. I didn’t participate in sports, clubs, or any other activities. Nor did I attend any school or local events. To be honest, my primary reason for not doing these things was that it would subtract from the time that I could spend playing Halo: Reach and Minecraft.
My secondary reason (as if a teenage boy needed another) was that these events terrified me. The idea of being part of a crowd and not belonging. Having to talk to strangers. What would I talk about? I’ve spent years of childhood with everyone I talked to. I knew my friends, as well as I, knew myself. But I had never had any practice talking to strangers.
This wasn’t an issue for me for most of my life to this point. I was comfortable and happy playing video games all day to care about my social abilities. This all started to change when I moved out of my comfort zone and into college.
Ever since my acceptance to Berea College I had been mentally preparing myself for this experience that was going to shake up the world as I knew it.
It frightens me to think what my life would look like if Dr. Peter Hackbert hadn’t been one of my professors my first semester.
Dr. Hackbert introduced me to startup culture, entrepreneurship and innovation. He took notice of my interest in technology and suggested that I attend a Startup Weekend in Lexington. I promptly Googled “Startup Weekend” and liked what I saw. I was still in my first few months of college and was getting used to new experiences so I said “what the heck” and signed up.
That first Startup Weekend was one of the first instances where I was forced to communicate. Mostly it was the kind of communication that I was used to. Persuasive arguments, opinions, public speaking, etc. But there was a bit of small talk and playful communication that I was not used to.
Besides other personal accomplishments I walked out of Startup Weekend feeling inspired and capable.
Soon after I was beginning to see the value of networking. This seemed impossible to me and I still haven’t quite figured it out. I’ve attended a handful of networking events and come into contact with some highly influential people. But I have failed to make any meaningful connections. Not because I failed at communication but because I failed to even try.
I may be a special case but even everyday speech, small talk, and pleasantries didn’t feel natural to me for the longest time.
Most of my day to day communication was email correspondence and the occasional phone call or scheduled meeting. These conversations had a distinctly defined and often urgent purpose and small talk and pleasantries were kept to a minimum.
It is only now that I have made the conscious decision to branch out more from the new comfort zone I have created during my stay at college. I have begun to ask people how their days are going and what they’re up to. Crazy right? I’m realizing that this must sound like I must be a heartless machine. I’m also beginning to think that is true.
My empathy and social skills are some things that need the most practice in my life right now and it’s time to stop avoiding situations or conversations that could potentially develop them.
I was supposed to write about a time in my life that I succeeded in communicating effectively. Instead of dodging another chance to face my lack of strength in communication I decided to face it head on and face reality.