Remember Screech on Saved by the Bell, and his army of suspender-wearing, science-loving, stereotypically naïve nerds? What about Steve Urkel on the classic 90s sitcom, Family Matters? His pants were practically up by his armpits. He was the quintessential geek with a heart of gold (as imagined by Hollywood writers, of course). In other words, judging a book by its cover would be a really big mistake.
The same argument could be made for blonde and jock jokes. I was surprised to realize that countless high school classmates struggled against public perception; as it turns out, the popular crowd is not immune to feelings of inadequacy. I can recall one athlete in particular who worked exceptionally hard to raise his grades, only to be called “dumb as a post” in a very public forum by his so-called friends. It seems that, no matter how hard we try, the people around us are determined to put us into a box with clearly defined walls, with absolutely no room for growth.
At that point, we have two choices:
1. Stay in our little, claustrophobic box; or,
2. Punch a hole in the wall and get the hell out.
However, I’ve learned that, while external forces can become a heavy weight of influence on our shoulders (expectations, media, etc.), it is our responsibility to keep that weight from crushing our potential as human beings.
As a fellow bookish guy or gal, I’m sure you know this feeling. Or, maybe your high school was progressive and didn’t assume all readers were nerds. Lucky you. My mistake. In my experience, anything that even hinted at academic determination screamed boring! At the very least, reading was just not cool. And, let’s not forget that avid readers are supposed to be shy introverts who follow the rules, diligently finish their homework on time, and never feel confident enough to join a real sports team. Can you detect a hint of sarcasm? (Not that anything is wrong with finishing your homework, but you get the picture.)
Obviously, this is all a bunch of hooey, but when we let that mentality become a part of our thinking process, we internalize it as truth. Sadly, this is how I saw myself during my teen years, even though in my heart I knew the ability for athletics, and interests beyond the humanities, was there. At the time, it felt like a safe place to hang my hat but, when the idea of trying new things continued to scare me, I finally understood that something had to change.
Here are three steps that helped:
1. Consistently push the boundaries of your comfort zone
As a child, I had been mildly active in track and field, volleyball, and basketball (against my will, because I was tall). But then I hit my tween years, withdrew into my shell, and never came out unless under extreme duress. So, the first thing I did was start going to the gym to rediscover my love for athletics. It took some time and pushing, but I forced myself to try different things: lifting weights, working with trainers, researching different methods. My reading skills definitely came in handy for that! By university, I was dabbling in heavier weight lifting and kickboxing, completing two half-marathons. Afterwards, I tried rowing, a fitness competition, Olympic and power lifting. Now, I thoroughly enjoy being a part of the CrossFit family, pushing myself beyond the bookish stereotype I had labeled myself so many years ago. And, yes, you read that right: I LABELED MYSELF. I bought into my own stereotype. No more!
2. Surprise yourself
As the revelation from my previous point articulates, usually it’s ourselves who need the most convincing, not the people around us. Once we consistently choose to see ourselves differently, our friends and family will follow suit. (If they don’t, that’s okay too.) A great way to accomplish this is to surprise yourself by accomplishing or participating in something you would never consider before now. If you’re extremely shy or nervous around crowds, but want to be more open and social, go to an interesting public event and have a conversation with at least one or two people you don’t know. Sign up for dancing lessons or go rock climbing in a group. Write a list of 5 things you have always wanted to try or do; then, pick the easiest one. Go from there.
3. Rock the boat
You know that saying like a fish out of water? That’s what I’m talking about. This may sound counter intuitive, but it’s time to get out of the water. This is not the same as pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. In that metaphor, the fish is still in the water, just a different ocean. For example, if you have absolutely no interest in religion, try learning meditation, or go to church on a random Sunday. If classical music makes you cringe, read a book about a famous composer, or learn how to play an instrument, something that will change your perspective on the subject, and hopefully give you a new appreciation for the effort it takes to create a symphony. If politics bore you to tears, or even makes you angry, try having a conversation with your local representative, or investigate the history of a specific party. The religious example is something I’ve tried myself, and benefitted from. Curiosity is a strange thing; once it’s been made aware of a specific topic or experience, it keeps asking questions long after the task or experience is complete. It’s most important to remember that this experiment is only meant to expand your brain, maybe add a new layer (or two) of understanding to your life, but never force you to drink the Kool-Aid.
In closing, I’ll leave you with a few words from the gang in 10 Things I Hate About You, the ultimate example of misunderstandings caused by stereotypes. Enjoy!