I Stopped Feeling Afraid of Looking Like a Fool. Here's What Happened Next

Vishal Kataria

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(Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash)

Most people talk fondly about their school and college days. I wish I could too. I even want to. But I would be lying if I did.

I dragged myself through school and college. I didn’t languish at the bottom; I was the student in the middle. And that would’ve been fine if it wasn’t for my parents’ disappointment. They felt let down because my teachers kept telling them I was a bright boy.

But I thought my teachers were lying just to keep them happy. Because the truth was that I would repeatedly make a fool of myself in front of my teachers and classmates.

I suffered from maths anxiety, which had a cascading effect on my scores in other subjects and eventually, on my confidence. I talked and babbled a lot hoping to win friends, but all I succeeded in doing was attracting bullies like a magnet and repelling the rest of my classmates as if I had terrible body odor.

When I tried to study engineering, I failed in 13 out of 16 subjects in the first year. The only ones I cleared were Communications Skills I and II. Nobody fails in them.

I could see it in my classmates’ eyes… they pitied my stupidity. I tried hard to be less stupid. But it was like getting stuck in quicksand — the harder I fought, the more stupid I appeared.

If you fight something long enough, there comes a point when you give up and no longer want to fight. And then, one of two things happens.

A. You get trapped.

You weaponize what you’ve been fighting against, on yourself, and ride the downward spiral. You overdose on self-berating: I deserve everything bad that’s happening because I suck, I’m a victim and I’m always going to be one. And you cling to rigid, outdated, and toxic beliefs. The feeling you were fighting now turns into a cage.

B. You feel liberated.

You wake up one morning and realize that you were asking the wrong question all along. Maybe the question was not, “Why am I like this?” It was “Is this bad in the first place?” Maybe you believed it was because society told you. But now you can finally see the light. You can see that the trait makes you you. And the door to the cage unlocks to reveal new pathways.

I’m grateful that the latter happened in my life.

When I dropped out of engineering, I was left to my own devices and thoughts. (I’m also glad we didn’t have smartphones in those days.)

As I worked at call centers and retail stores, I realized my foolishness wasn’t “stupidity,” it was curiosity. This curiosity became a fresh pair of eyes through which the world appeared starkly different. Something shifted in me as well, and I went from fighting the fear of appearing like a fool to embracing it and saying, “Hey, I am a fool.”

The acceptance lifted a five-ton weight off my chest. I felt like I could finally breathe for the first time. I could worry less about my external image and others’ opinions of me, and nurture my curiosity instead.

I began to question how things were done and searched for my own answers when the ones I got from others were either unsatisfactory or the cliché “you-don’t-understand.” This led to a deeper revelation: most people don’t know what they’re talking about. They just act as if they do. The truly wise people are the ones whose actions speak louder than their words.

Those are the people we should reach out to and learn from. Those are the people we should want to follow. Those are the people we should try to be like. Only then can we discover ourselves and learn what we're made of.

The more I learned, the more I became aware of how little I knew, and the less afraid I became of making mistakes. Mistakes don’t mean the end of the world. They aren’t a sign of failure. But not learning anything from them… that’s failure.

“So let not a young man be discouraged if he has committed follies; for there seems to emerge a peculiar and vivid wisdom from error, from making an ass of oneself, and all that, more useful to one’s own life than any wisdom he can get from sages or books.” — Frank Crane

The “I’m-a-fool” mindset keeps me in permanent-Beta, like a startup that’s constantly refining its Minimum Viable Product. It reminds me that trying to be better is more important than trying to be right. It has taught me to laugh at myself, and how to be more encouraging of people who are afraid that the world will laugh at them if they want to try something new.

I haven’t really embarrassed myself in the last seven years. In fact, I’ve done things I’m proud of. I’ve grown from a corporate slave to becoming my own master. I’ve built meaningful friendships and been in relationships with amazing women who weren’t in it because they pitied me, but because they wanted to be with me.

And I’m at peace with the imposter syndrome that confronts me every now and again because it keeps pushing me to try and become better than I was yesterday.

Bringing It Home

It's time you stopped letting society decide whether your traits are curses or boons. Instead, realize that you don't owe the world a thing, nor does it owe you anything in return. And it's time you stop trying to fit a frame when what you really want to be is a misfit.

Allow yourself to decide which traits make you unique and turn them into boons. Encourage yourself to channel your deepest fears and insecurities to improve yourself instead of allowing them to cage you.

You might not end up as the person you thought you would be or thought hoped you would be. But I’m sure you'll fall in love with who you are. And that alone is enough.

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