I recently rediscovered a clip that was assigned during a public speaking course I once took. It’s the Cos (Bill Cosby), giving one of his trademark Your-School’s-Hoody commencement speeches.
He talks about how, when he got his first big break, he got anxious and choked.
I love this speech, for a few reasons. For one, it’s classic Cosby--bold statements (“I was 25 and I was good”), long pauses, and the occasional diversion into silliness. I find it comforting to know that an attack of extreme situational anxiety can occur, even when you're the greatest storyteller ever. And, I love that he’s willing to talk about it.
I was the opening act. I don’t remember who the closing act was…I walked around looking at this club because I’m here, and I began to look at the pictures of these great comedians, men and women who were on TV. I had not been on TV as of yet.
But I’m good. I went up to the room, this was around 4:30, and first show is 8 o’clock. And, I began to talk from within to myself about these great comedians. And I began to see this club as some kind of mountain that I was approaching. I began to feel a loss of confidence. And I began to talk to myself in such a way that a heaviness began to push and make me feel inferior as a performer. And by 7 o’clock I had done one of the most masterful jobs of making myself feel that I did not belong in this club. And I couldn’t get out of it. And I kept telling myself, ‘But you are good!’ But these other voices kept coming: ‘But you are not that good, and people, the audiences, know. These people know. And when they see you, they are going to know that you are not good, you don’t belong here.’
I think most people can relate to that experience, trying to stop a rolling boulder of negative thoughts. But when that boulder is moving that fast and heavy, this approach doesn't always turn out well. It typically just results in more feelings of helplessness.
So, how does he get out of it? Mostly by accident.
First, he persists in going onstage despite his overwhelming depression (in therapy, we call this 'committed action'). Second, he inadvertently starts to banter with the stage manager, which requires him to focus outwardly and think on his feet. He has to get present, and so he gets out of his head.
Finally, he offers some advice that can be helpful for people that struggle with anxiety or lack of confidence. While I wouldn’t put it in exactly these terms, I think he tells it true:
So it’s obvious what I’m saying to you — very obvious. Don’t talk yourself into not being you at any time. You don’t have an excuse that works when you say, ‘But I was nervous.’ That’s not you. That’s not how you got here. Yeah, you can be nervous, it’s good for you, tunes you. But people want to see YOU. I don’t care what you do, when you are good then you bring you out.