By the time most of us finish grade school we have already internalized the need to “look good”. Back in the 80’s ad man Phil Slott is credited with creating the phrase, never let them see you sweat. It was originally used as a tagline in a deodorant commercial. Since then it has leaped into fashion, sports, aging, entertainment and probably every other field of endeavor. The phrase suggests we should always look our best, and never show our vulnerabilities.
Living by this dictum puts you on a sure road to failure. Here’s why.
If you are afraid to fail, afraid to look bad, inept, unskilled then you will never take the risks it takes to be successful. The most successful people are those who are willing to fail and keep failing until they get it right.
I was thirty when I moved to Caracas, Venezuela. I was articulate, a skilled presenter, and effective at engaging people. There was a tiny issue… I only had these skills in English and I was living in a Spanish-speaking country. I spoke Sesame Street Spanish – please, thank you, yes, no and milk. Oh yes I could count to 10.
Anna, my Spanish teacher came to the house every morning. I had studied French and some Italian which gave me a bit of a head start, but what I needed most was to start talking using my limited vocabulary and the list of verbs Anna gave me.
We were living temporarily with my Spanish-speaking mother-in-law who always had six or seven various children, sisters and cousins for lunch. Of course I could understand very little of the conversation. Everyone wanted to include me and since my teacher had told me to practice my Spanish by repeating an incident from daily life, I would venture forth with my increasing but still tiny vocabulary. I knew I sounded like a 4 year old – actually worse, because Rob my 4 year old son was my translator! One day my mother-in-law’s oldest sister started asking how Rob was doing in school. I started telling her about the little rabbits at his school and how excited he was to be able to hold them. (conejois rabbit and conejitois a little rabbit).
Midway through my story, Johann my bi-lingual brother-in-law called out in English from across the room. Stop talking, you are not saying what you think you are saying.
Flustered I stopped. I didn’t know what to do. What had I actually said? …
I had said, Rob loves to hold the little conjoncitos,which means the little cojones that sensitive part of a man’s anatomy that hangs between his legs!
I had confused the word conejo with cojones.
That wasn’t the first gaff nor the last. Did I feel inept and stupid? Of course! But it was my willingness to let them see me sweatthat led me to becoming completely fluent in Spanish, one mistake at a time.
When I left Venezuela twelve years later I had successfully grown Factor Humano-Computacion y Systemas, a Spanish-speaking company; managed IDO, an organization development consulting firm; and taught at the Unversidad Metropolitana. Since then I’ve hiked in remote Patagonia with a local Spanish-only guide, given interviews for Spanish language media, enjoyed reading novels in Spanish by great Latin American authors and always surprise hotel staff when they discover thegringa speaks their language.
So let them see you sweat. It’s the only way you can gain skill and then mastery in something new.
Until Tuesday. YIPPEE!