Embrace embarrassment

Is there something you can’t do and probably should know how to do?

For me, it’s ice skating. Can’t do it. I’m terrible.

The few times I’ve tried, I was more paranoid about the laughing and scoffing from the 6-year-olds whizzing by me.

That fear of everybody watching me slip on the invisible banana peel over and over is what I call chosen embarrassment: willfully putting yourself out in the world to attempt something we think in our heads is art or sport or craft.

Why am I still unable to ice skate? I don’t want to deal with the embarrassment. I could get past the learning curve of the physical skill to skate, but my ego refuses to see the benefit in that.

While most kids at school carried Bubble Yum, Lemonheads, or spare change in their pockets, I carried tissues. While my parents drove me to the bus stop, I neatly folded a minimum of six tissues into 2 x 2-in. squares.

I didn’t have OCD with tissues. I did it to survive.

With nasal problems as a kid, I was mortified every time a random snot bubble burst out of one of my nostrils. The kids said, “Ewwwww!” and “GROSS!”

It was embarrassing but unchosen. I couldn’t control when it happened or the outcome.

Controlling embarrassment

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, is known for saying, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

I first learned this concept in 2007 from my friend Grant Shellen (music-, content-, and cocktail-maker) who learned it from his brother Jason Shellen (product maker: Slack, Pinterest, Blogger, Google Reader).

They both create and make valuable things on a regular basis, putting their creations out in the world, early and often.

I admire them for that.

Early in my design career, when I thought about turning an idea into something real, I had a tendency — or obsession — to perfect the logo, fonts, brand, name, colors (“But blue evokes trust!”), and every aspect of the thing other than the thing itself.

It’s a mental block. I tricked myself into thinking I can’t put something out in the world that doesn’t have the polish and design standards I hold myself to.

The good news is we can become aware of the tendency, and we can detect when to guard against it. The bad news is it’s comfortable to hold on to what we can control.

I can control the fonts.
I can control the name.
I can control the colors.

I can control my ideas because it’s safe when they’re still in my head or verbally exposed to friends.

But I cannot control how a market reacts to my product when it’s finally out there. That’s the scary part.

I discovered an insight that might help us let go of control. Even just a tiny bit. Here’s what I found…

Embracing embarrassment, what science tells us

Embracing embarrassment can be the key to unlocking our creativity and a path to thrive. It can help shift a perfectionist tendency to a giving tendency.

Consider this from Oh no you didn’t! in the American Psychological Association:

“Recent research has expanded our understanding of the social side of embarrassment. As a doctoral candidate, Matthew Feinberg, PhD, now a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, explored the social benefits of embarrassment with University of California, Berkeley, social psychologists Robb Willer, PhD, and Dacher Keltner, PhD. The researchers found that people who tended to express more outward signs of embarrassment while describing their embarrassing moments (such as tripping or passing gas in public) also reported a tendency to be more “prosocial” — that is, kinder and more generous (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012). And in fact, those easily embarrassed people proved to be more generous in a lab experiment in which they were asked to share raffle tickets with strangers.”

What about being too nice? Too generous?

In Give and Take: A Revolutionary Path to Success, New York Times best-selling author and Penn professor Adam Grant researches success in work and life through givers, takers, and matchers.

The data reveal that givers are at the bottom of the success ladder. Takers and matchers are higher up.

Not surprising, right?

The interesting finding, however, is takers and matchers fall in the middle of the pack.

Although givers appear to be at the bottom, they are also at the top. There’s an exponential nature to givers’ success:

“Givers, takers, and matchers all can — and do — achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades. When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses. Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. In contrast, when [givers] win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them. Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them. You’ll see that the difference lies in how giver success creates value, instead of just claiming it.”

By opening the creative curtain and freely sharing the process — the stumbles and success — we can share knowledge, experiences, pitfalls, and wins to enhance the success of people in our communities. Instead of being embarrassed, we can build trust and a supportive community rooting for us.

This idea is further supported by the same Willer and Dacher study:

“In another facet of that study, Feinberg and his colleagues found that revealing embarrassment offers a social benefit as well. They exposed volunteers to an actor who expressed either embarrassment or pride after a researcher publicly praised his performance on a test. When the actor expressed embarrassment, study participants found him more trustworthy and wanted to affiliate with him more.”

Do you want to be a better designer? A better [fill in your craft]? Embrace embarrassment and be a giver. Even if it means slips and snot.

You never know, you might end up enjoying losing a pushup contest to Wyclef Jean (yeah, it happened). I’ll never regret offering him that cookie.


50 pompes ( push up) by Wyclef Jean by larykoko

Wyclef Jean challenged me to a pushup contest at Google in 2007 after I offered him a cookie. He crushed me. Embarrassed, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.