I was never one of those kids in school — you know, those kids who felt such ease speaking in front of their peers, teachers, parents and just anyone in general. Unless with my closest friends, I could keep my mouth shut for hours, fearing attention more than words.
I hated myself. Why did I have to be so goddamn shy? Why did the slightest bit of attention send me reeling to my cubby? Why did my mother have to walk me into the narrowed halls of my elementary school every day? Why did I have to cry when people sang “Happy Birthday” on the dreaded day of my reborn existence every year?
High school didn’t get much better. I stayed in my small group of friends, occasionally talking to classmates when forced to collaborate on group projects and school activities (only attended out of insistence by my own shy mother).
I found small talk to be a chore and group dinners the antithesis of everything I knew as right and good. I went to one football game and faked a stomachache the next 38. I worried for the future, constantly, fearing that if this was how people were in the throngs of adolescence, it was only going to get worse for us quieter ones, cast in the shadows of the loud-mouthed prom kings and queens forever.
By college, I realized that my shyness was just a product of my environment; my discomfort with my peers had labeled me shy and unimportant since those doomed days my mother had to walk me into class. Now I didn’t have that stigma; I had no role, no box to fill. As shy as I was by nature, I didn’t have to succumb to it this time. I soon came to realize that my shyness as a kid made me a better person, a more capable adult.
I had spent years — my entire life up until this point — studying and learning, rather than acting and pretending. While the others were busy competing for the center of attention, I was hanging back, chatting with the emasculated and scorned around me. I was studying the art of aggression and learning exactly what it took to gain people’s respect, however deluded that respect was or wasn’t. I had an entire lifetime of introspection and observation to pull from.
Being a leader means understanding what people want; it means knowing how to get people on your side, how to treat people. All those years my peers spent battling each other for spots in the inner circles, for the prizes of king and queen, were spent understanding how people work, how to be compassionate and understanding. I knew the other side, the side of people in the corners, who don’t need to talk to get their point across.
Now I don’t run a company or lead masses of people, but my boss does, and I know we’re a lot alike. I know that he understands human interaction and how people work. He understands how to get people to do what he wants without making enemies. He’s not inherently outgoing or charismatic, but he’s definitely a leader.
The best leaders of our time and those fallen in history were never defined as cocky or self-righteous. They are celebrated for their earnestness and compassion. They were level-headed and honest. The best leaders are the ones who know how to connect with humanity and make it better.
I think that being shy for your entire childhood subdues your cockiness, at least for a while, because one of the main reasons people are shy is that they’re not confident. That lack of confidence, if eventually shed, normally doesn’t turn into the type of boastful, obnoxious arrogance that confident, outgoing kids develop from years of being outspoken.
The shy kids are the ones who hid in the corners, listening rather than talking. They were the ones observing rather than showing. They are introspective and inquisitive, and have been bred to know how to make do with what they have, rather than overcompensate. They are the silent warriors who spend their entire adolescence waiting to share what they’ve learned in the shadows.
Next time you are about to reject someone for being shy, for not speaking up, remember this: These people are not stupid just because they resist being center stage. These people aren’t void of thought just because they prefer to withhold their opinions. Think about the restraint a person must have in order to refrain from using words, to be forced to keep his or her thoughts, opinions and appeals inside, unheard.
These are the markings of a leader, a man or woman who knows when to keep his or her mouth shut and when to speak up when the time is right. These people know how to listen and how to voice their opinions in other facets than the spoken word. They use other outlets and other means to get their point across.
They study themselves and society, gaining wisdom in silence. They are compassionate, soft, emotional people without the incessant need to share their every thought; it’s a refreshing quality in this age.