Most of the time, most people aren’t looking at you. They’re too busy worrying that you’re looking at them.
I’m going to tell you about a weird experiment that my friend and I did in a bar in Brooklyn about fifteen years ago. I’m not recommending that you try it, but just thinking about it might help you feel more confident.
I was with a group of friends having drinks on a Thursday night. We were all in our post college years and had an aggressively average look. Clever t-shirts, bandanas, silver jewelry from a music festival, crippling college debt, you get the idea. We were too poor to drink very much, so we were basically sober.
I was talking with my good friend Forrest, as we ordered a second round of beers. Looking back, I’m not sure the exact flow of conversation, but somehow, we ended up doing something unusual that helped me build an unshakable sense of self-confidence.
We traded pants.
We were about the same size, and being young and nimble, it only took us a few seconds. I was wearing a pair of green chinos from the Gap and he had on a pair of Levis.
Without any fanfare or drama, right at the bar, we simultaneously unbuttoned and unzipped our pants, dropped them to the floor, swapped and reclothed ourselves.
Guess what happened:
Nobody noticed, commented, pointed or laughed. The whole thing was over in less than a minute and we were back to sipping our overpriced beers.
I looked around, expecting to see people laughing, pointing or at least making eye contact and giving us an eyebrow raise. But there was nothing. Nobody even noticed!
What I realized from swapping pants with my friend in a busy bar is that most of the time, people aren’t looking at me. Most of the time, people are focused on themselves, and don’t pay attention to what I’m doing.
This is true for you too, I almost guarantee it.
If you spill coffee on your shirt, walk around with your zipper down or have a leaf in your hair for half the day, almost nobody will care. You can have crumbs on your lap, dog hair on your jacket or wear your t-shirt inside out and very few people will pay close enough attention to notice.
Last fall, my gym got this weird new machine that was like a weird sideways elliptical. I hesitated for a second before I tried it out, not wanting to look like an idiot. But then I remembered — I took my pants off in a public place and nobody noticed. If I could pull that off, figuring out an exercise machine — fully clothed — would be no big deal.
So I headed over to the machine and spent 20 minutes figuring it out without anyone glancing my way or saying anything.
Now I work with teenagers, and their lives a driven by the fear that someone will see them doing something awkward, embarrassing or gross. They are terrified that they will get laughed at, called out or teased.
As their teacher, I can’t tell them the story about pants swapping at a bar. But I do tell them that everyone else is so focused on their own weirdness and mistakes that most of the time, slipping on a banana peel or wearing leggings with a hole in the knee will go completely unnoticed.
And most of the time it’s true. Today I went ice skating with a bunch of kids. They were all intently focused on their own skating that they didn’t have the time or energy to focus on each other. When you’re trying not to fall, trying to keep their ankles from bending like a palm tree in a hurricane and trying to figure out how to get back up after many many falls, it’s hard to notice what other people are doing.
Listen, I know it’s not perfect advice. And I’m not telling you to take your pants off in public. But most of the time, you’re probably doing pretty ok. And when you’re not, nobody will notice anyway. So just do what you want, try your best, and when you see someone else tied up in a hot mess, just let them be.