What Big Nick Taught Me in High School

When I was a sophomore in high school in the late 80’s, I was in an elective course that had students from all of the upper classes. One of the students in the class was a senior named Nick. Big Nick.

Nick looked like he was 25, weighed about 250 pounds, and had a pretty serious mustache for high school. Nick was broad shouldered and built like a bouncer. He always wore a light brown leather jacket. I knew of him mostly by reputation and by the undeniable physical presence that he brought to the hallways, where people instinctively parted to make room for him. You did not mess with Nick. Nick was a little scary.

During class, only a week or two into the start of the semester, another student was sharing an observation on whatever it was we were discussing and they used a big word. A juicy, twenty-five cent SAT word like ‘effulgent’ or ‘parsimonious.’

I could not, for the life of me, believe what happened next. Nick – the huge, hairy, scary, badass – proceeded to politely interrupt this student and said “Excuse me, I’m not familiar with that word. Could you tell me what it means?”

I almost fell out of my chair. Never in a million years would I have had the stones to do that.

At sixteen I wasn’t even remotely close to having enough confidence and self-respect to admit that I didn’t know what a word meant. In a class. Out loud. With other people. I can barely do it now, at 42.

But Nick did. Nick just straight-up asked. To him, this was no act of courage. It was natural. He didn’t know what something meant, so he asked.

In an instant my impression of Nick changed so dramatically as to have stuck with me for the next twenty-five years. It was the first time I could remember seeing someone so comfortable with who they were that they didn’t have to pretend for anybody.

This does not happen frequently in high school. It doesn’t happen frequently anywhere.

In that moment Nick shifted from being a big scary dude with whom I could never possibly interact to someone who was genuine, someone who told the truth, someone I could trust.

Simply because he was authentic and real.

We Can’t All Be The Smartest Person in the Room

We all fake it sometimes. We all find ourselves in situations where we can either choose to be authentic and say “wait, hold on a second – I’m not entirely sure I’m following you” or we can choose to just nod along and pretend that we know exactly what someone is saying – even if we have no idea what they’re talking about.

Why do we do it? Because we’re afraid of looking stupid. Because we’re afraid of what other people will think of us if we admit that we don’t know something. This fear of being found out, this imposter syndrome, isn’t natural. It’s something we were taught.

Nobody Really Cares

The reality is that the amount of time we spend worrying about what others think of us is directly proportional to precisely how much nobody else cares.

Everyone has got something on their mind, everyone has issues of their own. We walk around thinking that people are watching us, always judging. It’s just not true. We’re too busy thinking about ourselves to spend more than a few seconds thinking about anyone else.

Somewhere along the way we learned that we are to be perfect and infallible from the very start, from the moment we show up. And we’re supposed to know everything when we get there. How could we not be afraid of being found out? So we pretend that we know things we don’t, all to avoid being exposed. It’s exhausting.

There is a cost to this habit of just nodding along. When we pretend that we know what’s going on when we really don’t, two things happen:

  1. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn, and
  2. We rob others of the chance to know who we truly are.

A small authentic act of being genuine, unpretentious and real is a tremendous thing because it is only in that authenticity that we are able to feel a sense of connection with others.

Choose Authenticity

Pretending to know something you don’t, pretending to be something you’re not – it serves no purpose. Authenticity breeds connection, respect, and admiration. People are naturally drawn to it, and they want to be around authentic, genuine people.

The most fearlessly authentic people that you have known are the ones that attract the most to them in the form of friends, esteem, success and admiration. They are the happiest of people.

My profession is sales. I know for a fact that the most consistently successful salespeople are very genuine and authentic while not being afraid to show up with a point of view and to challenge a customer’s conventional thinking with new ideas and new approaches. They don’t pretend to know things they don’t, they are open to learning, and they maintain a genuine desire to help where they can.

In the executive ranks, the most admired and respected leaders have an authenticity and humility to them – they are the leaders that have legions of employees ready and willing to do whatever they ask, just because they ask. Wielding fear and shame as a tool for motivation can have short-term impact, but it is fleeting and ultimately toxic. It is not leadership, it is tyranny.

In everyday interactions with friends and colleagues, the people who are truly authentic are the ones who everyone seems to like, for no other reason than they feel like true, real people – and we yearn to be close to that because it brings that out in us.

Nick taught me that when you’re honest, genuine and real you can have a deep and meaningful impression on someone, even if you have no idea that you’re doing so.

To practice, start with something simple. The next time you’re in a small-talk situation at a cocktail party and someone makes reference to a topic with which you’re unacquainted, simply acknowledge that you’re not familiar with the subject and ask them to explain. It could be a movie, a current news event, an industry article – doesn’t matter. Just practice. Ask some questions. Then pay attention to how you feel, and how the other person responds to you.

I promise that you will be better for it. You will find it to be freeing, invigorating, and refreshing.

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