“How old are you?” John asked, after I had shared a bit about my history, why I do this work, and a few of the results I’ve helped leaders create.

“Why does it matter?” I asked, wondering if he’d been listening to me.

“It lets me know how much experience you’ve had on this planet.”

Having met several wise teenagers, and at least as many 70- and 80-year-olds who are the opposite, I cringed at such thinking.

“Ask me about my results—they speak louder than my years on this planet,” I replied, irritated.

Considering his level of success as an executive, and the depth of his connectivity, I wanted to impress him—to get him to think of me as special, exceptional, and one-of-a-kind.

Abandoning my normal tendency to ask questions and listen when meeting someone new, I set out to prove myself. I rattled off one success story after another. All the while, John was staring off into space, waiting for me to stop talking long enough for him to end the conversation.

Soon after we parted ways, it occurred to me that in my quest to prove myself, I had completely forgotten a foundational principle for success: be interested, not interesting. Or, as Dale Carnegie said, “To be interesting, be interested.”

When you’re interested, there’s nothing to prove. But how do you let go of the urge to prove yourself when your capacity for curiosity has been overwhelmed by a fear of not being enough? Recognition is key. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “when you face the sun, the shadows fall behind you.”

Considering that we all process fear and anxiety differently, the key is understanding your response. Do you get louder, and talk more, or do you get quieter and secretly wish you could disappear? Do you tense up your stomach muscles? Do you find it hard to breathe because it feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest?

Clearly, we cannot control others’ opinions of us, but we can become aware of our own triggers and seek to understand them. The more we do, the better we get at listening more, talking less, and trusting that the right people will arrive, and the wrong ones will leave.

And, yes, asking good questions, listening intently, and seeking to understand—rather than be understood—demonstrates great wisdom. And, thankfully, I now understand the true gift in John’s question about my age.

Next time, John, a simple, “Shut up and listen” will do!

Here’s to Your Greatness,

Misti Burmeister


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