For the Novice: A Long Walk On a Short Plank

For the Novice: A Long Walk On a Short Plank

 A journey through fear – the struggle is worth it.

By John Efraimson

Put your imagination to work. Imagine that it’s your first day on a new job, and you’re standing on the top of a bridge, 300 feet above a swirling, angry river. Imagine that you’re standing on a narrow wooden plank, suspended on cables strung between two beams, so the plank is swaying back and forth as you’re perched there. The wind is gusting, starting and stopping, blowing you from side to side. There’s some sand residue under your feet, so the surface is slippery. And you’re not wearing a safety belt; there’s absolutely nothing to keep you from taking a long walk on that short plank, and having gravity take you for a fatal ride to the water below.

Imagine that. Imagine how terrified you might be if you’d never done that kind of work before – in fact, if you’d never been farther off the ground than a tree in your back yard.

I was in that situation I just described to you. And though this might sound strange, that harrowing sensation mirrored the fear and anxiety I would experience when I joined Toastmasters in my mid-40s. (More on that later.)

It was 1963 in Oregon, where I grew up, and I was starting work as a high-steel bridge painter during the summer between my junior and senior years in college. My youthful braggadocio had allowed me to convince the contractor to hire me even with no experience, and on my first day he’d sent me up on one of the most dangerous jobs ina very dangerous business. The first few hours on that plank were so terrifying that the memory is still vivid to me all these years later. I was so scared that I was shaking uncontrollably, all the muscles in my body constricting.

I was sweating, I felt dizzy, my mouth and throat were dry, and I was hyperventilating as I kept staring down at the ominous water below, imagining the horrible death I would experience if I fell. Nothing I’d ever experienced had prepared me for the panic I felt performing that high-wire act up there on that swaying plank.

But even though every move I made could be my last, I stayed on that plank that day. I wanted that job so badly that I willed myself to confront my fear, willed myself to defy the part of me that was saying: “This is crazy, give it up; you can’t do it, it’s too dangerous, you’re going to die.” I stayed up there because finishing my education was an obsession with me at the time, and high-steel bridge painting was the only job where I could accumulate enough money to finish my last year in school.

Somehow, I summoned the courage to make it back up on the steel the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. And each time I went back up, it became a little easier. A subconscious change took place in me. After a while, my mind and body seemed to work out a compromise, a physical and mental accommodation that allowed the fear to exit my brain and the tension to vacate my body, so I could relax even in that life-threatening situation. Eventually, I became so comfortable up there that by the end of summer I could walk the steel with the agility of a cat on the back of a sofa, and slide down a 200-foot vertical column like a monkey coming down a tree for its lunch.

I survived that summer, went back to school, earned my degree and moved on to tamer pursuits. But the experience on that skinny little plank gave me a great sense of pride in my ability to conquer fear and gave me the confidence I needed to succeed in other things. In the years since, I’ve had other fearful episodes, like everyone does, but nothing compared to the terrifying first day on that bridge. 

                    "I wanted to relate my meaningful journey through fear to anyone
                    who might be interested in dealing with theirs."

Until, that is, 30 years later, in 1993, when I walked into my first Toastmasters meeting! There it was again, that awful fear invading my body and mind – the sense of panic, the tightening muscles, the uncontrollable shaking, the dry throat and mouth, the hyperventilating. The thought of getting up in front of a group of strangers brought all the feelings back.

What if I said something foolish? What if I didn’t say anything, and everybody just stared at me, or laughed at me? What if I couldn’t even remember my own name,or mispronounced some common word, or just bolted and ran out of the room? Why did I put myself in this situation, I wondered? What was I thinking?

Back in 1963, I needed that job to finish my education, and that powerful need enabled me to push through gripping fear. Now, all these years later, I wondered if I still had it within me to push through my fear and accomplish something I knew I needed?

I had just lost a business I had struggled 12 years to build. I’d taken a serious financial hit and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. In the process, I’d shut myself off from the world as well as from friends and family, and had become an embittered, sullen soul. I’d heard about Toastmasters and thought maybe it could be the vehicle I needed to shake me out of my depression, to let me reconnect with the world and rebuild some of my lost self-esteem.

So I took that first halting step into the meeting room that day, like I’d taken the first step out onto that plank. I introduced myself and took my turn at Table Topics, but was so nervous I have no idea what I said. Because of how important my personal journey was, I forced myself back to the second meeting, and made it through all right; then I went back the next week and the week after that, and began giving speeches from the manual. And each time I went, it got a little easier. I became more comfortable with the routine and the people and myself.

The subconscious change that had occurred on that bridge was happening again. Somehow in the face of that overwhelming fear, my mind and body were working out an accommodation to allow the fear and tension to leave me. I was able to relax in front of the group, keep my thoughts clear and allow my true personality to emerge.I still don’t know how or why it works, but it does.At least it did for me.

In fact, it worked so well that nobody’s been able to shut me up since! I sped through the first manual and advanced manuals, and began giving speeches outside the club – at Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, town hall gatherings, senior centers, anyplace where they’d give me a lectern, an audience and some time. Then I got more involved with the Toastmasters organization, holding various club offices and working on area and district matters; mentoring other speakers; helping to start several clubs; doing all sorts of things I never imagined I could do. It was the most rewarding period of my life.

And a few years later, as I stood before hundreds of fellow Toastmasters as a district finalist in the Humorous Speech Contest, I was proud that I’d taken that first step into that room to confront my fear of public speaking, just as I’d taken that first step onto the plank on that bridge 30 years earlier.

I wanted to relate my meaningful journey through fear to anyone who might be interested in dealing with theirs. Having been through the process myself, and having witnessed hundreds of other scared souls struggling with their fear of public speaking, I can tell you the struggle is worth it. Very positive things can happen for you, just as they did for me.

So if you’re thinking of joining a Toastmasters club, or are a member wondering whether you should continue, or get more involved, my advice is – to borrow an expression from a famous shoe company from my hometown of Portland, Oregon – “Just Do It.” Hey, it couldn’t be as bad as taking a long walk on a short plank! 

John Efraimson is a writer living in Manhattan, New York, and a former member of the Tabor Toastmasters in Portland, Oregon.