Last August, I spent a couple weeks as part of staff at Green Mountain Running Camp in Lyndonville, Vermont. Each week-long program ended with an evening dance, where (it was hoped) campers would dance away all capacity for mischief before lights went out on that final night. For a handful of senior counselors, the event served as focal point for a cascade of informal camp programming, all centered around a simple challenge: ask someone to the dance. No acceptance required—just ask.
As the campers themselves pointed out, this wasn’t the sort of dance where one brought a date. We were daring them to do something unusual, which spoke to one of GMRC’s great underground rules: “It’s only awkward if you make it.”
No one is immune to the occasional awkward moment, but teenagers seem especially wary. Perhaps it’s because insecurity amplifies our fear of the awkward, shifting the calculus of risk against moments where risk is worth it and obscuring the many ways that we can mitigate awkwardness with humor, gumption, or Mentos. Nick, a long-time time friend and kind of a big deal at GMRC, described this heightened aversion to awkwardness as a sort of joyless, self-imposed straitjacket. For him and other senior counselors, the challenge was about knocking down the self-imposed limits of “adolescent cool” and creating a space where “putting yourself out there became the norm.” All of this either affirmed or inspired the values I explored in my previous post. Needless to say, I was on board.
We made our announcement two or three days before the dance, giving ourselves plenty of time to cajole and coerce campers into action. Each day offered a new opportunity to pitch the challenge in a compelling, funny, and occasionally instructive way. Basically, we worked to take something potentially mortifying and make it seem easy, intriguing, and worthwhile. My efforts culminated in an impromptu speech delivered on one of the last bus rides before the dance. The speech went something like this:
We are the all-too-comfortable descendants of bonafide risk-takers, daring men and women who took chances to survive (and thrive) in circumstances tougher than our own. They endowed us with a way of life that mitigates most real threats, and in their absence we grew to fear lesser demons, appending our concept of risk to everyday failure, rejection, and embarrassment.
There’s a difference between danger and discomfort, between wisely avoiding legitimate peril and bubble-wrapping one’s life. One philosopher drew the distinction through metaphor: “to dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily; to not dare is to lose oneself.” For most of us, there’s no loose footing quite like the risk of embarrassment. Even something silly like asking someone to a dance where no one does that may sit outside the comfort zone.
But outside the comfort zone is where it’s at, brambles and all. Make no mistake—the stings of rejection, failure, and embarrassment are real. But so too is the echo of missed opportunity, the memory of a door not simply closed, but never opened. Also real is the satisfaction—elation, even—of landing a leap in the dark. The leap in this challenge is not nearly as far or as awkward as you think, and as is often the case, the leap matters more than the landing.
I’ll end this call to action with a few words from Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Ask someone to the dance.
The speech closed to cheers and applause. I smiled and sat back down, hoping that it might inspire at least a couple campers to action. In retrospect, I needed the reminder as much as the campers did—I think we all do from time to time. In one form or another, we all want to ask someone to the dance. Here’s to it.
Thanks to Lindsay, Rich, and especially Nick, who came up with both the rule and the challenge (video of Nick in all his GMRC glory available here). Also, special thanks to Counselor Dawn, who was confused yet gracious when I asked her to the second session dance.
[ March 2013 ]