books, personal, Psychology

The Hidden Cost of Mild Embarrassment

I recently finished reading The Undoing Project – the story of Daniel Kanheman and Amos Tversky (two Israeli psychologists who changed how we think about our decision making). It is a gripping read that highlights the stark contrast between the two personalities and how it gave rise to one of the most important collaborations in recent history, one that I would recommend people read after they’ve finished reading Thinking, Fast and Slow. 

A quote from Amos in the book that made me reflect hard on the kind of life I’ve lived – 

“Amos thought people paid an enormous price to avoid mild embarrassment,’ said his friend Avishai Margalit, ‘and he himself decided very early on it was not worth it.”

I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember and it has dictated a significant portion of how I have conducted myself both in public and private. This is something I’ve observed in friends with anxiety too, so maybe people who suffer from it will also be able to relate to this. (I try to avoid discussing personal strengths and weaknesses unless absolutely necessary, as in this case. It just adds some credibility and gives context to how the idea came to be).

My daily behavior – things such as asking questions in class or choosing to wear jeans over shorts or simply talking to people were all determined by one thing – to avoid drawing any attention to myself and avoiding embarrassment at all cost. I can think of a few more – not having the guts to cold call and email people for a second year internship, not asking for help from friends and seniors for the fear of being judged and embarrassed. The list goes on. 

What I was missing however when going through life was the cost. The cost of avoiding mild embarrassment. More importantly, the hidden cost associated with choosing not to put myself out there which could’ve led to good things. Let me explain. 

Nassim Taleb in his book Black Swan defines a Black Swan as follows: 

“An event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact…. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Anxious people like myself and many others live by the avoidance principle. It’s just that this tendency is exaggerated in people who suffer from anxiety. What they fail to realize is that they’re missing out on opportunities – some of them Black Swans. These don’t come often and they have the potential to make a huge change to your life trajectory. 

Lesson – Put yourself out there. Even if that means being subjected to slight embarrassment at times. 

I can hardly say that I’ve managed to incorporate this into my life on a daily basis but acceptance is the first step to recovery, so there’s still hope. 

In essence, the lesson here is not that profound, is it?

It might seem like it boils down to generic advice that people have offered me at times – stop caring about others’ opinions. That’s really easier said than done. 

Most ideas and lessons, such as these are not truly extraordinary in what they have to offer but need to be framed appropriately in order to have the required impact. 

Telling someone to put himself/herself out there without making them realize the opportunity cost of not doing so will never be impactful. 

As always, comments and criticisms appreciated. 🙂


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