This is an ode to my electric toothbrush and its self-regulatory powers. But first, some background:
When I was a college 800-meter runner, I used to get nervous before every race. Like, sweaty-palms-thumping-heart nervous. (At the risk of gross TMI, I’d also feel a compulsion to spit a lot.) It definitely affected my performance. If a race wasn’t until late in the day, I’d feel completely emotionally exhausted before it even started.
For a few years, I hoped (and expected) that this would dissipate with experience. It didn’t. But I did learn how to manage it.
In my final year of racing — by far my best, when I was twice All-East — the routine came to feel like a source of power. The self check-ins were the most important part. It gave me chances to pause and step away from the escalating tension and reset. It got to the point, in fact, where it became kind of fun to experience healthy nerves in those moments; I’d think about how I was excited (and anxious) because I cared about this, and it was something worth doing. It got to the point where I would’ve felt worried if I wasn’t nervous.
My Electric Toothbrush Revelation
For almost a decade after I stopped racing, I didn’t have regular moments that caused that kind of acute sweaty-palm response. And then I wrote my first book, and it took on a life beyond what I expected, and people invited me to speak at things. So returned the sweaty palms and the thumping heart. In the hours before my turn to speak (or days, at an event like TED), I’d burn through a lot of nervous energy. You can actually see, right after I finished a TED talk, I did the “phew!” gesture.
I love sharing my interests with people in talks, but if it was going to require that much adrenaline, I wasn’t going to be doing it very often.
Enter electric toothbrush, stage left.
A few years ago, I switched from a manual to an electric toothbrush. It has a feature where if you’re brushing too forcefully, it alters the vibrations to signal that you should chill out a little. I’m not sure what dental benefits I can attribute to the toothbrush, but immediately I realized that when I was on the road to give a talk, the thing was vibrating like a maniac. BZZZZZZZZ!
Apparently, I was so anxious or hyped up that I was pushing really hard with the toothbrush. I definitely wasn’t trying to do that, and would not have been conscious of it if not for that chill-out warning.
It prompted me to step back, and “check my instruments,” as I think of it. Typically, once I slow down, I’ll notice that I’m squeezing the brush really hard, and my feet are fidgeting, and my neck feels tense. Once I recognize it, it’s not too hard to step back and recenter, and loosen my grip. But just like when I was racing, I didn’t naturally take time to notice. I had to implement check-in systems.
So — and this sounds ridiculous — the day I'm giving a talk, I now brush my teeth like five times, because it’s my self check-in. If I get a lot of buzzing, I know I need to slow down. I still get nervous, and that’s fine; I think some nervous energy is great for performance. But I’m no longer overwhelmed by speaking nerves on the day of a talk. The result is that I feel equipped to do more of the work.
The moral of the story is: brush your teeth five times a day. Wait, that’s not the moral, although it’s also fine. The moral is: if you get nervous before a presentation, or action of any kind, it might be worth figuring out how to monitor your own nerves, and scheduling a few moments for a self check-in. (I swear I receive nothing from Big Toothbrush). It has helped me, anyway, and left more of my adrenaline for game time.
Thank you for reading. If you liked this post, please share it — here's a link. And I'd love to hear about your "electric toothbrush" moment. What's your strategy for self-regulating when you're anxious? Let me know in the comments.
If a friend sent you this post, or you found it on social media, I'd love it if you'd subscribe here.
Until next week...