Thursday, January 06, 2005

On Being Assertive

Anyone who knows me personally would probably describe me as an "assertive" person. I must admit that I don't believe that people are assertive by nature. People are considered assertive by others because they act assertive, not because of some assertive aspect of their nature that others mystically sense whenever they're near.

The same goes for other qualities besides assertiveness. To the extent that we can't read minds, we are stuck having to judge what qualities others have by what they do. So I am an assertive person, not because I was born that way, but because I act assertively. If I acted shyly I would be adjudged a shy person. If I acted stupidly I would be considered a stupid person. As it happens, I've done all three of the above, as have most people. It doesn't make me assertive, shy, or stupid by nature. It just makes me more experienced at being assertive, shy, or stupid.

Anyone can act assertively, although it may feel funny to them or require a large portion of personal effort to do so. But the more you do it, the more comfortable you are with being assertive. It's developed expertise. I tell my math students this, because it's true of math too: no one is born with innate mathematical knowledge. I will grant that people are born with certain aptitudes and predilections; but we are under no obligation to develop those aptitudes and predilections into an identity, nor to restrict our skill development to only those aptitudes or our choices to those predilections.

So if you've ever wanted to "be a ______ person" where ______ is some positive personal quality like assertiveness, my advice is to just swallow your pride and your fear and just do ______ things. It may be scary or feel funny, but if you just do it, you'll eventually get over whatever emotional baggage is getting in your way, and then you'll become a ______ person.