(Updated Preface: If this sounds juvenile, it’s because it was written by a 20-year-old boy aka 20-year-old me.)
My first visit to Spain was in July of 2017. I was 18, fresh out of high school, and lucky enough to be able to spend one month of the summer living in Barcelona, with my former foreign exchange student and his family.
Sure, I went to Spain on the guise of a vacation, but even before leaving, I saw it as an opportunity for growth, in two areas in particular. The first was the Spanish language. My dad was born in El Salvador, a Spanish-speaking country in Central America, but my mom is a white girl from Massachusetts. Although Spanish is my dad’s first language, he moved to the U.S. when he was young, and English became his default language. So, we grew up only speaking English in our house.
Despite taking Spanish in school and hearing it spoken between my dad and grandparents, my grasp of the language lay somewhere between “barely understandable” and “conversationally inept.”
Yes, I was a heritage Latino who couldn’t speak Spanish. Since half of my household speaking it wasn’t enough for me to learn, I figured that if I couldn’t learn while being immersed for an entire month, then there would be no hope for me.
The second skill on my mind was learning to leave my comfort zone, to cultivate courage. A few months prior, I had finished reading a book that profoundly impacted me: Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans. The book is a collection of interviews with hundreds of top performers. Despite the varying fields the high-achievers came from, a recurring theme among nearly all of them was the importance of courage.
As Ferriss himself said, “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
There would be no better opportunity to lean into new experiences, and no better place to develop the ability to seek out exciting, yet uncomfortable situations than a different country with a different language.
More importantly, I knew that speaking Spanish would require the courage to get in the necessary reps, despite the numerous errors I would make.
But as with any new challenge, the bottleneck for learning Spanish wasn’t talent, ability, or now the opportunity to practice: it was fear. I was afraid to speak—afraid my accent would be laughed at, afraid I would be judged for making a mistake. I recognized, cognitively, that the things I feared were without real consequence. If I made a linguistic mistake, the only thing in danger of harm was my ego.
Layers beneath the surface, my real fear was of discomfort. Which is what I’d already set a goal to conquer.
An ancient maxim states, courage is not the lack of fear, but the willingness to act in spite of it.
Since it didn’t seem likely I’d be less afraid, I resolved to act anyway. (Fake it till you make it sounds less impressive, as maxims go, but is infinitely more actionable.)
But how exactly was I going to do this?
Sure, I could hang out with my host brother and his friends all the time, but there was hardly any discomfort there. Besides, they mostly spoke Catalan, a regional language specific to northeastern Spain that’s about as similar from Spanish as Portuguese.
I needed a new plan. On the second day of my visit, one presented itself, when Álvaro, my host brother, brought me to the city’s main beach, Barceloneta.
A wildly popular destination for tourists and locals alike, Barceloneta—a mere 10-minute walk from our house—is filled with hundreds of interesting humans at any given time of day.
Upon arriving, I immediately noticed many any of those humans happened to be beautiful women. I also noticed that a good number of said women opted not to wear shirts.
“You live a 10-minute walk from THIS?” Living in a small town, I’d never imagined such a place could exist.
My excitement was about more than bare breasts. Boobs are great, but the beach provided the perfect opportunity to practice Spanish, and get out of my comfort zone.
After all, what could possibly be more uncomfortable than talking to women in a language I barely spoke.
If there’s anything to evolutionary biology, I reasoned, few things would provide greater impetus to learn the language—and develop courage—than beautiful women.
Barceloneta was ideal to practice both skills at once, and also get the chance to practice one of the universal problems mankind faces: how to talk to girls (which I sucked at). I now had my sights set. I had a place where I could work on three skills at the same time.
The next day I went on my own. I strolled in, amping myself up to talk to whomever caught my attention, sat down on my towel in the bright Spanish sun and then…did absolutely nothing.
No fewer than ten beautiful women sat within a ten meter radius of me, but I couldn’t work up the courage to say even ten words to any of them, let alone string them together in a coherent sentence.
“I don’t speak the language like they do,” I thought.
“They’re busy tanning, I can’t just interrupt that, that’s so rude.”
“She probably has a boyfriend anyways.”
The excuses came, I went home without talking to a soul. Day one I had failed miserably.
As I walked back home, I saw the excitement and busyness of one of the greatest cities in the world. But, without having the courage to approach people, I felt like a ghost wandering the city, unable to be seen or heard.
“David, you need to change your approach,” I told myself. As Ferriss says, anytime you’re starting a new skill, you must break it down into smaller, more achievable steps. Start with a step so simple, success will be nearly inevitable. The resulting confidence from that success carries you through to the next task, and the next. That’s how you build momentum.
“How can I break down the skill of approaching people into a smaller goal, so success and momentum are assured?” When I started playing hockey, I didn’t just jump right into a game. I started by skating with a chair to keep me from falling, and slowly progressed.
My goal for next time would be simple: Say one word, to one person. That is it. “I don’t care if she says anything back,” I asserted.
The next day I was back on the beach. As I sat on my towel, I noticed a woman walking in my direction. “Here it is,” I thought, the nervousness punching me in the stomach. “Just say ‘hi.’”
“Hola,” I proudly said as she walked by. She smiled and returned my greeting in a puzzled manner, and continued on with her walk.
“I did it. I talked to somebody!” Feeling like the only place to go from there was down, I left. Sometimes you just have to take the small wins. I felt my ghostly appearance fading.
My third day, I was sitting next to a brunette woman in a purple bikini. I was beside her for a good five minutes, knowing that the chances of me talking to her decreased each second I hesitated.
I knew I could sit there all day, telling myself I’d talk to her soon, but making an excuse in each moment. Eventually, she would simply get up and leave, gone for eternity, and I would kick myself for not talking to her.
I needed to give myself a deadline. I resolved to put a timer on my phone for five minutes. If I didn’t talk to her by then, I would gather up my things and go home for the day.
As with anything in life, with a deadline quickly approaching, I was forced into a sense of urgency. As the timer ticked closer to zero the urgency mounted within me. I had to make the move. With eight seconds on the clock, I mustered up all the valor within me, and smoothly looked over and said hi.
“I’m trying to practice my Spanish, can you help me?”
The Catalan women was very friendly, and we went on to have a great conversation about the cultural differences between the U.S. and Spain.
The days went by, and eventually the weeks. I improved more and more. I had a decent repertoire of a few topics of conversation, mostly about my strange accent, poor use of Spanish grammar, and whether they prefer speaking Catalan or Spanish.
My ability to talk to women improved, but by no means did I achieve any sort of mastery.
However, I did get good at approaching girls. I made approaching my whole metric for success. With this metric, I was able to approach more easily, detached from the outcome.
I started with women who were already near me, which made for a more naturally occurring encounter.
Then women who weren’t so close, who I had to go out of my way to talk to.
Then women reading a book or scrolling through their social media.
In the end, there was no perfect love story. But, I did develop all three skills I’d intended. I left speaking great Spanish (though my grandparents had to reshape my accent when I got home). I felt like I could talk to anyone, with no conversation being too uncomfortable. And, my general ability to communicate and interact with women did improve.
The process of learning a language has been the most intimate, rigorous, and expansive self-development practice I’ve ever undertaken.
And my recently acquired fluency in Spanish allows me to connect with my family members in their native tongue, something I can’t place a value on.
Beyond that, though, the experience shifted my outlook on life, specifically with regard to the fear we carry in human interaction. On some level, deep down, we’re afraid to even talk to one another.
I realized at the beach that once you took the leap and started the conversation, the fear of talking to another human—even a stranger—was largely unfounded. Whether it’s an interaction with close friends, bosses, or strangers, the fear we feel about approaching a difficult conversation is almost always disproportionate to the actual risk.
While this isn’t universally true, as is taking the leap of faith in anything. And it’s the same mechanism of fear we feel in all areas of our lives.
Getting used to being in these situations in Barcelona prepared me to overcome them in my everyday life. The fear of giving a sales pitch to a potential client, or running a class with twenty people is Beginner Mode compared to the daily habit of initiating conversation with topless strangers in a foreign country.
Now, anytime I feel trepidation in the face of a daunting task or difficult conversation, I’m able to place it into a different context. No matter how challenging the situation, at least we’re all speaking English—and fully clothed.