Overcoming Your Demons

Seven years ago this month I was at an investing conference in Vancouver.

Barry Ritholtz took the stage to deliver a talk on behavioral finance. If you like Barry’s writing, wait until you hear him speak. Telling stories in front of people is the most effective way to communicate. A good talk is more powerful than a great piece of writing.

All I could think was, “I want to do that.” I wanted to speak at conferences.

But I knew I couldn’t. It’d never happen.

Not because I was scared. And not because I had nothing to add. But because I just physically couldn’t do it.

About 20% of kids stutter. Most outgrow it by age 5. About 1% still stutter by age 10. A lucky 0.1% stutter into adulthood, with some small fraction of that being chronic enough to affect their daily life.

I’m one of them.

I’ve stuttered for as long as I’ve been talking. Since words have been coming out of my mouth I’ve struggled to push through simple sounds and sputtered through basic words. Maybe you’ve noticed, maybe you haven’t.

But I want to tell my story, because it ends well.

The worst thing about stuttering is how little people know about it.

Most people’s knowledge begins and ends with Stuttering John from Howard Stern, whose job was to be humiliated. Stern said after John left the show: “He’s a talentless f*ck. All he did was stutter.” There’s also the “to .. to .. to .. today junior” line from Happy Gilmore. The movie The King’s Speech was the closest most people have come to realizing what it’s like to stutter. It nailed the torment that comes from fighting a never-ending battle with your words. But even that didn’t help my crowd much, because no one can relate to a century-old monarch.

Stutterers have no spokesperson, no awareness month. It’s so unknown and secretive that it’s nearly acceptable to heckle it in public in ways that would be unthinkable for other disabilities. People comfortably discriminate against what they’re unfamiliar with, and stuttering is unfamiliar to most people. In 33 years I’ve never met another chronic stutterer.

But the rarity is misleading. The reason stuttering seems uncommon is because most stutterers don’t talk much. Silence is the perfect disguise. The clenched jaw, the contorted face, the awkward rapid repetitions of sounds as you struggle through words – veteran stutterers will move mountains to avoid these situations, and they’re easily avoided by not talking.

We don’t know much about stuttering. There’s tons of research on the topic, most of which of ends with the phrase, “more research is needed.” What we know is that’s it’s a neurological glitch, a few crossed wires in your brain that temporarily misprocess the auditory associations of some words. The best way I can describe it is the speaking equivalent of trying to read a book while someone slips a blindfold over your eyes every few sentences.

It’s a strange feeling.

When I stutter, I can’t even say the word in my head, let alone with my mouth. If I have a song stuck in my mind, the chorus can come to a dead stop at a certain word. I can still see the word in my mind, and I know what the word means, but all auditory associations vanish, in a weird way that’s hard to describe – I know what a word is supposed to sound like, but the mental processing seizes up. Stuttering is usually viewed through the lens of someone having trouble speaking, but it’s the internal stuttering in your head that’s most frustrating. There are words – sounds, really – that get denied at the source.

You can feel stuttering coming, and when you know it’s approaching you just keep your mouth shut. Kids don’t have this much control, and force words out as much as they can. But starting around age 10 I could forecast a few words in advance when a word was going to fail me, and I’d stop talking to spare the burden. This confused people, as I’d often stop mid-sentence and offer a look that said “I have nothing more to add.” More often I avoided conversations altogether. There was a period in my late childhood where most of my communication was with my parents, who were the only people I felt understood why an otherwise-smart 12 year old struggled to say words like “can” and “with.” People who have known me for years tend to say “I never knew you had a problem” when I tell them about stuttering. It’s a well-meaning comment, but actually highlights the problem. You didn’t know I stutter because I didn’t talk when I was about to.

But I have my battle stories.

My teachers never called on me in class, either because they knew from experience not to, or (I suspect) my parents asked them not to.

But substitute teachers didn’t know me, and one in fifth grade called on me to read a passage out of a book in front of the class. It was disastrous. One way stuttering manifests is word repetition. In your valiant attempt force out a word out, you repeat it, machine-gun style. I remember the first word of the book was “the,” which has always been hard for me when it starts a sentence. I stood before my classmates and blasted out, “th- th- th- th- th- th- th-,” to instant heckles. That’s as far as I made it. I went back to my desk and cried, which was more embarrassing than the attempted reading.

I was a second-degree black belt in my late teens. I competed often in tournaments, which requires a brief, 10-second speech to the judges, detailing your name, style, what you’ll be performing, etc. Torment, each time. I once stood before the judges just staring at them, unable to say anything. “What are you doing?” one of the judges asked.

I had to take a Spanish class in college. Half the course was speaking in front of the class, and the few times I did it was an utter disaster. I just couldn’t do it. I went to the Students With Disabilities Office with my tail between my legs, and applied for a waiver.

That brought a realization: I could get a disability waiver in college, but there’s no way I could get one for a job interview after college. And no employer would waive me from talking to clients, leading meetings, etc. So how would I ever get a job? A terrifying thought. I once hung up in embarrassment on a preliminarily job interview phone call, because I was struggling to speak throughout the conversation.

And what about getting married? Giving vows in front of 200 people? A constant worry after I proposed to my wife was that I wouldn’t be able to say “I do,” when I needed to, and everyone at the ceremony would think I was either a monster or a childish prankster.

Years ago I came to terms with the fact that stuttering can’t be cured. But in my late 20s I began to realize how it could be circumvented.

My wife politely finishes my sentences when it’s obvious what word I’m stuck on. We noticed the strangest thing: The instant she said the word I was struggling to say, it would pop in my head and I could say it. It’s like I just need a reminder of the audio association of a word, and poof, it’s back. This only works if I hear the word; seeing it visually doesn’t do the trick.

That was a breakthrough. I realized there were things I could do to overcome the mental block of words getting shut down in my head.

I also noticed that it’s not specific words or even sounds that are hard for me, but sounds preceded by other sounds.

That was an ever bigger breakthrough.

My stuttering started improving in my early 20s. It was slow, but noticeable. Early on I didn’t know why it was getting better, until I realized what I was subconsciously doing.

I overcame stuttering by anticipating what words would be a problem, and altering my sentences to either avoid those words or put sounds in front of those words to bypass the mental traps.

A few examples.

“My name is Morgan” is hard for me to say – the M in “my” is like a brick wall. But “Hi, my name is Morgan,” is easier. And “Yeah, hi, my name is Morgan” is no problem. It’s usually what I say, even if it’s clumsy.

An old colleague, Ilan, has a name I can’t say on its own; the I-L combination at the start of a sentence is almost impossible for me. But adding one of a handful of sounds like “th” or “aw” in front of his name solves the problem. So every time I said his name, I contorted the sentence to add one of those sounds before. “Who are you going to lunch with?” “I’m going with Ilan.” Rather than “Ilan told me,” I’d say “I saw Ilan and he told me.” No one notices the difference.

The E in the word “emotional” is hard for me. But I can say “ee-motional,” with a drawn-out E, without issue. And I can say “emotional” normally if it’s preceded by an ly word, so saying “it’s really emotional” is no problem.

The difference between “We need an accountant” and “We need the accountants,” is subtle enough in conversation that you’d never notice. But it’s how I’d get through the “acc” sound that’s so hard for me.

Other times it’s rewording.

If I sense that “proposes” in the sentence, “He proposes that we do something else,” might trip me up, changing it to “His suggestion is that we do something else,” is an easy fix. “I was talking to Sara,” could be a struggle, but changing it to “Sara and I were talking,” avoids the problem. The word “change” can get blocked in my head, but “alter” can be swapped in. “We mostly do” becomes “We tend to do,” and no one notices the difference.

There are probably 1,000 of these tricks, and I don’t talk for more than 10 seconds without using one of them.

The strategy has two parts. One is anticipating what words will trip you up a second or two before they come out of your mouth. That part I mastered by the time I was a probably 14. The other is figuring out a substitute word fast enough to not interfere with a conversation. That part took me a long time to nail. I didn’t overcome stuttering until I was 30 because it required 30 years of practice.

I’m not cured. I still stutter around my wife and parents. It takes less effort to let things flow naturally than go through the mental gymnastics of altering sentences on the fly. But I’ve gotten good enough at anticipating and avoiding problem words that I feel like I’ve buried the issue.

In 2012, the American Association of Individual Investors asked if I could speak at one of their conferences. I almost deleted the email before responding:

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I put no thought into that response. But I swear, it changed my life.

It almost didn’t happen, because I wrote the event planners back three weeks later and told them I couldn’t make it due to a scheduling conflict (which wasn’t true). I felt bad, but the idea of speaking in front of a crowd for an hour wasn’t just scary. I had to remind myself of the possibility that I physically couldn’t do, and would have to leave in the middle of the presentation.

They talked me back into it, saying I could pick another date. Fine. I’d do it. I knew my stuttering had improved enough in the previous few years that part of me just wanted to test it.

I practiced my talk for months. I’ve never prepared so much for anything in my life. It was terrifying. Not one minute passed where I didn’t remind myself how impossible speaking for long periods of time was for me, and asking myself what the hell I was thinking by agreeing to this.

I could barely breathe before I went on stage. I was so nervous. I remember looking at the audience thinking, “You think you’re here to talk about investing, but you’re really here for a terrifying experiment.”

But as soon as I got the first sentence out on stage, everything relaxed. I didn’t stutter once. It was, without a doubt, the longest I had spoken in my life without stuttering. Some combination of high-stakes pressure and speaking about something I legitimately enjoyed buried a lifelong demon.

I remember clicking to the last slide, realizing I was done, and thinking, “OH MY GOD I DID IT.” I left quickly, which I could tell confused some people, but I was holding back tears with everything I had, and I had to remind myself that the day’s goal was to avoid embarrassment. For someone who grew up convinced beyond any doubt that I’d be forbidden from not only public speaking but most instances of face-to-face communication, it was the proudest moment of my life.

And I couldn’t wait to do it again.

Motley Fool, where I used to work, hosts conferences for its high-end members. They’re gatherings of around 300 people to listen to speeches by investors and CEOs.

My first talk at a Fool conference was in San Francisco in September, 2014. The AAII talk gave me confidence, but the Fool conference was different. It was a roomful of colleagues and clients, who I’d have to see afterwards if I choked.

But I did it. And it went well. Even great, I thought.

I kept giving talks, wherever and for whomever I could. It’s the most thrilling thing I’ve done. Confidently giving a talk is fun for everyone. But doing it after a lifetime of conviction that you could never do it is another level.

All of those talks led to a contract with the Washington Speakers Bureau. In the last three years I’ve given 39 talks in 22 cities in three countries.

Two things from this journey stick out.

You never know what struggles people are hiding. I’ve always wondered how many people I know are stutterers, but, like me, have kept it mostly hidden. And how many other issues are like that? Depression, anxiety, phobias … so many things can be disguised in a way that gives a facade of normalcy over a person’s internal struggles. Keep this in mind, and you’ll naturally become more forgiving and empathetic. Everyone’s just trying to make it through the day the best they can.

Inside of every struggle is the seed of some of the happiest moments of your life. The psychology of happiness tells us there’s less than a dozen things that bring people lasting joy. One of them is progress in what you’re pursuing. The more progress, the more happiness. And the most progress is possible in endeavors where you’re starting in a hole, deep in the red, with a big gap between your current position and the end goal of what’s attainable. It’s like having a lower cost basis.

I’m writing this from Johannesburg, South Africa, where I spoke yesterday in front of 2,200 people. I talk about behavioral finance, like Barry. Many of us have an “If-you-told-me-five-years-ago-that-I’d-be-doing-this, I-would-have-laughed-at-you” story. But if you told me five years ago that I’d be doing this, I actually would have been mad at you, upset for suggesting what I thought was impossible: Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 6.03.19 PM.png