Over lunch, my agent posed a provocative challenge: “Write an article on chutzpah.” He believes the timing is right. In this difficult economy and uncertain times it’s certainly tempting to withdraw into a shell. But a better strategy might be a contrary one, throwing off the shell and putting yourself out there. One “chutzpah” source involves productively tapping into what I call the “RAGE” in “Out-RAGE-ous.” (And these days, there’s plenty to be enraged about!) Try harnessing some aggressive energy and attitude – develop an “out of the box” presence if not an edgy essence. (Remember, if you’re not living on the edge you are taking up way too much space!)
Actually, the word itself has become double-edged. According to Wikipedia, chutzpah derives from the Hebrew, and connotes "insolence", "audacity", and "impertinence." However, “the modern English usage of the word has taken on a wider spectrum of meaning…with even positive connotations. Chutzpah can be used to express admiration for non-conformist but gutsy audacity. Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as ‘gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible 'guts,' presumption plus arrogance.’…In this sense, chutzpah expresses both strong disapproval and a grudging admiration.”
One does not need to be loud, though, to demonstrate “chutzpah.” Let me illustrate. In the Wall Street area of Manhattan an elderly woman had a soft pretzel stand. Each day, one of the nattily attired Wall Street-types would pass her stand, not buy a pretzel, but put a quarter in her tip jar. The woman acknowledged his kindness with a brief nod of her head. This unspoken exchange went on for several years. One day, however, as he was about to deposit the quarter, the woman, to the gentleman’s surprise, raised her hand. Bending over slightly, in a quiet yet firm voice, she declared: “It’s now thirty cents.” Now that’s Chutzpah!
Personal Confession and Chutzpah Strategy
It’s time for a personal “Chutzpah Confession.” Back in the early ‘90s, I wound up writing some rap-like lyrics for a black beauty contest theme song. (Don't ask. I know, nice Jewish boys from NYC don’t write rap!) Actually, living in New Orleans in the ‘70s and ‘80s – my “American in Cajun Paris” years – I had periodically tried my hand at poetry, including a bluesy number called “The Burnout Boogie.” Email [email protected] for any and all.) One morning, shortly after my noble, beauty contest effort, I awoke chastising myself: I was a university professor, a psychotherapist (thesis)…What was I doing trying to write rap lyrics (antithesis)? A blazing flash scattered my sleepy haze. As the mist lifted, there…a mystical (if not hysterical) conceptual vision; a catalyst for my pioneering efforts in the realm of psychologically humorous rap music. I was no longer just playing in a field of dreams: “If you write and “Shrink Rap” ™ it…they will come” (creative synthesis). And they do. I close my speaking programs with my singular rap…in full regalia: Blues Brothers hat and black sunglasses while prancing around the room banging on a black tambourine. The audience may not remember anything else, but no one forgets the “Shrink Rap!” An African-American friend dubbed my efforts, thusly: “So you’re into ‘Aristocratic Rap.’” Clearly, my goal in life has a paradoxical and “chutzpatic” bent: to be a wise man and a wise guy.
So "chutzpah" involves an assertive if not aggressive attitude and takes a little daring. To step outside a comfort zone and find your “Inner Chutzpah,” you may have to "Confront Your Intimate FOE." Consider these "Three Steps for Overcoming Fear of Exposure”:
1. Aware-ily Jump In Over Your Head. You can only subjectively determine water temperature by jumping in. Still, drawing on my N’Awlins experience, find out if there have been any recent alligator in the bayou sightings. Chutzpah isn’t allergic to some calculation and analysis. The value of taking the plunge: you get rapid feedback regarding both existing strengths and needed skills and resources.
2. Design for Error and Opportunity. Life rarely demands just one right way or ideal goal. As von Oech noted in his classic on creativity, Whack On the Side of the Head, “Sacred cows make great steaks.” Get out of the box; explore a variety of options and possibilities. Confront all the “b.s.” – “be safe” messages. As I like to say: “Strive high and embrace failure!” Learn to see failure as less a personal judgment and more the transitional space between your aspiration and current position. And boldly close the gap one outrageous step at a time.
3. Laugh at Your Flaws and Foibles. You really start earning your “chutzpah” merit badge when you can transform that “Intimate FOE” by turning “Fear of Exposure into the Fun of Embarrassment.” Sure, one reason audiences laugh during a “Shrink Rap” (after their initial shock), is that here’s another white man who’s “rhythmically and vocally challenged.” (But I'm confident that I can poke fun at myself much better than anyone else can make fun of me.) Also, I know the lyrics are clever and they hit home. Here’s a sample from the “Stress Doc’s Stress Rap”:
Now the boss makes demands, yet gives little control
So you pray on chocolate and wish life were dull.
But office’s desk’s a mess, often skipping meals
Inside your car looks like a pocketbook on wheels!
Nearly all admire my audacity; still, when someone invariably calls out, “Don’t quit your day job,” my retort is immediate: “Too late. This is my day job!” And then a final riposte: “What this shows after twenty years of all kinds of therapy – from Jungian analysis to primal scream – I have one singular accomplishment, just one: Absolutely no appropriate sense of shame! And the program ends on a ringing note of shared laughter.
Now that’s Chutzpah…and a strategy for leaping and laughing, learning and landing on your feet in these turbulent times.
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits and is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions and Brigades, at Ft. Hood, Texas, Ft. Carson, CO and Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.