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Getting Naked: My Ultimate Test of Courage

When daring to be vulnerable means baring it all — literally.

Shelli Johnson, with her clothes on.
Shelli Johnson, with her clothes on.

The only instruction was to meet at the lighthouse at 5:30 am, and then at first light, we’d all take our clothes off. As a group, we’d get naked.

It was the (optional) morning activity for The Nantucket Project on Sept.15, 2018. The purpose was to bare all for world-renowned photographer Spencer Tunick. Tunick is famous for organizing large-scale nude shoots. (Since 1994, he has photographed over 75 human installations around the world.)

I wanted to do it. Well to clarify, I didn’t want to get naked in front of a bunch of people. I wanted to have the courage to do it. The night before, I told myself, If I do this, I can do anything. And I meant it. 

I make a living out of daring people to take chances and to spend time outside of their comfort zones. I work hard to practice what I preach and think I mostly do. If I could take my clothes off in front of 100 or so people, imagine what would be possible after that… So I set the alarm for 4:45 am and went to bed.  

4:45 am came and the alarm went off. I didn’t hit the snooze button, but I also didn’t go to the lighthouse to take my clothes off. I couldn’t muster the courage. I chickened out.

I wish I would have participated. It would have been the ultimate courage test and I failed it. 

I want to be brave, and I know that in order to be brave, I must be willing to do things that scare me.

By the way, this talk about bravery reminds me of the phenomenal and inspiring slam poet, Andrea Gibson, and a wonderful line in her poem, Elbows: “Brave is the hand-me-down suit of Terrified As Hell.” 

I like to think I wear that hand-me-down suit often. Just not on Sept. 15, 2018, and just not the “birthday suit.”

I realize that for many people, being naked in front of others is not a big deal. I’m just not one of them.  

The Nantucket Project is an inspiring and thought-provoking event. Co-founded in 2010 by Tom Scott and Kate Brosnan, TNP is an annual gathering that features marquee presenters, change-makers, artists and more. It’s an amazing event that I highly recommend if you can afford it. I was fortunate to attend The Nantucket Project in 2018 thanks to an opportunity provided by one of the event’s sponsors, and one of my long-time client organizations, Publicis.Sapient, who hired me to deliver my keynote presentation during lunch one day to a group of their leaders and top clients. 

I have thought a lot about that nude photoshoot and have concluded that the main reason I couldn’t quite bring myself to bare all was that I knew some of the people who would be there. The thought of standing naked with people I work with made me too uncomfortable.

This should come as no surprise to me. I know from experience that I get more nervous when I deliver my keynote presentation to people I know than when I deliver it to strangers.

Why is that? Why do we get more nervous when presenting or revealing a personal part of ourselves to people we know than to people we don’t know?

Imagine the possibilities if during times that required great courage and vulnerability from us we could wear–hide behind–a mask or a costume.  It would be helpful and even fun.

But what it would not be is courageous.  

In closing, I’m pondering these questions. I invite you to do the same. It could be interesting and worthwhile, even:

1. Can you think of a similar experience where the courage required of you to do something felt similar to having to take your clothes off, to be completely exposed?

2. What is something you want to do that requires so much daring and discomfort that you would only do it if you could hide yourself and your identity in the process?

3. What, if anything, would help you muster the courage necessary to do it without hiding behind a mask or anonymity?

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