This post was originally published on the now-retired Make & Meaning blog on March 13th, 2010.

On Twitter a few days ago, Kirsty Hall (who’s written some great guests posts here on Make and Meaning) shared a link to a blog post by a woman named Patty K who recently wore pajamas to a conference. And it wasn’t a conference of sleepwear designers.

Go read it. It’s funny and friendly and comforting and inspiring.

And it made me think.

When I was younger, I would sometimes become paralyzed by self-consciousness. I didn’t wear the right clothes, my hair was a disaster, and of course most adolescents think this combination leads to inevitable alienation and ridicule. (I experienced only a tiny bit of either, though I didn’t notice my luck at the time.)

As a young adult I began to recognize my occasional paralysis as a problem I should do something about, and I set about trying to get over it. I’m not entirely sure how I did it, but my bouts of self-consciousness now barely register as a sit-down, let alone a paralysis.

I did develop one concrete thing to do, though: I learned to develop a shtick. By recognizing my anxiety in advance and by accepting that I can’t just make it go away, I set myself up not to become stymied by it.

Like, say I’m going somewhere where I won’t know anyone or I’m generally intimidated by the social scene. I’ll figure out some sort of shtick, and it will force me to behave how I’d want to behave if I weren’t so tied up by my own broken psychology. And it almost always works.

Once I went to a Crochet Guild of America conference where I only knew a few people. I was there to promote, so being a timid wallflower wasn’t going to cut it. The shtick I brought with me was a strategy: 1) smile at people (that’s not really a shtick, it’s just good sense but it’s sometimes hard to do) and 2) wear black. I like wearing black. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a CGOA event, but black ain’t exactly the uniform of choice. It’s not so much that I wanted to stand out, but I certainly didn’t want to feel like I had to conform. I wasn’t feeling rebellious, I was just feeling like I need to be me, you know? Anyway, I knew that if I didn’t force myself to be myself, which would involve standing out a little, a wee wallflower I’d become and I’d have wasted my chance to promote my website.

This is Humphrey. I took him with me to meet dozens and dozens of people on a book tour. One of our stops was in New York City, where we visited Rockefeller Center.

By putting only a couple of black outfits in my suitcase, I forced myself not to have any choice but to dress like me. And the smiling worked, too. After I agreed to walk in the fashion show when I was invited to participate, I ended up being approached by a magazine editor who, in response to my wardrobe, was all, “Who are you?” And then I wrote a column for her for a year. I was never shy at a crochet event again. WIN.

I’m far more comfortable with my personal style now, even though only a few years have passed. So I don’t often use a costume as my shtick like Patty K did. I do, however, love to bring an ugly doll with me when I travel (sometimes I bring a cute one, but that’s not as much fun). It’s an instant conversation piece, and it’s fun to take photos of the little dudes. I still have a hard time striking up a conversation when I’m with people I don’t know, so I rely on my shtick to start conversations for me. Ugly dolls are very good for this.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but crafting in public, though we usually don’t do it as a deliberate shtick, is a great conversation starter, too. I never mind it when strangers start chatting with me (unless I’m on an airplane, which is why I usually bury myself in a book until the people around me fall asleep, and then I take out my knitting).

Over the years I’ve grown to rely less and less on having a shtick strategy, mostly because I’ve come to spend most of my time in gatherings of my tribe and you people aren’t scary at all. But whenever I’m intimidated, I know just the thing to chill myself out. I may not wear pajamas to a conference, but if you see me toting a hideous doll around, come say hi. I’m really going to appreciate it.

So, what’s your shtick?

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