Let me tell you a strange story. I promise in advance that this story is true – this isn’t like an allegory or anything. These are real events.

When I was a young man, I knew this guy – his name wasn’t Frank, but I’m going to call him Frank to maintain anonymity. Frank had a very bad stutter. He was a nice enough guy, pretty funny actually, but that stutter really tripped him up quite a bit in social situations. Most people didn’t really get to know the smart, funny guy he was because of it.

Frank was also involved in local community theater. That’s the way I heard it, “involved in,” so naturally I assumed some sort of technical aspect. But nope! Dude got on stage. One night I went to see one of his shows – they were putting on “Damn Yankees.”

Frank was Mr. Applegate.

(For those unfamiliar with the play, Mr. Applegate is the devil, and the script calls for him to be a smooth-talking swindler. He’s a main character.)

Frank was absolutely brilliant. Not a stutter in sight. He was so smooth and convincing I forgot who I was looking at. I talked to him afterwards to tell him what a great job he had done and he replied “Th-th-th-th-thanks.”

Now, Frank and I were close enough (and at the time I was tactless enough) for me to hazard out the question of how he was able to avoid stuttering while he was on stage. His response was bafflingly simple: Mr. Applegate didn’t have a stutter.

I was pretty blown away by this. Obviously I’m no speech pathologist, but I said to him: “You should just pretend you’re always performing in a play, only you’re playing the character of ‘Frank, but With No Stutter.’ Just never drop character.”

That wasn’t the lightning-bolt breakthrough I had hoped it was. But interestingly enough, Frank did tell me later that thinking in those terms was part of what helped him eventually overcome his stutter. He began mentally picturing the words in advance, saying “What would I sound like if I didn’t have a stutter?” At first he traded his stutter for a significantly slower speech pattern, but with practice it became as quick as anyone else’s.

That power of visualization can be applicable in all sorts of scenarios. Our emotional and mental barriers are real, but they aren’t physical barriers. If someone is terrified of heights, their legs still have the capability to ascend stairs; their fingers can still push elevator buttons; their hands can still buy airplane tickets. As I realized with Frank, it’s not a perfect on/off switch, not a lightning-bolt moment that perfectly solves the problem, but it is a helpful tool to make progress.

Start with a simple idea: “If there was a person exactly like me in every way, except they weren’t afraid of heights, what would it look like if they walked across this bridge?” Start with that visualization and get closer to it every time.

Imagine a person just like you, except they accomplished the goal that’s in front of them. What did that look like?

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