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Getting Comfortable With The Uncomfortable: Harlan Cohen (Transcript)

Harlan Cohen at TEDxUrsulineCollege

Full text of New York Times bestselling author Harlan Cohen’s talk: Getting Comfortable With The Uncomfortable at TEDxUrsulineCollege conference.

In this eventful talk, he shares his own experience of dealing with difficult moments in college and discusses why we must all get comfortable with the uncomfortable in life. 

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Harlan Cohen – Author

Thank you so much.

My name is Harlan Cohen and I get painfully uncomfortable socially and emotionally. I worry about what people are thinking and I want to be liked.

I also remember being single and that was really painful. I was and I still am afraid of rejection.

And I know, because I’ve spoken on over 400 campuses and talked to hundreds of thousands of students that I’m not alone.

And I also know this, because I’m a syndicated advice columnist. I’ve been writing my column for 20 years people sharing their deepest darkest secrets with me. And I know that we all share uncomfortable.

So what I’ve learned is that there are two types of people in the world.

There are those who fight the uncomfortable and those who can face the uncomfortable. Those who fight the uncomfortable they’re always hating, hiding and blaming.

But those who face the uncomfortable they do something I like to call ‘getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.’

That’s what I’m going to share with you today. And it’s something you can use right now and it’s something you can share with the most uncomfortable people in your lives.

My uncomfortable journey really peaked when I went to college. I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, an amazing beautiful unbelievable school.

I am so lucky that this is what my life presented to me and I got there and I have never been so miserable in my entire life.

I didn’t have any friends, because I wasn’t supposed to have friends and I needed friends. So my roommate was going to be my first friend.

And when he moved in, I remember we shared some common interests, but not that many. Right after his parents left, he reached into his backpack and he pulled out some shrubbery and I was not familiar with this particular shrub.

And I looked at him.

I said “What are you doing?”

And he said “What do you mean?”

I said “What’s that?”

And he said “I’m rolling a joint.”

So I tried to be cool. So I said “That’s cool”.

So then he rolled the joint and he took a puff and he reached out and he said, “Do you want some?”

And I didn’t know what to say, so I said the first thing that came to mind. I said “No thanks man. I’m full!”

And he was like, “Whoa!”

He was really impressed by that. He didn’t get it. So he realized I was full of something else. He moved out and I was negative one friend, which was very sad.

I left my room and I tried to meet some guys in my Hall and I’m really not great at making friends right away. These guys were all rushing a fraternity. I thought it would be cool to rush a fraternity.

So I rushed with them. Rushing’s the process to get a bid an invitation to join. Everybody got a bid but one person – me.

So now I was literally thrown out of rooms where they were hanging out. They said, “Harlan, we have to share pledged secrets!” And they made me leave.

So I was minus eight friends, I went back to my room and there was negative one friend and things were going the wrong way.

Well, somehow I had a girlfriend, okay. And my girlfriend was a senior in high school and I was a freshman in college.

And to give you a little more insight into me and dating, it really was a miracle. Because I remember as a freshman in high school, there was a girl that I was interested in and I asked her to a dance.

I found the courage to ask her and I said, “Would you like to go to dance with me?”

And she said, “No”.

And I asked her, “Why?”

And she said “You’re too fat. I don’t date fat guys.”

And it was really painful and she only had to say it once like the second time was gratuitous. Okay I got it. When she said she didn’t date fat guys. And it was really painful.

And from that point forward, I knew I was defective and that nobody would ever love me.

And then I fell in love in high school. Love entered my life and I had to go to college. So as my first year became so difficult and I was so depressed and felt so alone.

I had my high school girlfriend until she had a conversation with her father. And her father compared our relationship to a dying puppy, urging her to shoot the puppy.

So she called me and she shot the puppy. And I was devastated. I had lost the only love I knew in my life, and that was the love I had for my girlfriend.

So I did what so many of us do when we get uncomfortable. I ran. I got the hell out of there.

I transferred to Indiana University. And the reason I transferred to Indiana is because both my brothers had gone there. I’ve been visiting there since I was 10 years old. I had friends there and my brothers were in a fraternity and I was a legacy.

So they had to take me and I was okay with that.

So I get to Indiana thinking it’s going to be amazing. And unbelievably, it’s difficult and uncomfortable, like bad body odor it stuck to me.

And I was so confused, but I was patient. The difference is that I was patient. I gave myself time to work through it because it was familiar. I kind of knew this is how it could be and I made it.

And then I made it through my second year, my third year. And in my fourth year, I started to write my advice column.

And when I was writing my advice column, students were sharing their secrets with me. And I realized there’s something that no one ever tells us and it’s just so simple. It’s that, ‘Life is uncomfortable, it’s painfully uncomfortable!’

But nobody tells high school students or college students. And this is why a quarter of all students transfer to another school; and two thirds experience homesickness and loneliness; and another third experience debilitating depression during their college years, some going so far as to hurt other people or tragically hurt themselves.

But it doesn’t have to be so uncomfortable, it doesn’t.

So I figured out how to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and it’s life changing.

It’s something I had to figure out, so I could move forward, so I can find what I love in life and build healthy relationships.

And I want to share it with you and I hope you’ll share it with others.

At the root of uncomfortable is a truth, it’s called the universal rejection truth. And there are many forms of the universal rejection truth.

The universal rejection truth of friendship says ‘Not all people I meet will want to be my friend; many will, many will not.’

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