“Eighteenth-century French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot was at a dinner party, engaged in debate over a topic that he knew well. But perhaps he wasn’t himself on that evening — a bit self-conscious, distracted, worried about looking foolish. When challenged on some point, Diderot found himself at a loss for words, incapable of cobbling together a clever response. Soon after, he left the party.
“Once outside, on his way down the staircase, Diderot continued to replay that humiliating moment in his mind, searching in vain for the perfect retort. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found it. Should he turn around, walk back up the stairs, and return to the party to deliver his witty comeback? Of course not. It was too late. The moment — and, with it, the opportunity — had passed. Regret washed over him. If only he’d had the presence of mind to find those words when he needed them.
“Reflecting on this experience in 1773, Diderot wrote, ‘A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs.’
“And so he coined the phrase l’esprit d’escalier — the spirit of the stairs, or staircase wit. In Yiddish it’s trepverter. Germans call it treppenwitz. It’s been called elevator wit … My personal favorite is afterwit. But the idea is the same — it’s the incisive remark you come up with too late. It’s the hindered comeback. The orphaned retort. And it carries with it a sense of regret, disappointment, humiliation. We all want a do-over. But we’ll never get one.
Apparently everyone has had moments … even eighteenth-century French philosophers. Rajeev, one of the first strangers to write to me after my TED talk was posted, described it like this: ‘In so many situations in life, I don’t walk away feeling like I have given my all and put everything on the table, so to speak. And it always eats at me later, when I analyze it over and over again in my head, and (it] ultimately leads to feelings of weakness and failure.’ …
“But how did we get there? We probably were worrying what others would think of us, but believing we already knew what they thought; feeling powerless, and also consenting to that feeling; clinging to the outcome and attributing far too much importance to it instead of focusing on the process. These worries coalesce into a toxic cocktail of self-defeat. That’s how we got there.
“Before we even show up at the doorstep of an opportunity, we are teeming with dread and anxiety, borrowing trouble from a future that hasn’t yet unfolded. When we walk into a high-pressure situation in that frame of mind, we’re condemned to leave it feeling bad. …
“We can’t be fully engaged in an interaction when we’re busy second-guessing ourselves and attending to the hamster wheel in our heads — the jumbled, frentic, self-doubting analysis of what we think is happening in the room. … As Alan Watts wrote in The Wisdom of Insecurity, ‘To understand music, you must listen to it. But as long as you are thinking “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.’