Life & Culture

The day I took on a large and scary Gruffalo

Susan Reuben hates being the centre of attention. But one day she put her fears aside, for the sake of a Gruffalo


You have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone from time to time — all the best self-help books say so. They suggest you try out a sport you’ve never done before, or get a radical new haircut, or pretend to read a giant edition of The Gruffalo on a crowded tube.

Well, OK, the third example probably only applies to me…

This photo was taken a couple of years ago when I was on my way home from my job at Pan Macmillan, where I was working on the Julia Donaldson list. I was bringing home a Gruffalo ‘big book’ to give to my son’s nursery.

It occurred to me that it would be fun to ask someone to take a photo of me reading it as if it were just an ordinary book. The trouble with this idea is that I’m hugely averse to drawing attention to myself in public.

The anthropologist Kate Fox in her book Watching the English says: “Our main coping mechanism on public transport is a form of what psychologists call ‘denial’: we try to avoid acknowledging that we are among a scary crowd of strangers…by pretending that they do not exist — and, much of the time, pretending that we do not exist either.”

This is completely true of me — but on the other hand, I do love making people laugh and I knew this photo would do the job. So, my heart beating fast with the stress of it all, I asked the passenger opposite me to take the picture. She was a bit bemused, but she agreed. When I looked at the result it wasn’t really good enough, so I squashed down my overwhelming instinct to make the whole horrible situation stop immediately, and asked her to take another one.

The following morning, I emailed the photo round all the members of my publishing company. The ripples of laughter that drifted across the open-plan office as, one by one, my colleagues opened it up, make me grin now just to think about them.

The marketing department shared the picture on the official Gruffalo Facebook page where it got 5,000 likes — a record for that year — along with a whole load of entertaining comments from the public, speculating on who I was and what on earth I was up to.

So, had it been worth it? Hell, yes. I did something that, for me, was brave — and it made people laugh and helped promote a brand I was working for — and that made me feel great.

“No big deal,” you might think… and in itself that’s absolutely true. But I do believe there are key times when a step away from what comes naturally to you can be worth it in much more profound ways than this.

If we never do anything that feels challenging and unsafe, it definitely has a narrowing effect on our lives. We may have to do so because someone needs our help, or because it will open up a whole new opportunity for us, or because otherwise we can’t join in with what other people are doing.

Some people are more temperamentally suited to risk-taking than others, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a comfort zone. When we’re in it, we can do the kind of slow and steady work, day after day, that brings strong and far-reaching results. We can experience the joy of spending time with people we love, doing things we enjoy and are good at. It seems pretty silly to reject all of that for the sake of a cult of constant self challenge and risk taking.

As soon as we lift our gaze away from the quotidien, however, and look at how the grand shifts towards good in the world have come about, it becomes pretty clear that challenging yourself at least sometimes is a good thing. For example, Mahatma Ghandi could well have decided just to stick with practising law… Rosa Parks would have had a much more relaxing journey if she’d agreed to move to the back of the bus… and for that matter, Moses the introvert was probably having a pretty easy time looking after sheep in the desert, before the ‘leading-your-people-to-the-Promised-Land’ gig was offered to him.

Incidentally, I do love the way that, in the Gruffalo picture, the passengers on either side of me are desperately pretending not to notice that anything unusual is happening. “In denial” indeed.


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