Updated: Aug 12, 2019
Three minutes into my extremely well rehearsed talk, I lost my train of thought. My mind went blank. There I was, on stage, without a single thought in my head, frozen in front of a room full of people, all eyes on me.
In reality, I may have been quiet up there for a total of five seconds. But for me, by the time I regained my thoughts, I was worried that I had missed my kid's high school graduation.
But it happened. It happens. It wasn't because I was nervous. And it wasn't because I didn't prepare hard enough. It just happens from time to time when you have to work really hard for something you get exactly one shot at doing. This is but one reason I'm not an Olympic athlete.
It should be said here: I love public speaking. I rarely turn down an opportunity to do it. Aside from class lectures over the past decade, I've given a commencement address, keynote talks, company workshops, and I'm regularly asked to speak to all-staff meetings, business lunches, and leadership groups. I love it. I love researching the needs of each audience, writing a customized talk, and holding a lively question and answer session after each one. All this to say, I am available for hire. References available upon request.
But this particular talk, where my mind went blank, was for Ignite Tulsa. Ignite is a national organization that only allows speakers five minutes of time to enlighten the audience. Further, speakers must have 20 slides that will auto-advance every 15 seconds.
In no way is this type of speaking engagement replicated in the real-world. Much like cooking shows where you have to cook a soufflé in four minutes while fighting off a guy wearing a bear costume, this is a constructed sense of urgency, drama, and pressure that is unnecessary and irrelevant. Nevertheless, I love exercises like this. It's silly, but there's something in the preparation that stretches you as a storyteller and as a presenter. And it makes for a fun event for the audience.
When I was preparing for my TEDx Talk, I clocked well over 100 hours of writing and rehearsal time. Of course, that was an 18-minute talk in which I had full control over how many slides I could have and how quickly I progressed them. But like Ignite--and unlike any other talk you will ever give in your life--you aren't allowed any note cards. So for Ignite, I knew I'd have to put a lot into the preparation. I spent days writing up the five-minute talk. Then I rehearsed in spare moments over a two-week period. A few times every night before bed. While I was cooking dinner. During my drive time to and from work.
A few days before the event, I knew that talk backwards and forwards. I was incredibly well-prepared.
(Pause for five seconds while I regain my thoughts).
What I've learned over more than a decade of public speaking, writing, and teaching--racking up well past the needed 10,000 hours in each--is this: success is not a single match you win; it's a game you continually play. The parameters around success are not as rigid as we are led to believe. It's not all or nothing. And it's not determined by your highest level of performance. Or your lowest.
Your excellence is your average.
Like that one day a year in school when the principal would come in to observe the teacher and all the kids just knew their directive was: be cool.
Well, that shows our humanity, but it doesn't assess our worth. One day, one observation, one shot?
I say this because in my line(s) of work my entire ability to be successful is in my performance. I can't pin all my ego on one performance. One piece of writing. One class period. One public talk.
And if I could, if I could pin my ego on my best performance in any of those, then what? Then get the hell out there and do it again and again and again and again! And keep it up! Your best is now the minimum! Why are you crying? Get back here and perform, dammit!
Performance is not about our moments on the stage, in the ring, or on the field. It's part of it, sure. But our performance has much more to do with investment in ourselves, our preparation, our commitment, and our sustainability. And our ability to keep going, even during low performing seasons.
I've had to learn this as I've grown into my performance-based professions because my poor little ego was getting all kinds of bruised. If I didn't get a class discussion to go as well as I had it planned out in my head, or if my editor rejected one of my passages, or if I fumbled during a talk, I thought it was the definition of my skill. But my worst performance is no more a measure of my success than my best is. The important part is to keep getting behind the lectern, to keep putting my fingers on the keys, and to keep walking up to the microphone.
All that ever really matters is your batting average.
So just keep stepping up to the plate.
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