According to actual research, or maybe just urban legend, people fear public speaking more than even death. Speech class in college didn’t really bother me. Yes I had to make a fool of myself (potentially) in front of a small group of students, but they were strangers and I had nothing at stake except my grade. When it really became scary was when I had to give my first scientific seminar as a graduate student to my department full of illustrious scholars. These were my friends, classmates and professors and my talk was on my proposed research. Now it was about how smart I was and the opinion of my entire world of peers and mentors was at stake.
The antacid became a twice-daily routine starting roughly 120 days in advance. Yes, I had it that bad.
But like many things in life, the experience was actually better than I expected. Much better. I surprised myself to find that I loved public speaking.
Yeah, I know, I’m so weird.
I now understand that when public speaking, I’m in flow. I lose track of time, I feel like everything comes easily and naturally to me, and people tell me I do a great job. Furthermore, now that I have a sense of my strengths, I realize that though I’m relatively low on the Communication strength, I have other strengths that I use to compensate for this shortcoming. I think I use Command (a commanding presence) combined with Ideation (connecting disparate ideas into an interesting outcome) and Strategic (to construct the talk so it generates interest). I also have reasonably strong Developer (help others improve and learn) so that strength motivates me to do a good job so others can learn.
I’m not listing these strengths to illustrate how awesome I am. Actually, everyone has their own list of “top 10”amazing strengths that they use, each to a greater or lesser degree, to create excellence. My point is that you don’t need to have a particular strength, such as Communication, to be good at something. Therefore, you also don’t have to decide in advance that you’re not good at something or you don’t like something, because you might surprise yourself. You might even be better at it than you think, even if you don’t love it while you’re doing it. I’ve also learned that others do not judge me as harshly as I judge myself. So, I may think I sucked but others might just think: not bad, but room for improvement. Believing I will suck is more likely to make me feel anxious and nervous, resulting in a presentation lacking confidence. In other words, I’m more likely to suck if I think I will suck: a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Given my initial anxiety about public speaking or my even stronger fear of not being able to cut it in graduate school at all, I could’ve decided to not enroll in that graduate program to avoid confronting those fears. However, I have developed a personal philosophy to not give up before I try. Not having the courage to try, to me, is worse than trying my best and failing. Not that these have always been conscious decisions – sometimes they have masqueraded as ambivalence or disinterest.
I have also decided that the regret resulting from trying and “failing” was preferable to the regret of wondering if I could’ve/should’ve done it anyway. Certainly, the former, assuming it came to pass, allows room for growth and “falling gracefully.” The latter is certain to make me feel lousy for a long time.
So, imagine what you would do if you had no fear, that you could not fail (since you are only taking the first step on a journey of improvement), and that the regret of giving up before you start is far worse than making a mistake or just being mediocre at something.
Who would you be?
What could you do?