Everybody seems to wonderWhat it's like down hereI gotta get away from this day-to-day running aroundEverybody knows this is nowhere.— Neil Young, "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere"
The lights can be blinding when you wander into focus. When everyone starts looking at you; when you have become the subject of everyone’s sentence. There’s a pause, and in that pause there’s a choice. You let this bother you. Or you don’t.
Sometimes the choice is easy. You just do it. You have nothing to lose. The stakes are not high enough.
You do what you do. You entertain, you teach, you present, you learn. You are at the head of a conference table explaining your decisions. You are on stage in front of 200 people. You are in a discovery meeting justifying your position.
As you walk off stage, you have an idea of how it went. It went perfectly. It went horribly. It just went.
And then you look at the feedback.
The One Side
The first time I spoke at a conference, I nailed it. This is not bragging – I honestly had no idea my talk would go over as well as it did. But it did. And as I wandered amongst friends and conference attendees and other speakers at the conference party, I felt everything wash away. I had looked the beast in the eyes, and I had slayed it.
I can do this, I thought. Though, there shouldn’t have ever been any doubt. I am a trained teacher with a degree in secondary biology education. I had handled worse crowds as a fresh substitute, filling in for advanced-level high school Biology II classes, trying to reign the wandering minds of students that were only five years younger than I was.
Seriously. What the hell could a conference crowd do that an 18-year-old with senioritis couldn’t?
And Then the Other
And then, last week, I gave the talk of my life. I had worked and fretted and made myself insane over this talk. I took to heart all of the feedback I had ever received: make sure you give the crowd something they can act on. Be funny. Give a little bit of your own personality. Practice. Do it. Be it.
I nailed it. Again.
And then I looked at the feedback. It wasn't pretty.
I remembered back to the first time I ever led a discovery meeting, where my lack of experience had been exposed and I felt like a complete fraud. I went into the meeting with the idea that I could do this – that this was going to be a fantastic meeting – and left wondering what had happened.
When pressed, I had no answers. When prodded, I shuddered and hoped it would somehow go away.
Years later, I understand that the key to thinking on your toes is to assume you know more than everyone else. But that’s not my style. A fair number of us don’t think that way. It’s not introversion – the great over-diagnosed condition of the web era. It’s just that we hedge our bets and we assume that there's always something more to learn. We aren't wired to be forceful and confident.
But sometimes that’s what we need. We need to pretend we are forceful and confident. We need to play that part, like going against type in a community theater play. We need to stop assuming we’re Seymour and start playing the part of the Audrey II.
Ignore or Push Forward
When I walk into the lights, I want to be perfect.
I want to be Don Draper. I want to be Ginger Rodgers. I want to be every character in the Ocean’s movies.
I can’t be perfect, and you can’t be perfect, and no one can be perfect, because this shit isn’t scripted and despite the fact that we try really really hard we'll never be perfect. Every time we step on stage, we’re less than perfect. Every time.
Every time. We fail, because we want to be mistake-free, and we forget that mistakes are what make us normal. Relatable. Human.
And we could feel horrible about that. Or, we could stop worrying and just try to be good. Because we are good. It’s just that sometimes we freeze up under pressure. That’s what pressure does. That’s what humans do.
So I can’t be perfect. I just need to be good. And make an impact. Even if that impact doesn’t fit into the Hollywood storyline.
I got bad reviews – at least the ones I snuck a look at before shutting it down and ignoring the rest. I was completely and utterly shattered for two days. Why do I do this? If this talk sucks – a talk I gave specifically to a set of people that I thought would understand it, a talk that I thought had gone as well as any talk I had ever given – then what do I do?
Do I scrap it? Do I give up? Do I spend the next 21 days fixing it before I give it again, not knowing if anything I’m doing is going to actually help?
Or do I reframe the question?
Because the opinions of that vocal minority – the 8% of people who had responded – shouldn’t really dictate my feelings. They should not determine whether or not my performance and message were worth it to the rest of the group. I can allow them to represent a small portion, but I'll never know how everyone thought.
So I had a choice. I could trust my gut, or I could pay attention to a few people who gave me a bad score.
And, after a few days, it was easy.
I was going to trust my gut. Because regardless of the platitudes and positive feedback and negative vibes, my gut doesn’t feed me any bullshit. It just tells me when I think I’m doing okay.
And, to be honest, that’s about as confident a cheerleader I'll ever need.