In less than one week of writing this, I’ll be doing my first keynote talk at a conference – the 2015 SpaceCityJS conference.
Sitting here, typing this; I’m thinking about the talk that I’m going to do… and my stomach is turning. My heart is racing. I want to crawl under a desk and hide. I want to call the conference organizer and tell him I’m sick.
The spot-light on me… the entire conference looking at me, expecting me to say something meaningful. I’m terrified. I don’t want to do it. Don’t make me do it.
The Terrified, Stomach Turning Feeling
I’ve done more than a few conference sessions, musical performances in front of large audiences, acted in plays and other public things up on stage. I’m not new to this.
And I seriously hope I never lose this feeling of being terrified by what I’m about to do.
A Strong Correlation
In all the times I’ve been up in front of people, doing some sort of performance, I found found one particular correlation to hold up almost perfectly:
the higher my stress level, the better I do
There are multiple factors at play, here – it’s not one simple, single thing. But time and time again, I find this to be true – for both the benefit and detriment of my talks / performances.
A Miserable Failure
I know what failure looks like, standing in front of people. I screwed up so badly in front of an audience once, that half the people left the room after I had whizzed through my material in less than half the time I was allotted.
I planned the talk for the wrong audience and didn’t realize it until I was standing in front of everyone. I was unable to recover. It was so bad, the conference organizer asked me if I was ok afterward… and he wasn’t even in the session to see me fail. He heard about it from multiple other people.
A Outstanding Success
I recently found myself wanting to hide in a corner and cry just before a talk. I was incredibly nervous about doing a session with zero code, and no demonstrations. I had never done that before.
It turned out to be one of my best talks, ever.
The emotion, the passion, the conveyance of exactly what I was intending through the stories of my experience – it all came together near perfectly. There were more than a few people in the audience who told me that it was the best talk of the conference.
there are multiple reasons that my stress level is a good indicator of success – not the least of which is the fact that I am stretching myself to do new things. It’s part of why I keep changing up how I do my presentations, and which talk I give.
I don’t like to give the same talk over and over and over again. I prefer to practice one to death, become incredibly nervous about it, deliver it like a preacher at revival and record that one session so that I never have to give that talk again.
Doing things this way means I never have the comfort of giving the same talk twice, and that’s what I want.
I Want This Gut-Wrenching Feeling
Not because I enjoy the nervousness and sick feelings – that part is truly terrifying and awful. But when I get this way, I know it’s because I am stretching myself to do new things.
I want this horrible, sick feeling because it means I care about what I’m doing. It means I understand that I can really screw this up, and I really don’t want to. It means I care enough to make sure I have every detail right, because I am not confident enough to breeze through it (unlike the over-confidence that turned in to a total fail with the wrong audience).
This gut-wrenching sick feeling that I have right now, means I am growing in some new way and doing something new and potentially amazing … and potentially terrifying and horrible, too.
Not Just Speaking Engagements
A little over a year ago, I convinced my client to let me build a custom batch process scheduling and execution system. We had evaluated a lot of off-the-shelf solutions, and none of them did everything we needed. I recommended an architecture that I was unsure of, but with the confidence that I could learn it in time and create a solution that worked well. It was another gut-wrenching moment when I suggested that solution and they accepted.
Last week (from the time of writing this), that system went live and is working well. The go-live was another nausea-inducing scenario for me.
There are so many scenarios that I put myself in to, where I feel completely and totally out of my element. But I continue to do so because I believe I can step in to those roles and in to the knowledge and experience that I need for that situation.
No Reward Without Risk
I am giving my first keynote at a conference in less than a week. It’s terrifying, but it’s going to be worth it.
If I can pull this off, I can work my way in to bigger and more prestigious conferences. I can turn the exposure in to a larger audience for my mailing list. I can grow my own personal audience with other developers that think I have something valuable to say and to offer.
Yup. I can totally screw this up, and deliver a horrendously awkward keynote. I could put people to sleep or make them all incredibly uncomfortable. I may even have the wrong audience in mind, again. It scares me. A lot.
But it’s going to be worth it if I can pull it off.
But Not Too Much Risk
In spite of the risk involved, and in spite of my stomach tying itself in knots right now, this isn’t a huge leap for me. I’ve done dozens of talks and more performances of other types than I can count.
This is not a giant leaping attempt to move in to something completely unknown to me. This is another step in the direction that I want to head.
Each step comes with another round of nausea and terror. But it’s only one step. Even if I fall off that step, I’ll probably land on the previous one or two steps where I have my current foundation. From there, I can figure out what I did wrong and where to go next (if I want to go somewhere different).
Never Lose That Terrified Sickness
If you do lost that desire to hide under your desk, you might be sitting in your comfort zone a little too much. You might not be valuing your own abilities or contributions. You might not be taking enough risk to move yourself forward.
Of course there are times when you need the comfort of familiarity. It’s a safe place to be, to recharge yourself and prepare for what lays ahead. But don’t let yourself lose focus while you rest in your all-too-familiar surroundings.
The comfort you need today should be replaced with fear, uncertainty and doubt that you face head-on, tomorrow.