Early in my career, I had seemingly regular opportunities to learn new skills and technologies. It was interesting, for sure, and sometimes challenging, but rarely in ways that I would consider the least bit scary or risky. It was just plain fun.
Several years into my career, I found that my learning curve was steepening. I was apparently seen to have some good skills, and the small company that employed me seemed fit to thrust me into new situations with little supervision. This included teaching computing classes to county commissioners, being responsible for obtaining computers half a world away for international conferences (in the 1980s this was no mean feat), being asked to attend client executive business meetings to explain the software that my company had provided – or explaining yesterday’s outage.
Then came public speaking. My first real speaking gig was in 1988 where a colleague and I were presenting to a large audience. Before PowerPoint, producing slides for a presentation was difficult. You PowerPoint weanies have it way too easy.
That first speaking gig was a disaster. A real train wreck. I was beyond nervous. I’m sure it showed. But at least I knew it was a clear fail. And I was determined to not let that happen again.
As luck would have it, just weeks later a friend of mine mentioned his local Toastmasters club. I had heard of Toastmasters, and feeling the sting of my recent public speaking failure, I jumped at the chance.
The next year at Toastmasters was hard work. I had terrible bad habits and no good ones. My club consisted of really seasoned speakers, including local city officials and business owners. Really senior guys. Safe and friendly. But full of criticism, of the constructive kind.
I was nervous in all of my Toastmaster speeches. I was really terrible but desperately wanted to improve. I had a glimpse of my career’s future where I would be speaking before audiences again, but I was determined to never fail like that again.
A few short years later, I was asked to teach Unix concepts and skills to co-workers in semi formal classroom settings. I prepared and was less nervous. I did okay.
A few years after that, I was invited to speak at a global user conference on the business benefits of some software products. I did this two years in a row, and even recorded promotional testimonial videos for the company. I’m not sure whether they were ever used, though.
A couple of years later, opportunities to speak at conferences began. First it was once a year, then twice a year. These were great learning opportunities. Generally I did well, and slowly accumulated experience and added skills. I felt like I was going places. Not big places, but places nonetheless.
Last year I had the opportunity to keynote a regional security conference. I had the freedom to select my speaking topic, at least. But this was the first time I was formally introduced to a big stage before hundreds. Moreover, this was in my city, where probably half the audience knew me by first name.
My animation acted up a bit, but I delivered.
Eight weeks later, I had another keynote opportunity to an even larger audience, around 800. Yes I was nervous. But I delivered fairly well. This was the first time I had “comfort monitors” (the big monitors down in front that I could look at, as opposed to turning around to look at the big screens behind me.
Wait, isn’t this supposed to be about my comfort zone? Well yes, it has been all along.
Virtually all of my speaking gigs take me out of my comfort zone. Some, a little; others, quite a bit.
Two weeks ago, my boss’s boss called me up and asked if I would be interested in a speaking gig in Ottawa. I told him, sure, sign me up.
Then we hung up. And I thought about it. And I realized, I don’t even know what I’ll be speaking about, to whom, or in what context. That was okay.
Yes it was okay. Given the perspective of many years now, I realize that I thrive at the very edge, and often beyond, the boundaries of my comfort zone.
Public speaking is not the only context where I do this. In fact, every day when I’m asked to talk with a client, partner, or colleague, I almost never know what the conversation is going to be about. I might be praised in one conversation, bitched out in another, and asked my opinion in another.
So what am I getting at here? Please be patient, I’m getting to it. This is not a rehearsed piece, but written stream of consciousness, much like an impromtu talk. Other than mis-spellings in mid-sentence, I’m not editing this. These are my thoughts. Peter H Gregory unplugged.
For me this has been a great ride, the past few decades. I never know what’s around the corner. And that’s okay.
Those who know me know that I talk in metaphors a lot. Maybe too much. I liken my public speaking to bungee jumping. A few moments of terror, but what a ride. Only in my case, the chances of imminent death are remote. Embarrassment, or humiliation with no way out? Absolutely. In any of my talks, whether keynote, small session, executive briefing, or a university class, I could blow it at any time and be a bufoon or worse.
It hasn’t happened since that first conference, many many years ago.
And it keeps happening. Today at 3:30pm I found out that I to give an executive briefing to a group of colleagues I’ve never met in person, tomorrow morning. Do I know exactly what I’m going to be talking about? Somewhat. Am I nervous? Yes, somewhat. Will it be okay? Probably.
In high tech, if you want to grow, you’ve got to live on the edge of your comfort zone. Or near the edge anyway. Close enough so that you can see over the edge and see what potential failure looks like. Or gaze upward toward the brilliant blue sky and see what potential success looks like.
It’s worth it.