Recently, I had planned to give a speech at my Toastmaster’s club (a large, non-profit org for public speaking).
I had signed up to repeat a speech incorporating the feedback I had gotten from the previous time I did it.
But a funny thing happened. As I continued to practice the day of my speech, I kept feeling I was not ready. I kept thinking, “I should just cancel and do it when I’m really ready.” But I kept pushing through.
Then about an hour before it was time to leave for my club meeting, I saw something online that threw me smack dab into the racket my head. Now that thought of postponing was racing in my head at the speed of sound… I kept thinking, “I should just cancel and do it when I’m really ready. In fact, I should not even go to the meeting!” But I kept pushing through.
I went to the meeting.
During the first hour I kept thinking, “Really… just cancel your speech tonight.” But another part of me kept telling myself: “This is good practice for working under stress, duress, and anxiety. It’s good practice. I might be at a real public speaking event at some point and learn something upsetting just before I go on stage… it could happen. The show must go on. You need to push through this, Melody.”
And so it did. I did not cancel my speech. I got up there and did it.
And guess what? I was ten times more stressed than any of the 15 or 20 speeches I had given before — and only because of the thoughts in my head.
As a matter of fact, I don’t really know how I got through it. I could feel myself being on automatic pilot. I was saying the words and telling the stories, but my voice was tight and constricted… It seemed like my voice was “cutting out!” But I kept going.
I had practiced enough that I had my speech memorized — for better or for worse — and that got me through. Later on, the person giving me feedback didn’t mention that I seemed nervous or that my voiced cracked, so I don’t know how noticeable it was. But I do know that I pushed through and completed it. I didn’t give in and wait for a better time…a time when I would be more “comfortable.”I did it now.
The speech was not that great, but that’s beside the point. By pushing through the discomfort, I now know that I can do it. I can get through a speech even in the midst of noise going full blast in my head.
Why am I telling you this story?
I’m telling you this because my guess is that you too have faced situations where you felt like quitting when an obstacle came up — whether real or imagined. My thing was in my head. There was very little at stake. But the thoughts in my head took me back to a feeling I had decades ago.
In the past, I’m sure I have postponed some things here and there… waiting for a better time… a time when the self-defeating chatter in my head wasn’t so loud.
This time I purposefully confronted my fears and intentionally stuck with giving a speech under pressure. Getting through it helped me to see that I could survive. The speech itself was not impressive, but for me, the fact that I did it anyway… that was a personal victory.
Sometimes we want to quit or change directions when the pressure is on, but that’s when it’s so important to catch our brain doing its thing. That’s when we need to stop in our tracks and and consciously ask ourselves: “Am I feeling like retreating due to an authentic fear [such as if a bear is looking at you and licking his chops thinking that extra 10 pounds of fat looks delicious…] or is it a psychological fear whose time has come to face it?”
You might feel this way if you’re going to an agent meeting or an audition, if you’re an actor. You might feel this way when it comes to pitching your script or submitting it to contests. There are countless situations when we come face-to-face with old patterns and fears resurfacing. And each of those times is an opportunity to deal with it in a new way.
My story about this does not end with what I so often hear from others: “Oh, this and that happened and then I gave the best performance of my life.” I didn’t transform the feeling of anxiety before I spoke. I might have… and I fully intend to next time. I have tools I can use to lessen my anxiety if I get that feeling in the future. But for me, it’s okay that I didn’t get past it, because I learned I can do it even when I am in a totally stressed space.
I also got a couple more practical lessons that I think are relevant for anyone who is trying to achieve their next big goal in life.
Lesson #1: Being well-prepared is critical for doing your best work.
Each of us has our own process about what helps us do our best job when we’re on the spot. I see now that knowing my speech very well is important for me.
What process helps you do your best? Whether you’re preparing for an audition, a meeting, a pitch, or whatever it might be. What helps you do your best? I’ve heard that a certain celebrity requires that only a certain color of M&Ms be left in the candy jar when they stay at a hotel. (If you’re curious, just email me, and I’ll tell you the details on that :)!)
This point is to know what supports you in doing your best work.
Lesson #2: Gaining experience and simply doing a thing over and over increases your capacity to deal with the unexpected without detracting from how you do that thing.
If you put yourself in a given situation over and over, you will become more comfortable because the situation will become increasingly familiar. Additionally, you get more and more opportunities for odd things to arise that you will learn how to deal with little by little.
When you have confronted a huge variety of situations, it continues to deepen your confidence in your ability to deal with other new things that might arise.
I would be comfortable speaking for hours on end about screenplays, various aspects of the craft, and marketing your script. I could do the same with any topic related to getting an agent or a manager for an actor. I know these topics well and I’ve been talking about them for years. I’ve done them over and over.
But when we’re learning new things and pushing ourselves, it’s natural that we are not great at it or not comfortable.
When you are expanding yourself and growing, it is not comfortable. I’m not one of those people who thinks the most noble thing you can do is make someone “comfortable.” Not at all. If I am with someone who wants to grow, I want to support them through their discomfort. I want them to feel safe physically, yes. But being comfortable is not how you live your dreams.
It is through commitment to getting to the other side of your discomfort and in the direction of your goal that you will find strength.
It is through persistence and practice over time that you will naturally become more comfortable and confident at doing that thing.
Whether you are improving your screenwriting by writing and writing and studying and writing or submitting yourself for projects and auditioning as much as possible, you will improve by doing the thing over and over again. Wax on, wax off.
Be tuned in for opportunities to expand yourself in the direction of your dreams.
When you expand yourself, by pushing though the stuff in your head and focusing on your commitment, you naturally move yourself closer to your goal and the life of your dreams.
If Smart Girls Productions services or Hollywood Business School training can be of service in helping you on your mission, please reach out to me at the contact info on this site. Meanwhile, stretch in the direction of your dreams.
Melody Jackson, Ph.D.