How much can a person do in three years? I’d like to present a study in transformation that involves overcoming a phobia, learning a new art form, and racking up credentials.
I had an intense fear of public speaking. It was so bad that simply walking into a room where I knew I would have to stand up and say something would make me break into a sweat. People who have met me refuse to believe this. That’s because I’m a shy extrovert, and talking to people I already know in a social setting does not provoke this phobia.
Now, when I speak or perform, people will come up and exclaim over how great I was. They say, “You sound so natural up there.” How dare you? How dare you say such a cruel and heartless thing? I want to ask. Nothing was more unnatural than this! Of course there’s no way for them to know how hard I worked over the course of three years to battle one of the biggest issues in my life.
I can honestly say that getting punched in the mouth is easier for me than the work I did to get over my fear of public speaking. I can say that because I set a personal goal every year to overcome something that scares me, and after I did public speaking, I went on to martial arts. I promoted up a belt level in two different forms in one year, and that’s another example of how much is possible in a given time period.
All it takes, all it takes to reach any goal, is to show up over and over and over again. Chip away at it in small, measurable increments. Usually these increments are one hour in length.
I made a public commitment in December of 2015 that I would confront my phobic reaction to public speaking by joining Toastmasters. It took me three weeks to force myself to go to an actual meeting. My membership was officially processed on February 1, 2016.
I planned to go to meetings for a few weeks or months or millennia and sit by as a wallflower, watching and listening and learning. Instead, I walked in and several people came up to introduce themselves and shake my hand. Then, moments after the gavel, I was asked to stand up, give my name, and explain how I heard about the club.
I THOUGHT I WOULD DIE. PHYSICALLY DIE.
That inner feeling of panic is a purely physical sensation. It is the secretion of adrenalin by the adrenal gland, a little bean that sits on top of the kidneys. It is not the boss of me. Further, it is the same little bean that sends excitement when I get a check in the mail or open a gift. My job is to use my left brain and verbalize thoughts in reaction to these physical sensations. “You are not dying, body of mine, you dumbass. Stay put.”
I joined Toastmasters, not realizing that I had stumbled into one of the very best clubs in the known world. I wasn’t to know that most of the people in the room that day would still be there three years later, my good friends and colleagues and lunch buddies.
I shook like a leaf when I got up to speak. It would start with my hands, rattle down my arms, and spread through my torso until I felt like I straddled a tectonic fault. One afternoon I went up there, gave a one-minute speech, and almost collapsed on the way back to my seat, as my legs gave out. I’ve run a marathon and I was very disappointed in my hamstrings that day.
Toastmasters is designed to teach leadership and communication skills. Everyone in the club has fought the same problems: being nervous, forgetting chunks of a speech, stammering, flubbing a punchline, losing the point, organizing thoughts poorly. We’re encouraging and compassionate because we’ve all taken our turn to fade at the lectern. We physically know how it feels.
The weirdest thing is that it’s almost impossible to tell, as an audience member, when the speaker is nervous. I’ve said it and I’ve heard it, but the truth is that it’s really hard to tell when someone’s hands are shaking, or even if they’re dripping sweat up there. It never looks even 1% as bad as it feels on the inside. People are listening for the message, that’s all. They’d care if you told them someone’s lights were on in the parking lot, and they’ll care when you share something else with them, whether it’s your life story or a few minutes about golf.
Usually all we’re asking is five minutes of someone’s time, and that’s not much to ask.
It took four months for me to force myself to give my first speech. It was predictably awful. My remit was to give an ice breaker, or talk about myself for four minutes. I ran out of material at about two and a half.
Anyone else would have quit.
I kept showing up, though. I forced myself. There are two me’s, the me that you see and the phantom me, walking behind me with a firm grasp on the back of my neck, frog-marching me hither and yon. When I’ve made a public commitment I follow through.
I gave ten speeches that first year. I took on a club office.
The next year, I earned my Competent Communicator and Competent Leader. I joined a second club.
In 2018, I earned my ACB, ALB, ACS, and a Triple Crown. I served as Area Director and Club Coach.
In the course of three years, I’ve earned five educational awards, held two offices, entered two competitions, been a test speaker, and won a bunch of ribbons for Best Speaker, Best Evaluator, and Best Table Topics. I keep them in a paper lunch sack because they outgrew an envelope.
If all goes according to plan, I’ll be a Distinguished Toastmaster next year, not quite three and a half years after joining as a knock-kneed stress case.
I know I can hold a room. I know that when I walk up to the lectern, people are atingle with anticipation. I look around and I can see their eyes glitter. I can make them all suck in their breath at once. I can make them laugh on command. They’re mine. I’m not a quivering jelly of panic and terror anymore. I’m a star. Not a superstar, just a small one, but I’m sparkling nonetheless.
It wasn’t me, it was the program. It was the support of my club members, who encouraged me and led me by the hand and cheered and hugged me - and convinced me that I’m funny, that I should go out and do improv comedy. I never knew. I never knew I could do all of this.
I did know that I could stay the course, that I have it within me to force myself to do things. I knew I could hold steady and complete three years of work on one goal.
As I near the ultimate goal, I have my eye on that little gold DTM pin. After that, though, what’s next? What will be my next three-year goal?
How about yours?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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