I was a high-school salutatorian. More often than I’d care to admit, I translate that word as “first loser.” (I married a high-school valedictorian.)
Most people don’t like to fail. They especially don’t like to fail in front of people. Plainly: it’s embarrassing. Your check was in the mail. You were called bluffing a two-seven offsuit.
Actually, it goes beyond dislike and embarrassment. Many people are downright scared of failing — and it costs them a lot in lost opportunities.
Speaking eloquently in front of others is not my strength
So, if failure makes people scared, then failure at speaking in public must make people … I don’t know … scared to the fifth power?
Our local Toastmasters club participates in speech contests twice a year, as many of the clubs do. The fall contests are the Table Topics contest — impromptu speeches — and the Humorous Speech contest.
At the club level (the first level) I ended up placing first for the Table Topics contest, and second for the Humorous Speech contest. (Each competition had three contestants.)
You, sir, have brought a knife to a gunfight …
At the area level (the next level up) I was able to participate in both contests because the winner of the Humorous Speech contest didn’t make the contest. Again, each competition had three contestants.
Man, was I completely outgunned. My competitors were polished speakers. I later found out that the second-place finisher in each contest (who, like myself, competed in both contests) had been speaking publicly as a big part of his job for the better part of twenty years. Both contests consisted of two all-stars and a benchwarmer (me).
I came in last not once, but twice in the same event. And it was completely obvious to everyone there who was who. Pretty horrible, huh?
… but the guns shoot flowers out of their muzzles, so it’s all good.
This failure was one of the better things that’s happened to me this year. Here’s why:
- The worst happened, and I survived. The sun didn’t come crashing down through the top of my car after putting in this performance. I won’t be scared of it any more. (Related: It’s for this reason that I’m half-hoping that my daughter, who’s eight, gets disqualified at one of her swim meets. She hasn’t yet, and she’s scared of it. Getting one under her belt will help her to be more aggressive.)
- I got to see where I really am with regard to public speaking at a competitive level. I’m a competitor at the club level, but not really at the area level, yet. (Well, I did compete, but my opponents were leaps and bounds more experienced than myself.)
- I got to see what the next level — and beyond — looks like. I learned a ton watching my opponents speak. One of the contest masters competed at the international level, so of course he was great. If you are the best person in the room, it’s hard to learn much new about what you’re doing. That’s an advantage of being the worst person in the room: Everything one of your opponents does is a pointer.
- I got lots of feedback and encouragement. The encouraging atmosphere might be a Toastmasters thing but I can’t imagine that it’s totally lacking in other competitive interests. Except at perhaps the very highest levels of any competition, people are doing the competitions primarily to improve their skills. (And Toastmasters is cheap to boot!) So not only did I get to see places where I could improve, but also I got the benefit of others sharing their experience and tips with me. All for being an also-ran. Yet another reason why Toastmasters is a bargain.
- I’ll be more likely to fail — and grow — in the future. The more things one tries, the more chances of finding something that will either have a big return or a huge impact. Having failed here, I’ll be less likely to be scared of failing at other things.
Now, I’m not meaning to justify high-stakes recklessness. Sometimes there are great consequences to failure — like getting fired for some kind of misconduct, for example. But controlled failure, or putting yourself out there when you’re learning something new, has way more upside than downside.
The experience of failure itself is a bargain in self-development, but only if it’s viewed as a positive experience.