I Gave Myself Permission to Bomb

I have a somewhat unusual comfort with public speaking. I once walked into a conference with almost no understanding of what the organizers wanted me to do and hopped on the stage in front of a couple of hundred people with hardly a skipped heartbeat or extra drop of sweat. It’s a comfort I’ve cultivated over a number of years and dozens of talks.

Put me in front of 30 really friendly and supportive people to read a poem I have written and practiced a number of times? We’re talking full-on leg quiver, voice tremble, flop sweat time – and that starts well before I walk up to the mic.

That’s why I did it last Wednesday. That’s why I put my name on the readers list at Soul Sessions, a fortnightly poetry and performance event created and nurtured by the incredible Bryan Hancock. That’s why my gremlins got all sorts of hyped up as I told my mastermind crew of my intention to read early Wednesday morning, as I quietly tucked my notebook into my bag before leaving Wednesday evening, as I hesitated to write my name on the list, as I sat and listened to the poets and performers who made their way to the mic before me, as I felt my heart pounding in my chest in anticipation.

Putting ourselves in the way of our own discomfort is a way of activating our Courage/Confidence Cycle. Doing something despite the fear we feel – the very definition of courage – helps us build confidence which fuels our courage which builds more confidence and so on.

Wednesday, though, I found an unexpected bonus lesson. See, as I sat at that table waiting for my name to be called and listening to all of the very convincing arguments the gremlins made for bailing, I tuned into my discomfort with some curiosity. What was it that was making me so nervous about standing in front of such a friendly, safe crowd and doing something that, in other circumstances, I would find not only easy but exciting?

Peeking out from behind the fear was yet another iteration of perfectionism. Something in me needed for my poem to not only be well-received but for it to really wow people. Something in me said it was failure unless others thought it was an outrageously wonderful poem and that my performance was top notch. That part of me was working from a perfectionist’s fantasy where I didn’t have to work for excellence, where I would write unparalleled poetry despite how rarely I practice crafting verse, where I would perform like a pro despite how rarely I have practiced performance.

So, I told that part of myself: We don’t have to be the best. We don’t even have to be great. Success, on this one, is just getting up there and getting through the poem. That’s it. That’s the full measure.

My legs still trembled under my palazzo pants as I read. Still, that moment of reframing did a huge bit to temper my fear by removing the bit attached to the outcome and my desire to impress the crowd with my poetical prowess. By giving myself permission to bomb and still win, I ensured that no matter what the crowd – or I – thought of my performance, just getting in front of the mic would give my Courage/Confidence Cycle a boost.

And that kind of boost? That’s rocket fuel that lasts well beyond the open mic and right into all of the big changes we can make.