Focus, focus, focus
Q: Carla Cohen, who died recently, was as well-known in the D.C. area as a bookstore owner could be. But before she co-founded the renowned Politics & Prose decades ago, she lost her job, and it took her a couple of years to resolve to pursue something "that would bring nothing but pleasure to other people." Have you ever had a fallow period that eventually led to a breakthrough? How did you get out of it?
I've been in a fallow period for nearly two years and I'm just starting to see the light. As it turns out, focusing on learning and cultivating relationships has become my saving grace.
Several months ago, on our drive home from Lewes, Delaware, where my best friend, Mali, and I spent the weekend working alongside one another on different projects, a song came on the radio. I had heard it a few times and loved it, but I didn't know the artist.
"Who is that, Mali?"
"How do I know -- I've never met them before," Mali said with a smirk on face as she motioned to the gentleman driving the car right next to us.
"No, goofball, who's singing?"
"Oh, that's Taylor Swift and the title of the song is 'Fifteen.'"
When I asked if she is 15, Mali responded, "No, she's 19, but she was discovered when she was 15."
Staring off into the distance in a daze, as we zipped past beautiful trees, I silently contemplated the notion of being "discovered." My first thoughts were, "Shoot, I lost my chance ... I'm no longer 15." Then, suddenly, I felt a little irritated as I thought, "Why hasn't anyone discovered me yet?"
While I'm certain Mali was basking in the silence, I suddenly became overwhelmed and needed to share.
"Mali, I'm talented, right? Why haven't I been discovered yet?"
"Of course you're talented," she said. Then, a long silence ensued. It was almost as if she knew I needed more time to think through my inward challenge.
I began contemplating what it means to get "discovered." In the case of Taylor Swift, it would have meant that the right people saw her perform at the right time -- they saw how talented she is and helped her gain exposure. But how did she get to a place where she was so talented that others wanted to watch her perform?
I began imagining how many hours she's spent writing songs, singing, playing instruments and performing. Of course, when you love writing songs, singing, playing instruments and performing, doing so is probably a great deal of fun. Sure, as with all things, it has its own set of frustrations, but they're worth it if you love it.
There I was, with a dream of becoming an international, award-winning speaker/author, yet I had not put in that kind of dedication to honing my skills. At the time, I found it repulsive to watch myself on video, had not yet written out a single speech and I found little interest in practicing.
I thought, "I'll just show up, speak, and hopefully they like it. If I add some enthusiasm, I can pull it off, right?" Well, maybe, but I certainly wasn't getting a ton (or any, really) of repeat business for keynote speaking.
After thinking through the process of becoming the very best -- so good, in fact, that one gets "discovered" -- it occurred to me that I have a tremendous amount of work to do on strengthening my skills around the fundamentals of speaking. Writing was a bit easier for me -- inside my comfort zone -- because I can always send it to the editor(s) and work on it until it's ready.
Speaking, on the other hand, meant seeking guidance, watching myself, gaining feedback (ick!) and practicing for practice's sake, rather than to earn money or make a difference. Writing my speeches would mean that I had to think through what I was going to say, which was far more difficult (and impactful) than speaking off the cuff.
I made a pact with myself -- to step up, be vulnerable, go back to the basics, learn how to write a speech, watch myself speak and, most challenging of all, join a Toastmasters group, which provides the perfect atmosphere for people at all levels of speaking ability to practice and gain instant feedback. Perhaps, I thought, if I put in all those hours and remain dedicated to my craft, I'll discover myself someday. Of course, once that happens, the rest takes care of itself.
Taylor Swift was discovered at 15, but she was a work in progress (and I'm sure she'd probably say she still is) all along. She loves music and dedicated herself to continually bettering herself.
Getting out of a fallow period meant taking action on the things I knew I needed to do all along. Pushing past my fears of inadequacy so that I can become the best speaker and writer I can be. Rather than waiting for someone to discover my greatness, I decided to go fishing for it myself.
Naturally, just like Taylor Swift, I will continue honing my skills all my life, but right now is my time to dive in, stay in and keep focused on radically improving my speaking ability.
What's your dream? What do you love to do and could improve dramatically if you would just give it your full attention? I'm eager to learn about what you're up to!