Imagine the power inherent in knowing how to cash in on the value of your life experiences. While I did buy a lottery ticket ($1.5 billion—who wouldn’t), the greatest winnings I’ve accumulated have little to do with paper (tickets or Benjamin’s).
In reality, the odds are stacked heavily against the $1.5 billion Powerball winner. And unfortunately, no dollar amount can buy a deep seeded belief in oneself, nor the courage to risk the vulnerability necessary to reach for your greatness.
How To Stop Pretending & Profit From Your Passion
I felt dread course through my body as I wondered, “Is she okay? Is this moment going to stop her from singing forever? I hope not.”
Just moments before, I’d watched Korin Bukowski, not once, but twice forget the words to, “Try,” as she sang live on The Voice. She has probably sung that song a million times. What happened? By the grace of God, she managed to make her way through the song, and hold herself together as the judges—and Carson Dailey—did their best to console her.
“There isn’t a judge up here who hasn’t forgotten their lyrics,” Blake Shelton said, as he encouraged the American public to vote for Korin to continue in the competition by using their “instant save” capability. And even though she wasn’t saved that time, she was instantly connected to the public in a powerful way. Anyone who’s ever made a mistake in public could relate.
As she walked off the stage, I couldn’t make sense of the intensity of my own emotions. I wasn’t the one singing live on The Voice, but somehow the feelings were intimately familiar. Try as I might to forget about Korin’s performance, the scene continued to replay, and so did the emotions. Busying myself by inhaling gobs of chocolate and exercising like crazy didn’t seem to stop the persistent nagging brought on by the event.
Clearly what happened to her had triggered something in me, but I didn’t know what it was. And honestly, I found it a whole lot easier to talk and think about her mistake than dredge up my old stuff. So, I refocused myself on my work and prepared to interview Rich Sheridan, CEO and co-Founder of Menlo Innovations, a software company in Ann Arbor, MI, that has won numerous awards for the profound impact it has made in the world.
Toward the end of the interview, I asked Rich, “What’s the greatest challenge you see leaders facing globally?”
“Changing human behavior,” Rich said, almost as if a solution to such a universal challenge was simple.
But he was right. Regardless of title or level of success, changing our own behaviors (or the behavior of others) is difficult. It’s the reason we buy hordes of books on dieting, exercise, and wealth, attend self-improvement workshops, and engage in team-building seminars with our co-workers.
“Give our listeners one step they can take to change human behavior on their team,” I asked Rich.
His answer to this question changed my life.
Four simple words—“Watch what you reward,” Rich said, “And I’m not talking about money, though that is one. When you talk about how ‘busy’ you are all the time, you’re rewarding ‘busy.’”
Parents unconsciously reward a whole host of behaviors in their children that drive them crazy, like whining, begging, and interrupting, just to name a few. What you put your attention to—i.e., reward—grows. I know this not because I have children, but because I still drive my parents crazy.
Curious about my own results, I headed out for my normal evening walk, asking myself, “What am I rewarding?”
Digging a little deeper, I asked, “What are the results I’m creating? And what are my ‘Payoffs’ (another word Rich used to further identify what he was referring to) for getting these results?”
Of course, my mind naturally went to my results, which are typically the opposite of what I want. Results that drive me crazy, and leave me feeling frustrated. Results like:
- Exhaustion from spending hours recording one two-minute video,
- Then over-eating, which probably causes…
- Persistent pain in various joints, and constant soreness from over-exercising.
- And then, the most painful — random and few opportunities (over the past five years) to share my talent.
That last one feels like lead in my stomach.
I love this work.
So, what gives? Why have I thrown monkey wrenches at myself, avoiding the very opportunities where I can contribute the most? That’s when it hit me. Monkey wrenches and joint pain are less painful than dealing with people—that’s why.
“Am I afraid of people?” I asked myself, wondering if I should check myself into… the grocery store to get more chocolate.
While in the Trader Joes checkout line—chocolate in tow, I struck up this awesome conversation with an older couple who had just finished a hike. We exchanged contact info, and soon we’ll be on a hike together.
Clearly, I’m not afraid of all people, I realized. So, who is it, and why?
“People with suits,” I decided, “The fancier the suit, the more chocolate I consume.”
That’s it—scary people in suits are to blame. If we could just rid the universe of suits, then my shoulders, knees, and lower back would be in such better shape! Abolish the suits!
Later that week I struck up a meaningful conversation with a gentleman in a sharp looking suit at Starbucks. He was in Baltimore seeking additional venture capital for his tech start up. Thinking I may know someone I could introduce him to, I probed a little deeper, asking about why he started this business, how many employees he had, and who he was pitching.
Considering he had already raised several million dollars, I was surprised by his response. “I’ve been working sixteen-hour-days and I have a couple of full time people,” he said, as he pulled out a beautifully bound notebook, along with a few flyers, detailing his product and his plan.
“I’m not a graphic designer, but I put these together.”
Still not understanding why this product mattered to him, I asked about his history. Essentially, I wanted to understand how he made his way into caring enough about this product to start a business around it.
“I was raised in a mobile home,” he shared.
Considering the product he was seeking venture capital for had nothing to do with mobile homes, I was confused.
“Why does it matter that you grew up in a trailer park?”
“I’m a hard worker.”
“Your results speak for themselves. You don’t need anyone to take pity on you, and offer you a chance because of where you come from. Share your passion for the product, the excitement of your current investors, and your plan,” I responded.
Interestingly, he spent the next twenty minutes telling me about how he bought that trailer park, and sold it for a sizeable profit several years ago.
“Now that’s inspiring! Tell your story that way,” I said, astounded by his journey and courageous spirit. “In fact,” I suggested, “Show those investors how you took every one of your challenges, and turned them into opportunities. It’s you, your stories, and your passion that will not only attract the right investors, but also inspire others (employees, suppliers, etc.) to help you make this one a big success.
“Thank you,” he said, as we hugged before parting.
“Clearly it’s not the suits,” I thought as Morgan, my physical therapist, tortured me with a new needling technique that’s supposed to aid in rapid healing. “It’s not people, it’s not suits, and it’s not people in suits that are stopping me from doing this work. So, what is it?”
Two recent events flooded my mind as I thought about the recent wave of emotions I’d experienced after Korin’s performance. The first was about a speech I gave to NASA, and the other was a conversation I had with a new friend.
NASA, Twitter, Shit!
I was invited to give a speech about generational differences at NASA’S first information technology summit. Determined to make my mark and set myself up for a lifetime of guaranteed success, I abandoned my normal speech preparations, hired a speechwriter, an expert in PowerPoint®, and proceeded to memorize a forty-minute speech.
Forcing myself into my basement for two hours every day, locking in the speech word-for-word was exhausting, but necessary. No way was I going to take a chance on this audience. This was NASA—it had to be perfect.
You know how the story ends already, right?
All my hard work pays off, and I get a standing ovation.
Alas, I had no time to contemplate the role of my ego in this speech.
“Focus, Misti,” I repeated to myself in that basement, as my mind wandered and a giant force inside of me just wanted to go outside and play.
I stayed. I focused. I memorized. Every day for six months.
One might think that such persistence would aid in confidence and calmness in the days and nights leading up to the speech.
Nada. It didn’t help at all. Zilch!
Xanax, or some stronger equivalent, please?
The morning of my speech I was in a haze as I made my way into the auditorium where I was set to speak in just a couple of hours. I sat on the stage, visualizing my applause.
That’s what you’re supposed to do right—see the ball going into the hoop?
In truth, all I saw was gray. But, to the event planners such preparations looked good, right? They could see how much effort I was putting into this speech, right?
Mostly, I wanted Linda Cureton, the chief information officer of NASA, a woman I respected greatly, to be impressed. I wasn’t a well-established or polished keynote speaker, and I knew she was taking a risk on me. She believed in me, and I needed to wow her.
When the time came, I stepped onto the stage, had a good opening line, and then completely forgot my speech. Gone. The words I’d spent hours storing in my memory were inaccessible, and I could see the discomfort rising on their faces as I struggled.
It wasn’t pretty, but I found my way through that speech—much the same as Korin made her way through that song. After I came off the stage, Linda looked at me and quietly asked, “What happened?” Embarrassed, all I could muster was, “I don’t know.”
Unfortunately, my failure wasn’t over when I walked off the stage. As it turned out, I was the lucky one to speak right before Vince Cerf, widely known as “The founder of the Internet,” and one heck of a speaker. The event was webcast live, and so you can imagine the number of people getting through me in order to listen to Vince speak.
I don’t know the exact number, but it was a LOT… of important people. In suits. Watching me fail, miserably. And then tweeting about it. I wish I could tell you that I read the tweets about my speech, but honestly I couldn’t bear to think about how awful they probably were. But I did hear about them from other sources.
“Never again!” I thought to myself. “Clearly, they can see that I’m clueless and have nothing of value to add anyway, so why bother?” For the psychologists out there, yes, I internalized the experience—I was a failure. I didn’t just have a failure. I was the failure.
That day, I made a decision—I will never let that happen to me again.
I needed training, and so I invested—heavily. I spent hours, days, and months writing and re-writing stories, exhausted and annoyed at my inability to get it perfect. Of course, the stories could have been perfect had I actually used them in a speech. But what speech? My phone wasn’t ringing, and I couldn’t get myself to drum up opportunities. Networking events further exhausted me.
I cringed when people asked, “What do you do?”
“I sit at home, looking busy, wishing someone would show up, sprinkle magic fairy dust on me, and tell me exactly how to… be Elizabeth Gilbert, Simon Sinek, or Daniel Pink,” was the truth I was unwilling to share.
They were perfect. Their messages resonated with my passion. Can’t I just be one of them? Of course not—the job is taken! So, I went back to work on perfecting my stories, just like I’d learned in that training.
How does anyone continue to do their work when they fail so publicly? I haven’t figured it out yet, but I did get a glimpse into the real reason for my failure, and it wasn’t at all what I thought it was. It wasn’t about being smart enough, polished enough, or even a good speaker.
Dread Locks, Mocha Skin, and 2Pac
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” – Brene Brown
The truth came to me through a story my friend Aisha shared as we sat in an Indian restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland. Heralding from Queens, New York, and also a veteran, Aisha recounted her experience of the first time she felt the suffocating impact of having mocha skin and dreadlocks.
As one of few black women stationed in Kentucky, Aisha had no idea how to fit in. Fitting in meant she’d need to actually enjoycountry music. Desperate to figure it out, she started watching a fellow mocha-skinned officer who was well respected despite the fact that he drove around base in his Lexus, with spinning rims, and blaring 2Pac.
“How do I do this?” Aisha asked him.
“You’re the one making a big deal of your skin—they don’t care. Tell your jokes, just like you’d tell them to me,” he said.
“They did laugh, Misti,” Aisha told me, “and I realized that all I needed to do was be me.”
That’s it, I realized on my drive home.
The day I accepted the opportunity to speak for NASA, I abandoned myself. Much the same as Aisha, I didn’t believe this audience would ever want to hear from a woman who spent seventh and eighth grade in special education class.
Why would such a prestigious group of professionals care to learn from a woman who barely graduated from high school, and was incredibly lucky to get her education from a university few have heard of? They wouldn’t, which is exactly why I had a very smart woman write and perfect my speech, and another one design and perfect my slides.
Then I remembered what Linda said to me in the hallway moments after I delivered that terrible speech.
“Misti, you have a story, and you need to tell it,” she said, quite publicly, and continued on with the conversations she was having about the upcoming sessions.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that it’s not so much about sharing my story as it is about trusting in my story. Just as it’s difficult to hear the voice of a singer riddled with self-doubt, it’s nearly impossible to connect with an audience I never showed up for.
So, how do I do it? How do I risk the possibility of failure every day as I share the gifts God has given me with the people in the suits?
Do I find a way to crush my amygdala, the part of my brain that quietly—without my permission—tells my whole body that I’m about to die when all I’m doing is standing on a stage sharing stories?
Do I stay in hiding, praying that one day I’ll have the perfect story (history), and then I can share? As if changing my background were even possible, or desirable.
Or, do I recognize my intense fear as a gift from God, reminding me that all I need to do is breathe—slowly and deeply—and be me.
I wonder what would happen if I started rewarding, as Rich so eloquently taught me, showing up, trusting in my instincts, and sharing what I have to offer. What would it mean to reward total transparency, trust, and truth? What would happen if I could find a way to reward the kind of risk-taking Aisha took?
What would my body feel like if I rewarded authenticity, instead of trying to control the actions and thoughts of others—a game I can never win anyway—and started showing up, offering, and watching God work her magic.
My guess is—I’ll have the same experience of pure bliss I had at the Starbucks that day with the entrepreneur in the fancy suit, who, turns out, helped me remember that all I need to do is share my story, my results, my process, and my passion. The right people (and audiences) will come at the right time to help us share our gifts—if we will only trust in our own stories.
Imagine if they had a Powerball that resulted in such trust. Would you play? I will!
Misti Burmeister writes about leadership, motivation, and provoking greatness. She started life challenging the status quo, and shifted into Provoking Greatness. She’s an executive coach and the author of “From Boomers To Bloggers” and “Provoking Greatness.” She is also the host of Provoking Your Greatness Podcast.