As human beings, we have a natural tendency to pin our hopes for a better future on fulfilled expectations. But in our changing world, expecting life to always turn out the way we want or expect can lead to disappointment and resentment. Being able to shift state quickly when we’re faced with a setback or challenge is a key component of mental agility and emotional resilience. It’s part of a message that I share consistently in my keynotes and masterclasses, and recently I had the opportunity to put into practice, what I preach. It wasn’t pretty.
Earlier this year I was invited to speak at an advertising and marketing exhibition set to take place at the Sandton Convention Centre in the first week of June. I was excited at the opportunity to share my story and insights with an expected 700 or more businesspeople on an enormous stage at one of Johannesburg’s most prestigious conferencing venues. I’ve spoken to several large audiences in my burgeoning professional speaking career and speaking to bigger and bigger audiences on bigger and bigger stages represents on each occasion a significant milestone in my journey. It isn’t about ego, really. What these events do is push me to be better by developing a big match temperament. One of my favourite quotes is by Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” Speaking at Sandton Convention Centre represented one of those greater things.
My speaking slot was scheduled for 9 am. I detest being late. My preference is always to arrive early to avoid sitting in gridlocked traffic, even if it means hanging around before showtime. It’s also an opportunity to get in sync with the venue, check and double-check slides with the audio-visual guys, and get into the groove with my talk. Conference organizers like it, too—with the million and one issues they have to deal with when running an event of this magnitude, eliminating the nagging concern about a speaker not arriving on time is one less thing to worry about.
I arrived at 7 am, to be met by one of the event organizers who walked me through to the Fundamentals Theatre where my talk was to take place. We took a shortcut through the exhibition, snaking our way past still deserted stands, bulging refuse bags from the day before, and bored-looking cleaning staff. Only the drone of vacuum cleaners broke the early morning silence.
Upon arriving at the furthest corner of the exhibition hall, my guide pointed to some enormous cream coloured, corrugated metal sliding doors, the kind you find in the loading bay of a warehouse, cheerfully turned to me and said, “There you go.”
I clearly looked perplexed. “You mean I have to go through those?” I asked, pointing at said doors. “No, love,” was his reply. “You’re speaking right here.”
I lowered my gaze and began to take in my surroundings. I’d arrived at a 20 square metre, partially cordoned-off area of the exhibition hall, next to the emergency exit and loading bays, where about 50 chairs had been positioned, cinema-style, in front of a high-tech screen. Two sides were separated off with partitions and covered tables. The remaining sides merged into the exhibition hall itself where exhibitors and tradesmen were beginning to arrive in preparation for the day ahead. The stage was tiny, approximately one square meter in size, and tucked away in the corner of the makeshift theatre. Surely my guide had made a mistake! I was supposed to speak in the Fundamentals Theatre—a large conference venue with a sprawling stage, state of the art AV equipment and seating for over 1,000 people, the kind of venue that Sandton Convention Centre was renowned for?
As the penny slowly began to drop, I could feel my heart sink. The feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters coursing through my veins from the mounting excitement and anticipation came to an abrupt standstill and crashing disappointment took their place. As I tried to make sense of the situation, I mentally ran through flashes of conversations I’d had with the organizers leading up to the event. And slowly, as the penny made its way all the way down, I began to recognize why they’d perhaps been a little cagey about my questions. While the neural networks in my body began to frantically make different connections to help me make sense of this catastrophe, the stark reality of my situation hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.
I’d had very clear and distinct expectations of what speaking at Sandton Convention Centre would entail. Every conversation I’d engaged in, every piece of literature I’d read, had confirmed that expectation. I’d heard what I expected to hear and saw what I expected to see. In fact, I was so convinced that I knew what was going to happen, I would have bet the family farm (if we had one) and the kitchen sink on the outcome. I’d clearly been absorbed in a classic case of what psychologists call confirmation bias.
To fuel my disbelief and disappointment, the realization slowly dawned on me that my idea of delivering a practised, incisive 20-minute session to an eagerly anticipative audience was flawed. I had to sing for my supper and rally up interest in the crowd by drawing them to the theatre. My 20 minutes of speaking “glory” at 9 am would be faced with serious competition from the overhead PA system and another speaker in an adjoining open plan theatre just a short distance away. I suddenly felt like the proverbial market trader flogging Tupperware or vacuum cleaners at a Saturday street market. “Roll up, roll up! Get ’em cheap, right over here!” Yes, there was a planned agenda for each theatre that ran throughout the day, but the audience was not obliged to sit through every talk as is the case with a regular conference. It was up to them. They would only stop to hear me if they felt like it or if I shouted loud enough to draw their attention. And to top it all, the doors to the exhibition were scheduled to open at exactly the same time I was to start. There was a high probability I would be talking to 50 empty chairs!
Speaking at Sandton Convention Centre went from being potentially one of the highlights of my speaking career to date to the worst speaking experience ever!
Give up or show up?
Expectation is indeed a powerful motivational force. Equally, disappointment carries with it a corresponding demotivating effect. I’m naturally an optimist and quick to see possibilities in life, but sitting alone in the makeshift “theatre” at 7.15 am, waiting for the organizers and the AV guys to arrive, I found myself defaulting to a dialogue with the invisible committee in my head. My reactive little self jumped into action immediately with the deep desire to throw a foot-stomping hissy fit. “How can I possibly speak here? The venue is pathetic. I’m not a clown! This was supposed to be a business event for professional business people. Besides, people only come to trade shows for free stuff. It’s a waste of time. I am going to be more like a bloody trader at Billingsgate fish market than a professional speaker! What happens if only one or two people arrive? What happens if nobody turns up? I’ll look like an idiot. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The bloody organizers should have told me it was not a business gig. Maybe I should just forget the whole thing.”
I felt myself begin to slump in the chair as frustration and resentment joined the disappointment pity party. I knew that I had to change something before despair set in. So, I decided to stand up and take a walk. If I walked and talked and carried my mobile phone, people might think that this 6-foot, wild-haired redhead who was mumbling away to herself, wasn’t actually losing the plot.
It was this change of setting that I needed. As I stood up, almost instantly the illustrious words of Woody Allen popped into my head: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” It was the impetus I needed, albeit reluctantly, to change my inner dialogue and emotional repertoire from reactive to resourceful. Yes, this was not what I expected, nor wanted. But I was here now and nothing about the situation was going to change. Quitting was not my style. I had made a commitment and I was going to stick to it. Besides, my name was on the programme and it would not look good if I didn’t turn up at all. So what if only two people decided to arrive? I would do my thing anyway. The audience might not be the right audience. (Is there ever such a thing as the right audience?) It would be good experience and I could use the practice. And it was right then that I made the decision to let go of what should have been so that I could step into the reality of the situation as it was.
Showing up is messy
If I thought that simply making the decision to show up would be enough, I was wrong. It was going to get messy. By 9:00, the designated start time of my presentation, there wasn’t a single person in the audience. At 9:08, people began trickling in. By 9:15, there were perhaps a dozen people, most of them under the age of 25, carrying large bags already billowing with free stuff. The AV set-up was basic, without the equipment usually provided to ensure a seamless performance. There were no comfort monitors—small, floor-mounted computer screens at the foot of the stage facing the speaker to help her see current and forthcoming slides without having to turn her back on the audience. In fact, there was no stage to speak of—presenters had to get down and dirty with the audience (which is actually my preferred way of presenting). The remote clicker—a device used to advance slides at the presenter’s discretion—didn’t work, and apparently hadn’t worked the day before either. This meant that for the duration of the presentation, the visual part of my talk—a key part of the message—was controlled by Bongani, the AV technician at the back of theatre. And his main mission was to get me off the stage as quickly as possible by being at least one or two slides ahead!
Any hope I had of spontaneity and surprise in my talk fell flat. Not that I should have worried—about 50 percent of the audience had their faces buried deep in their mobile devices so they could multitask their way through my talk. And because of complaints about the noise level during the previous day’s conference, which annoyed the stallholders and frustrated the presenter in the adjoining theatre, my microphone had been turned right down so people found it difficult to hear me above the competing din. To put the icing on the cake, just before I started to speak, the event orchestrator informed me that the next speaker had decided not to arrive. (Clearly, that speaker got the memo about this event at that I didn’t.) So would I please just carry on for another 20 minutes to keep the audience “entertained.”
Let go into the mystery
Ironically, in a world that is addicted to answers and solutions, all too often we find ourselves living in a question, teetering in a space of nothingness while the answer or the certainty of the situation unfolds in its own time. Showing up in this way means being prepared to step into the mystery of the situation while resisting the urge to grasp at something, anything, to alleviate our discomfort. This is raw and vulnerable work because we have difficulty processing the emotions we are experiencing, which are uncomfortable, awkward and downright puzzling.
And uncomfortable, awkward and puzzling described this speaking experience for me. Having people casually dropping into my presentation was disconcerting. Having attendees bustling in and out, through and around the venue while I was talking was awkward and uncomfortable. Having the continuous drone of background conversations peppered with interjections from other presenters in the neighboring theatre was distracting. I wasn’t sure how to be during the whole affair and found it hard to settle into the flow of the talk. I had to resist the urge to get it over and done with quickly.
But despite all that, the situation was not as bad as I had imagined in my worst-case scenario. I was encouraged to see that at the end of my extended session, 60 percent of the chairs were now filled and many of the audience members were engaged and smiling, their smartphones temporarily put aside. Still, I was happy to leave the floor. I had to resist the urge to make a dash for the exit to reconnect with that feeling of safety.
I’m glad I didn’t bolt like a frightened horse. As my talk ended, a young woman jumped out of her front-row seat with great excitement. “Please give me your card,” she said. “Your talk was brilliant. I can’t wait to hear the full version. My executive team so needs to hear your message. How can I get in touch?”
Never underestimate the power of showing up.
Adapting to change is hard. Accept that we are all work in progress.
We all have our own way of operating in the face of challenge and difficulty. As a self-confessed control freak, I am very much a work in progress when it comes to change. I had distinct, preconceived, emotionally embodied ideas about how this speaking gig was going to unfold. How my talk was going to be. How the audience and venue were going to be. But none of them resembled how things really turned out. Stepping up to the plate with a different mindset and emotional repertoire was tough. It involved being willing to fall into the discomfort of the situation while having the mental and emotional agility to find a more resourceful way of being, one that would help me get back up and quickly open up to the possibilities waiting to present themselves.
Mental agility is an essential skill for helping us deal with change and avoid the inevitable consequences of stress and burnout which occur if we’re unable to adapt. Part of embodying this skill is accepting that it’s going to be uncomfortable, difficult and messy. As humans, we are wired for safety, survival, and sameness, not motivation, innovation and change. To thrive, it’s important to master the art of falling and getting back up—constantly being defeated by greater and greater things until change becomes an integrated part of our human fabric.
Here are 5 insights from my experience which might just help us to do this:
Master the art of acceptance
Sudden change is a shock to the system. Although we may mentally grasp the situation, the body sees change as a threat. When we are faced with a situation that is unfamiliar or different, accepting the situation is the first step in shifting state. We might not like what is happening. We might not agree with it. But finding a way forward without first making peace with the situation as it is, keeps us stuck in disappointment, resentment, anxiety, and despair, which prevent us from accessing more resourceful ways of showing up. Moods and emotions are powerful as they orient us towards the future. We cannot bring about a different future when we are afraid, dejected or angry. Acceptance of the situation also means being accepting of ourselves. It means being willing to tolerate uncomfortable emotions – it’s natural to feel internally ‘pissy’ when things don’t go the way we planned. It’s our limbic system in action and a normal part of being human. But we don’t have to stay there.
Separate the facts from the story
It’s human nature to make meaning out of everything. This meaning lives in our nervous system and becomes the story we fall into which comes alive through our self-talk, emotional repertoires, and bodily sensations. These three components always subconsciously combine to make up our experience. The first step in emotional agility is to be able to separate the story we are telling ourselves from the facts we are facing. This then helps us manage the emotions we are experiencing which in turn helps us create a more resourceful repertoire that meets the needs of the situation.
Change how you sit and stand to change the way you think and act
Taking decisive action isn’t just about changing our internal dialogue. It means changing our emotional repertoire and embodying a different physiological state. Increasingly, neuroscience encourages us to see the human brain not as the command and control centre of our body but as part of an integrated network of communication. Think of it like a spider’s web. When we yank one part of the web, the whole thing moves. Changing our thinking alone is often not enough to change our emotional state when we are stressed or under pressure. To adapt quickly, we need to engage the entire mind-body system by coaxing it into a more resourceful state. When we are stressed or uptight, it is impossible for the brain to see the bigger picture, have empathy or compassion, or feel undeniably confident. Changing our posture—from sitting to standing and walking tall and proud—changes the muscle groups in the body which fires a different set of neurochemicals, which can help us reframe a situation quickly.
One way out of our disappointment story is to get curious. Anxiety, disappointment, and resentment, which show up at times of change, are hardwired responses to a perceived threat. This is the fight-flight-freeze response in action. Changing our internal dialogue by asking ourselves questions in a lighthearted, non-judgmental and curious way, activates the problem-solving area of our brain to help us get creative. The brain is a pattern-seeking mechanism with a desire to create novel connections. When we change the internal dialogue from simply running a story to a place of curiosity and ‘what if’ thinking, we positively influence the cocktail of chemicals in the mind-body system. This puts us in a more resourceful state where new possibilities become available to us. Being curious helps us stay in the mystery without grabbing onto an explanation that might not be helpful or relevant.
Build a tolerance for discomfort
Human beings are creatures of habit. Our responses to change and stress are learned responses that have been perfected over our lifetime. Most of our responses were hardwired during childhood and are completely out of sync with the situations we face as adults. Building the capacity to change and adapt in times of stress and discomfort means engaging in practices that rewire our brains’ neural pathways during times of relaxation and calm. Our goal is to be able to tolerate greater levels of ambiguity, volatility and discomfort without resorting to deeply ingrained and habitual ways of operating which are familiar but not necessarily helpful. This is why practising mindfulness and meditation is commonplace as a business imperative to help us become more agile and adaptive in the face of constant pressure and change.