In Pursuit of Mastery

Humility plays such a big role in the pursuit of mastery.

Several weeks ago I attended a Speaker Lab, sponsored by the National Speakers Association of Illinois (NSA-IL) of which I’m both a member and a board member. The lab was led by two veteran speakers, teachers and authors, Cyndi Maxey, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) and Kevin O’Connor, CSP. Both Cyndi and Kevin have given tirelessly to our chapter and that Saturday was yet another example of the generosity of NSA members who are committed to helping others in the profession of speaking.

Over and over I’ve heard the recommendation that in order for professional speakers [or any professional] to get better, we have to seek out and welcome feedback. Easier said than done, though. It’s scary to put yourself on the line to be critiqued, some of which may hurt. But asking for feedback is a critical component in the pursuit of mastery, isn’t it? Asking for a critique says your commitment to mastery is bigger than your ego, even if it smarts. So I was one of the first ones to sign up for the Speaker Lab, and that Saturday I trooped down to Chicago to National Louis University where the lab was held. My goal was to perfect my “signature story,” a story about my dad that I wanted to use in a presentation I was giving in Indianapolis the next week. And while I’d used the story before, I’d never scripted it, so the results were often shaky and unpredictable. This time, I wanted to nail the story or, as we say in the world of music, get it “flat.” No winging it.

And that’s where humility comes in. You can’t get better without knowing what’s missing. The feedback I received at the Speaker Lab was compassionate and spot on: I meandered with too many off-track details, and the listeners weren’t quite sure where I was going. Got it. I took the feedback, scripted the story, practiced it and used the story during my presentation in Indy as “bookends,” beginning with the introduction and later ending my presentation with the story’s punchline. For the first time, I felt like I was in control of where the story was going and how it would affect my audience. It worked.

I did another brave thing: I recorded my presentation on my iPhone. Conor Cunneen, fellow dean of NSA-IL Speakers Academy and a consummate professional himself, has said over and over that it’s imperative to record every presentation and then review it to see what worked, what didn’t work and how to improve. While I would nod my head in theory, I hadn’t yet practiced this technique. I don’t know if my resistance was based on fear or laziness. This time, in pursuit of mastery, I hit “record” and later listened to my presentation while driving back from Indianapolis, a very long drive.

I was deeply humbled by what I heard. When did I start saying “um” every other sentence? How could I not have heard that before? I didn’t stop to count the “ums” but I was horrified by this vocal tic that I wasn’t even aware I had–and one I never would have known about if I hadn’t hit “record.”  Back to being a student. Back to the beginner’s mind.

One other thing struck me during that trip to and from Indianapolis. I was listening to some CDs in the car while driving, recordings of presenters at our NSA convention last summer. One of them, a veteran speaker and coach to other superstars, Lou Heckler, told a story about coaching a new speaker. After Lou gave the young man his homework, this neophyte speaker said wearily, “Boy that sounds like a lot of work.” Big laugh from the crowd–and from me. Yeah, it’s a lot of work. Discipline. Self-reflection. Practice. A hunger for feedback, a rigorous request for coaching and the ability to withstand the honest truth without flinching (or at least without dropping out) in order to get better.

In pursuit of mastery, there’s always something new to learn.

[Photo credit: “Maria Callas” by Marilyn Szabo, used with permission of the artist.]

On Models, Mentors and Asking for Help

Nearly five years ago, Sonia Sotomayor was nominated and appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States as an Associate Justice. As the first Hispanic justice and only the third female justice, she has an extraordinary story of succeeding because of, and in spite of, her humble beginnings. I recently read her memoir, My Beloved World, published in 2013, and was struck by her unflinching report of who she is, who she was and how she came to be.

Sonia SotomayorOne passage struck me in particular. While growing up in the Bronx and attending fifth grade at Blessed Sacrament Parish School, Ms. Sotomayor began to thrive at school when her teacher, Mrs. Reilly, began putting up gold stars each time a student did something well. This really brought out her competitive nature. “I was a sucker for those gold stars!” Ms. Sotomayor writes. She vowed to bring home report cards that would have at least one more “A” than the last one. But a vow, she said, wasn’t enough. She had to figure out how to achieve that goal.

Learning study skills was not something the nuns taught at Blessed Sacrament and Ms. Sotomayor knew instinctively that the kids who were getting the highest marks knew something she didn’t. “It was then, in Mrs. Reilly’s class, under the allure of those gold stars, that I did something very unusual for a child, though it seemed like common sense to me at the time. I decided to approach one of the smartest girls in the class and ask her how to study. Donna Renella looked surprised, maybe even flattered. In any case, she generously divulged her technique…” Ms. Sotomayor writes, skills that may seem obvious but “deriving them on my own would have been like trying to invent the wheel.” Armed with these new skills, she went on to become valedictorian of her high school class and graduated summa cum laude at Princeton, going on to law school at Yale.

But here’s the real nugget of wisdom this story revealed: “…the more critical lesson I learned that day is… don’t be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing. In retrospect, I can see how important that pattern would become for me: how readily I’ve sought out mentors, asking guidance from professors or colleagues, and in any friendship soaking up eagerly whatever that friend could teach me.”

We learn through modeling others. Watching those who succeed where we yearn to succeed, seeking guidance from those who have been there before us and asking for help are critical to the learning process. Sometimes we remain stuck out of hubris, too proud for ask for directions. We think we have to look like we know what we’re doing! But that stops us from receiving the very instruction we need to get to the next step on our journey. Models, mentors, coaches, the buddy system–all of these relationships are strategies to help us on our road to success. And if it works for someone like Sonia Sotomayor, who says she continues to use this strategy even as she sits on the highest court in our land, it can work for us.

[Masthead: David Dyment, “One Billion Years (Past and Future)” color print, 2010, used with permission from the artist]