I got an invite from Cal Evans to watch this week’s episode of his weekly show, with this week’s topic being a public speaking Q&A with Adam Culp (as this is the third time Cal has pinged me regarding public speaking, I think he really wants me to start ). It got me thinking again about my feelings toward the prospect of public speaking for me.
Espeically when it’s for larger audiences, my knee-jerk response to “you should give a talk,” has historically been “hell no.” For the longest time, I chalked it up to glossophobia (aka - stage fright/fear of public speaking). Recently, though, things in my life have changed such that the idea is no longer so panic-inducing.
A year ago, I had next to no social life, no support network, no close friends, a marriage on the verge of collapse due to my husband’s at the time undiagnosed generalized anxiety disorder, and I was on the path to burn out in my software development career (and hell, I worked in software development, home of Imposter Syndrome). In retrospect, I’ve realized that my self esteem was essentially zero.
In the year that has since passed, all of those things have improved dramatically. My marriage is on the mend, I’ve found people I’ve been able to trust enough to get close to, I took a break from working for others so I could get back to the roots of why I became a developer to begin with. All these things have contributed to me feeling more confident in myself.
Arguably the biggest thing that has helped is the growth of my support network. I literally went from zero people I felt I could trust to help me when problems arose to…about four dozen. No joke. Now, some of that was learning to trust the people who were already around, but it took finding some new people who were easier for me to trust in order to gain the courage to trust those people.
One of the biggest things that terrifies me is the idea that no one has my back on a matter in a meaningful way, because for a long time, it felt like no one had my back at all. That’s a very lonely feeling.
The changes in the past year have made me realize just how much true support networks mean to me. I have people I can fall back on when something happens that I can’t handle on my own. I have people who will support me when I have to defend myself. I have people who will cheer me on and congratulate me when I’ve done well and encourage me when facing uncertainty. I have people willing to teach me things I don’t know, without judgement over the fact that I don’t know those things (yet).
That last one is especially huge at a time in my life where I feel like I’m expected to know more than I currently do and feel like it’s increasingly rare to feel safe in saying “I don’t know (but I can probably find out).”
I’ve seen a lot of criticism of things like “safe spaces” lately, and really, it saddens me. It’s great that the people who can say such criticisms feel safe just about anywhere, but unfortunately, not everyone shares that security.
The idea of safety as it relates to public speaking actually came up in a discussion I had with Ed Finkler, and Samantha Geitz and a couple of the other women speakers over burgers at last year’s Laracon US. In our chat, it came up that building up to large (and possibly less friendly) audiences was a process in expanding one’s personal feelings of safety in front of a group. Speaking at small user groups is less daunting, because many people feel safe speaking in front of smaller groups and people they know well. That can be slowly expanded by speaking in front of larger user groups and so on up the ladder until before you know it, you’re doing TED Talks and SXSW keynotes without breaking a sweat.
But what happens to that ladder if you don’t even feel safe standing on the ground? Like trying to stand a ladder on sand, it just doesn’t happen. We need that foundation of a sense of safety and security in our personal lives, before we can expand that “zone of safeness” into our professional ones. The fact that I didn’t have that foundation was thrown into spotlight last summer.
It will probably still be a while before I’ll be comfortable saying “yes” to the prospect of giving talks, but even now, what was a “hell no” has started becoming a “hmmm….maybe.” For me, that’s progress, and that’s what matters most right now.