This past Friday I was lucky enough to have my first real speaking engagement, at CocoaConf DC. I gave the opening keynote, which was a tremendous honor.
My talk, in short, was somewhat self-deprecating, but also hopefully inspiring. The premise was that I’m not particularly special, yet despite that I have ended up on a popular podcast and well known enough that I was asked to do the opening keynote. This was, in turn, beacuse a series of small decisions I made years ago paid off in big ways today.
For some in the audience, the small decision of attending CocoaConf could be the inflection point upon which their whole careers and lives may change.
During the talk, I jokingly made mention of how the other purpose of an opening keynote–other than being a sort of inspirational pep talk–was to make the other presenters look good. If I do a bad job, then they’ll look great by comparison, which is jokingly (yet also semi-seriously) my purpose.
Unfortunately, I think I succeeded in that capacity.
During my talk, I made the same self-deprecating joke somewhere between one and twenty too many times. I would joke about how the talks–excepting this one–were going to be awesome. “You guys will have a great time once you make it through this session anyway!" Ha ha! I’m so funny and humble and charming.
My grandmother–the same one that made an appearance here in the past–has told me since I can remember that I’m too self-deprecating. My wife has said the same, since we met nearly a decade ago. I’ve always known that I am too hard on myself publicly, though I think that critical eye is very important in private. Nevertheless, I always find myself being self-deprecating.
Why do I do that?
I think it’s for a couple reasons. First, I feel like if I acknowledge my foibles and problems before anyone else realizes them, it takes some of the sting off. “Sure, he’s not THAT smart, but at least he owns it!”
Beyond that, I think it’s a window into how uncomfortable I was doing the keynote. Curiously, the act of speaking in front of a crowd doesn’t faze me at all. That’s a phobia I’ve never really had. But the thought of doing a bad job petrified me… and crippled me. My fear of failing led me to do somewhere between a mediocre and bad job.
My jokes about surviving my talk went very quickly from funny, to endearing, to silly, to frustrating, to uncomfortable. I took it way too far.
I ruined my own talk. At some point, your own ticks and quirks get to the point that they infuriate even you. I’ve reached my breaking point.
During Dave Wiskus' closing keynote, he said something that struck a chord in me, given that I've been mulling over my talk since I had given it the morning prior. I'm exactly not sure what Dave said, but I can tell you what I heard:
Don’t spend your time convincing people you aren’t worth their time.1
That makes a lot of sense. I need to listen to Dave, but even more importantly, to those that know me best. I need to listen to wife, and to my grandmother, and stop trying to tell everyone that I’m not worthy.
At the end of the conference, the organizers came up to each speaker and handed them the feedback forms that attendees filled out about them. I got my envelope full, and I’m petrified to read them. In fact, I think I may give them to my wife to read and filter for me. But at some point, I will. I need to, in order to grow.
In fact, they’ll forever be a reminder that I need to believe that I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.
One way or the other, I need to improve. I need to stop shooting myself in the foot. I need to be strong, and to believe in myself.
That starts… now.
Dave told me the actual quote: “If someone thinks you’re world-class, don’t try to convince them they’re wrong.” ↩