Seek the stretch

In which the author went to speak at a conference.

I sat down to a company dinner next to a coworker I had never met. I work for a fully-remote company, so it is not uncommon for me to never meet members of other teams with whom I do not directly work, let alone members of my own team. I’m an introvert by nature, but lately I’ve been pushing myself to “put myself out there” and not be satisfied with wallflowering.

We introduced ourselves over lobster croquettes, quickly covering the basics: hometown, family, “how long was your flight?”, and put-on expressions of incredulity at the unremarkable weather.

Although public speaking is not my forte, I am comfortable on stage. My presentation was the previous day, and I thought it went reasonably well.

“I don’t usually drink much coffee, but I had a cappuccino right before my presentation. I wasn’t sure if my jitters were from nerves or the caffeine!”

That won me a chuckle. They say it’s probably not worth presenting if you’re not at least a bit nervous beforehand, because that means there are no stakes.

“Everyone said your presentation went really well. I wish I had been there to see it!”

I suck at accepting compliments. This time, I opted for the “I’m humbled; you flatter me.” line. It seems to strike the right balance of gracious acceptance while avoiding self-aggrandization. The presentations at this tech conference weren’t exactly WWDC quality: I’d finished preparing my slide deck on the plane; it sounded like that might have been sooner than most.

My new work-friend waffles. “They had me do a panel. They had given us the questions beforehand, but asked different ones on stage. I was caught off-guard, and I feel like I made a fool of myself.”

Of course, upon hearing this, our entire cadre rushed to assure him otherwise. Since everyone at the table of four had spoken in front of an audience at some point during the 3-day conference, the conversation turned to anecdotes of previous speaking experiences: grade school classes, extracurricular speech-and-debate clubs, improv and theatre.

“Have you tried Toastmasters International? You can usually attend meetings without being a member, just to see what it’s like. They might even let you participate in table topics!”

He makes a note of the suggestion as the I get to work on the soft-shelled crab. Growing up in middle America, hundreds of miles away from any saltwater, seafood or crustacean of any sort is always a treat, even though I’ve since moved to a port city.

He reiterates his lament. “Certainly, I don’t expect to be as eloquent as him—”, he gestures to the product manager sitting across from me, “I just want to be able to express myself well. No matter what I do, I’m never happy with the results.”

“I wonder, do you feel this way because you’re striving for perfection, or because you’re worried that it will reflect poorly on your professional competence?”

“A bit of both, I suppose.”

I pause. My nascent acquaintance with this person is fragile, so I am obliged to exercise my scarce tact in my honesty.

“The trivial solution is probably not helpful, but worth voicing: don’t worry so much about what other people think about you! You might engage in some soul-searching or meditation. Try to discover the reason that you feel this insecurity. It’s fairly common, but very surmountable.

“In fact, because it’s so common, it’s almost self-refuting. After all, if everyone is caught up in protecting their own self-images, they’ll be too busy to worry about yours.

“I wasn’t there for your presentation, unfortunately, so I can’t say how it went. Did you receive any feedback?”

“Yes: afterwards, the moderator suggested that I spoke too quickly. I tend to do that when I’m nervous. She didn’t say anything positive, though.” His tone is the definition of crestfallen.

“That is positive, in a way! The worst thing she had to say about your performance was that you spoke quickly. It wasn’t that you looked funny, sounded unintelligent, or anything like that. If that’s the most negative piece of feedback you received, can you live with that?”

“I think so.”

“Regardless, an imperfect presentation does not imply an incompetent presenter. The pursuit of perfection is a journey of diminishing returns. As they say, you can often get 80% of the way with just 20% of the effort.1 Yes, aim for perfection. Keep going for that last 20%, but don’t beat yourself up if you end up with four-out-of-five stars.”

He nods. “It’s like… I should put myself out there and not be afraid to get into situations that might stretch me a little bit, put me outside my comfort zone.”

“Exactly! Do hard things. Seek the stretch.”

Seek the stretch. I like that.”

I’m a software engineer for NEAR Protocol and a graduate student at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

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