August 25, 2020

How to be comfortable with uncertainty

I had an enlightening conversation with my acupuncturist yesterday about the uncertainty of life, that triggered a revelation I want to share with you as a lesson for public speaking.

But first, let's go back to December 1, 1990. I was a happy-go-lucky grad student on my way home from the store on my scooter, with a few groceries in a paper bag tucked under my feet. 

In a split second, I was a no longer happy-go-lucky grad student, lying in the middle of a busy intersection with blood pouring down my face, having been hit by a car that didn't see me—head-on.

Due to the head injury and other bodily injuries, and the length of my recovery time, I ended up finishing grad school in two years instead of one. My future changed that day in many ways.

December 4, 2017 was the day the Thomas Fire began, right down the road from us in Ojai, eventually burning through 440 square miles of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, destroying over 1,000 structures, damaging 280, and ultimately causing $2.2 billion in damages.

If it wasn't enough that many lost their homes and businesses (the fire raged for a month, causing such poor air quality that people stayed inside, not shopping, eating out, or pursuing any leisure activities), we had heavy rains the following month. The rains caused a massive debris flow in Montecito, in the area of a burn scar, which killed 21 people.

March 2020: Coronavirus. Need I say more?

What do all these things have in common? In a split second, those of us involved faced death, disability, destruction, disaster, devastation.

Now, let's go back to September 1987. I started a new job and met the man who would become my husband. Three months later, we had our first (group) date, and the rest is history.

How about March 2018, when a rambunctious cow cat named Benjamin, in need of a home, streamed through my Facebook feed? A week later, he was soothing our grieving hearts after having recently lost our 14-year-old TigerLiger to cancer.

Again, in a split second, life changed. But in these examples, instead of destruction and devastation, love came into our lives.

We've been talking about COVID as a "time of uncertainty." And of course, it is. Life has changed and will never go back to the way it was.

But isn't this always true? Isn't every day uncertain? Do we ever know what's going to happen tomorrow? 

In a split second, everything can change. And it does. On a regular basis. Not just now. Not just because of COVID, and not just because of a looming election. Not just because of climate change or because of racial unrest. In a split second, everything can change. And it does. Every single day.

What's happening right now is that this uncertainty is right up in our faces. We can't hide from it. It's easy to forget that life is so unpredictable. We don't like to be reminded.

I was wondering why this "uncertainty" hasn't bothered me as much as it has bothered some. After all, I never know where my next client is coming from. I never know if we'll face a raging fire that takes our home. I never know if I'm going to be healthy tomorrow, or if perhaps I'll fall down the stairs and break my leg. Oh yeah, that already happened on the 4th of July. So that's out of the way.

I also never know if something amazing is going to happen tomorrow! With COVID, I'm seeing so much innovation and creativity, that I'm overcome with optimism for our future. 

And in this experience lies the difference between how I face uncertainty and how many others face it.

I see the possibilities in the world. When I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, that's okay. I know I don't control the outcomes of everything. In fact, I control the outcomes of very few things in my life, when I really think about it. And I'm okay with that.

I wasn't always this way. I have been a major control freak in the past. That car accident in 1990 set me straight.

I was in a lot of pain. I couldn't think straight due to my head injury. I couldn't do my grad school homework. My short-term memory was shot. And I started having panic attacks and anxiety that have never fully gone away and are now managed with medication. I couldn't control my body or my mind. Wow. Not good when you're used to the illusion of controlling everything!

Guess who had to get over being a control freak, and super fast? Yep, this chica. (I had a great therapist who helped me recognize this!)

One of the things that many of my speaking clients hate is the uncertainty of presenting. You can practice for days and weeks. You can record yourself. You can create the most beautiful, perfect slides. You can hire an expert like me to ensure you are performing at your best.

But when Zoom goes down for hours (like it did this week), or your client forgets to set up your polls and breakout rooms, or you wake up with laryngitis (happened to me) or your next-door neighbor starts up the leaf blower right outside your window, how exactly are you in control?

We can have contingency plans all day long—and many speakers do! It's a really good idea. But life is uncertain. Presenting is uncertain. Every time you present, you are stepping into the great unknown. And ultimately, we can look at that as potential disaster, or we can look at it as potential possibility.

You actually get to choose how you see the world, how you perceive change, disruption and the unpredictable nature of life.

I had a client who used to dread speaking. We worked on his mindset. After a radio appearance he had feared, he told me that he actually enjoyed himself. In changing his mindset about the possible outcomes, he realized "I had no reason to believe it wouldn’t go well."

How about you? Can you practice making this mental shift? It's true, tomorrow could be a disaster. You could get hit by a bus. Or you could get pooped on by a bird. Or you could win the lottery.

Or, to paraphrase my favorite Instagram dog Beaux Tox, tomorrow could be the best day you have ever had in your whole entire life!

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