Terrifying yourself on a regular basis (a lesson from SXSW)

the author in the green room at sxsw

Each of the four years I’ve been coming to SXSW, I’ve learned a little something different.

The first time, it was about the value of coming to a conference, period. The next time, about learning to take the time I needed, regardless of the enticing hoopla happening around me (and also about not skipping a year, if you can avoid it). Last year, my Stuart Smalley year, apparently, it was about being myself, no matter how uncool I suspected that was (something that an intervening year has only confirmed).

This year, it was about terrifying myself. Not pushing my boundaries, not stretching just to or slightly beyond the limits of my comfort zone, but hurtling myself in harm’s way and seeing what happens next. Specifically, pushing my way onto the most terrifying panel I could imagine: a two-minute, on-the-spot presentation improvised to 10 slides I had never seen before in my life and which had been prepared with the intent of maximizing audience laughter and enjoyment, not of making my job easier. A tradition sometimes known as “PowerPointâ„¢ Karaoke,” and which a friend here dubbed “business improv.” (Which sounds like the world’s most horrible anything, but hey, I’m biased.)

Anyway. It was the opposite of rolling off a log (which I gather is easy, if not exactly fun), yet I managed to enjoy it. Especially the part when it was over. Okay, I exaggerate, as is my wont and prerogative. But really, now that I have made a fool of myself in front of 600 people, I can move on to  bigger and scarier challenges: making a fool of myself in front of 1,200 people! Or on national television!

Terrifying yourself is like building up muscle, as it has been told to me that muscles are built: you push things hard enough so that you are uncomfortable and the muscle tears a little; scar tissue builds up; the muscle gets bigger; you get stronger! Lather, rinse, repeat. (The act of terrifying yourself, of course, not that last action you used to do it.)

Also, if at all possible, I suggest the diving-in-straightaway-and-getting-it-over-with timing strategy. Gretchen Rubin (who ripped it up on the book stage) and I were both congratulating ourselves on having our respective moments of terror over with on Friday, so we were left free to enjoy the rest of our SXSW weekends.

Oh, and speaking of rest, one final note: there must be blissful (if brief) periods of rest in between the daredevil acts of muscle-building. Rest that includes things like hanging out with friends, taking in other people’s feats of derring-do, and permission to write short blog posts.

See? You really can learn something at SXSW…


Photo ©2010 Jeffrey Zeldman via Flickr.


  1. Brilliant words, Colleen! I can’t think of any pinnacle in my life that hasn’t included a chunk of terror in the climb. Congratulations on your own triumph – I bet your presentation was grand.

    ‘Love your reminder to get out there and be terrified some more – thanks!

  2. They tape a lot of these SXSW sessions, so I’m hoping there was a camera running and some documentation extant.

    Mostly so I can see what a freak-on-caffeine-powered-wheels looks like.

    I will absolutely post a followup if this is the case.

  3. Hi Colleen:

    Thanks for sharing this…I’m a member of Toastmasters and we have an impromtu speaking portion of the meeting called Table Topics where you are given a minute and a half to two minutes to respond to some sort of question…it definitely feels like the hot seat. In any case, this event sounds like a Powerpoint Table Topics session. Whatever it is, I think its good for building some sort of internal muscle. Congrats for putting yourself out there!

    1. You’re right—it kinda was!

      And for those of you who haven’t yet experienced PPT Karaoke, Battledecks or other high-power, high-stress improv speaking experience, Table Topics is a fantastic improv workout. It was by far my fave part of the meeting, and my absolute favorite role to fill. (Although I confess, I learned the most doing evaluations.)

      I always recommend Toastmasters to people who want to become better speakers—even those with performance backgrounds. The regular workout is invaluable, and the structure of the meetings, while exasperating in some ways for those of us who like things loosey-goosey, is great for the “focused and applied” part of the 10,000-hours equation.

      Thanks for bringing this up, Tim. Really good point.

  4. You were great! Funny, pertinent, smart and actually responsive to the absurdity being served up on the slide deck.

    1. Aw. I so appreciate this.

      I like to stick to the rules, even if they’re rules I make up for myself, so I don’t always “win.” (Or “”win.””) But I felt pretty good about this one, so it’s nice to hear someone I trust confirm it. Calibrating my compass!

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