The upside of love, the downside of focused practice

10 male singers from the group "Garden Level" singing at TEDxTacoma

If you put to me the question of how TEDxTacoma went, I would easily and enthusiastically reply with a resounding, “FANTASTICALLY!”

Putting aside how seamless the whole travel experience was (a subject worth exploring in a future post), as well as how much I always enjoy being in the Pacific Northwest (and how my delicate moods affect my enjoyment of things is another thing worth exploring, in more than a post), it was like being on a steady drip of love and inspiration, two things I am always willing to mainline.

The students at Puget Sound University (“PSU” in their parlance) who coordinated, produced and participated in the event, swept me off my feet. I’d forgotten how uplifting it is to spend time around great bunches of young people, period, but I’d perhaps never experienced as an adult what it’s like to be around a group of smart, loving, enthusiastic and focused young people like this: so much energy funneled into changing the world for the better, it’s positively overwhelming in every sense of the phrase. BIG fun.

And Michelle Jones, the professor who went to TEDIndia last November and brought back with her the fire to create a TEDx conference here, this April, yes, less than four months later, as schools break for the holidays, is my new, real-life hero. Like the best heroes, she shrugs off the title, she’s too busy doing stuff to piffle about with nonsense like that. But she’s no humorless zealot, either: every moment around Professor Jones1 is illuminating because, I think, she is pure light; I believe her when she says (which she did, after much getting to know her and prodding) that every single day of her life is as filled with joy and energy as that day we all spent basking in talks, songs, dances and conversations about passion. (Albeit, you know, slightly less epic in scale.)

If, on the other hand, you ask me how I did, I would say, fine.

The room was (mostly) with me, the feedback was good, and my opening talk did what I think it was slotted, and designed, to do: start the day off with a bang. If there is one thing I am rarely accused of, it is of being low-energy. I pulled out all the stops for my 18-minute talk on “connecting to and communicating with passion,” and let the energy flow. I managed to use my talk as a real-time demo of my thesis, which is that when offering oneself up as a conduit for passion, one’s job is to spend the bulk of one’s time preparing, then get the hell out of the way. At some point, the videos of all the talks will be uploaded to the YouTube channel, and we’ll see if it comes across in recorded form. But right there, right then? It worked. That part, anyway.

What could have been better? The list is, if not endless, significant in length. The stories could have been tighter. The transitions could have been smoother. I was Gene Kelly, in other words, when what I am aiming for in all my work is to be Fred Astaire: I made it look sweaty, not easy; the seams were showing.

It’s an odd thing, how one behaves towards oneself once one has committed to achieving a certain level of mastery. I find myself dreading the debriefings because of the inevitable well-meaning (and very useful, in their time and place) Mister Rogers’ like reactions to my self-critiques: “You did great, I’m sure!” and “Don’t beat yourself up like that!” and “You need to really acknowledge what you’ve accomplished!” Make no mistake: I know what I’ve accomplished. I gave up a career I could explain to people, that paid me well, that had prestige and significance in the mainstream world. Then I gave up another one. I gave up hours and hours (and hours and hours) to focused practice. Even more to unfocused wandering, which for me, was far more difficult. I know what I have sacrificed to get here, and I know exactly how good I am. And for a variety of reasons, most of which were within my control, all of which are terrifically clear and obvious in hindsight, I gave a B-/C+ performance on Saturday. Not compared to the other speakers; compared to what I am dead sure my capabilities were going in.2

And this is how we grow: not by celebrating every single solitary thing we do as a work of genius, but by honoring each effort by building on it to do the next thing. Is it okay to pause and enjoy our lovely victories now and then? Yes. Of course. Why not? Is it okay to applaud effort, and acknowledge that we are in there fighting, grappling with the Ugly, doing the work, even if the results are sometimes inelegant? Sure. Here and there, anyway.

I did my job as best I could given the circumstances. More importantly, I know more about what I need to do more of (and less of) next time.

Most importantly of all, though, the joy of the day was not dimmed by my non 9.9 performance. I acknowledged the blow I inflicted on my own ego and kept it in its place.

That may not be a critical component to becoming the consummate professional, but it’s integral to becoming a compassionate human being…


1Which she never, ever refers to herself as, by the way, this capable young lady with multiple advanced degrees. I just went through all of our correspondence around the event and not once, NOT ONCE, was there an auto-sig with a string of alphabet soup after her name. Nor an exhortation to save the goddamn planet by thinking before printing out an email. And she’s moving into a tiny house, not rearranging deck chairs in the Container Store like the rest of us plastic-“recycling”, email-sig-planet-saving poseurs.

2I did also, of course, compare myself to the other speakers as well on wide range of specific (to me) metrics, this is one huge way I’ve learned what works for me with my own public speaking. But it would serve nothing to share my analysis here, so I won’t. I will say that I was profoundly moved by all of the talks in one way or another, and that never happens. Never. Not even at Ignite. This TED was truly an amazing experience.

A non-spectacular shot of the fantastically fun a cappella group, Garden Level, singing at TEDxTacoma, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Well, if you say so, then I won’t offer words of comfort. I too know what I’m good at. And I too know when I haven’t done my best. Still, I’m not sure that C+/B- is fair to yourself, from what I know of you at this point.

    1. I appreciate the vote of support. And because I want to be absolutely clear, I’ll say again (if I said it before, and if not, I’ll say it, period), this is not me being down on myself, but rather me understanding explicitly what I’ll do to make it better next time.

      I’m rather astounded that I can be so far off my mark and not be a massive wreck. It’s a real breakthrough, and for THAT, I give myself an A+.

  2. I understand the tendency, even need perhaps, to judge ourselves more harshly than we might others. But from the perspective of an attendee at the event, you delivered a stellar performance.

    I came away with several (I hope lasting) points regarding communicating with passion. The one which resonated with me most strongly was your advice regarding preparation. Your analogy to an actor preparing for a role and your example of Elizabeth Gilbert’s preparation for her TED talk connected solidly with me. I thought about a fund raising auctioneer friend who prepares extensively for her auctions. Some might even say she over prepares…but any auction she touches is extremely successful and grows from year to year. It made me think about how I deliver information to students, realizing I can do a much better job of preparing in order to teach passionately.

    So if one of your metrics is to leave your audience trying to figure out how to apply your words to their own specific situations, at least give yourself high marks in that category.

    1. I very much appreciate the input from you as a thoughtful audience member. It’s extremely helpful to get a “how” instead of just the very nice “Yay!”s I got afterward. Those are very nice, too, of course; they’re just not as helpful when it comes to upping my game. So I thank you, WaywardScooterGirl, and wish you great good luck on your journey!

      1. You’re welcome! And thanks for the luck…If I have any regrets about your presentation on Saturday, it would be that I didn’t introduce myself afterward and say hello. I WAS impacted by what you had to say. But in the moment I couldn’t wrap words around my reaction. So I’ve subscribed to your feed and I’ll continue to follow you here as consolation to myself.

  3. Much of the response to my first paid speaking engagement was some variation of, “You suck.” And guess what? I couldn’t wait to do it again because I knew I could do better. I was so proud of that. Plus one woman came up to me in tears afterward, and said everything I’d talked about was exactly what she needed to hear–so I was tempted to put this one in the win column.

    Nick Morgan, a world-class speaking coach, chuckled when I told him this story–as if, you know, wow, that’s really looking on the bright side.

    You are tougher on yourself than anyone I don’t know very well, Colleen, and I can’t wait to see the video. In the meantime, you continue to inspire me by how much you care about your work.

    1. Thanks, Maureen. A fantastic story, and I know a bit of the feeling myself. (Really, I can’t imagine anyone who talks fairly regularly not knowing it.)

      Improvement is one passion, and documenting the process is another. So yes, I’m tough, but not for (completely) selfish reasons!

  4. This is the key: “I did my job as best I could given the circumstances. More importantly, I know more about what I need to do more of (and less of) next time.”

    Your pursuit reminds me of Steven Pressfield’s description of a “practice”, about which you can read more of here His key to me, and this reminds me of you in your pursuits, is this: “A practice isn’t pursued for money. It’s not an ego trip. Humility is a prime virtue in entering upon a practice. But a practice is not for cream puffs. A practice requires fierce intention and the relentless commitment of a warrior. A practice needs killer instinct.”

    Best wishes to you in your practice.

    1. I <3 Steven Pressfield, big-time. And the more I read about focused practice, the more so many things make sense, including how significant change—and by that, I mean lasting change in the world—is possible.

      I really enjoyed Outliers (as you may know), but I am particularly inspired by The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle), which contains many more specific examples of achievement and excellence being determined by the amount of focused practice (and facilitated by the nerve-impulse-transporting myelin built up by said practice) rather than by native intelligence or skill.

      And I thank you kindly for your deeply gracious comment about my own practice. I do it because it is my passion, but it is still gratifying to hear that someone sees it that way. Hard to describe why without sounding like a jackass, but I’ll give it a go at some point.

  5. You DID do great, I’m sure (and I’m guessing we’ll get to see video to see just how great!?) but I totally hear you on the coulda-shoulda-wouldas after speaking. They haunt me for days until one morning I wake up and I realize I’ll never make those mistakes again. So it’s good for something!

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