“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
– Howard Thurman
I was understandably nervous the first time I spoke in front of an audience. There’s a reason the fear of public speaking is second only to death.
Another presenter spoke first, and I watched in amazement as she worked the crowd. They were like old friends within 15 minutes. She was funny, an entertainer. She was really good at this. My anxiety escalated.
I suddenly felt small. And worried. (Piglet, from Winnie-the-Pooh, would’ve looked serene in comparison.)
I was nothing like that speaker.
Not that I’m not funny. Actually, sometimes I’m downright hilarious. But not in an overt way. You’d have to be paying attention.
Then it was my turn to speak. And to tell you the truth, I don’t even remember much of what I said. I was so busy trying to figure out how to be like the first speaker, how to engage an audience like she did – that I wasn’t even present. I just got through it. My personality didn’t even show up. It was still sitting in the back of the room with Piglet.
Thinking back to that moment reminded me how often we chase coolness. Like I did that day, you observe or meet someone who enthralls you- maybe it’s her talent, her amazing wardrobe, her ability to decorate a room for $50 and a trip to the fabric store- and you want what she has. You want to BE her. And sometimes you begin to chase her coolness.
There’s just one problem: none of it feels right when you’re doing it. It feels like pretending. You feel bad inside because you can’t even pull off pretending to be like her. And in the mean time you’re telling yourself that you aren’t innately cool. Other people ARE cool. You must settle for chasing it.
I’ve learned (and practiced) a few things in the years since that first speaking engagement:
Your Spark Matters
The more I spoke from my own viewpoint, my own experience and my own heart, the more I enjoyed speaking. Like the quote above, I was more alive.
Earlier this year I spoke about a topic I thought may bring eye rolling and dismissal from a crowd of veteran health care workers. It was a step out of my comfort zone, but I was excited about it. I decided to stick to my message regardless of what I saw in the audience. I repeated this talk 4 times within a couple of days. I wondered if people would keep showing up. To my utter amazement there were people standing in the back of the room and sitting on the floor during the last talk!
So whatever your message is, know that it’s really that spark, that foundational joy and truth that people need. Just you, being totally you in the moment.
You, rocking your coolness.
No More Comparison
I stopped comparing myself to others. This is a tough one. But as I began to accept my own unique way of looking at things, it gave me the space to appreciate what others brought to the table. I gathered the energy I formerly used to chase coolness to work on my own craft.
Besides, their coolness did not by rule, negate mine. And if I paid attention to those speakers, they taught me a lot. No wonder I thought they were cool! I absorbed their lessons instead of grasping at them.
(Along the way you may find people who begin to tell you you’re doing it all wrong. This is a sure sign that you’ve stepped into yourself, your own coolness. Sometimes this triggers other people. But it’s not about you.)
Breaking the Mold
The world is saturated with sameness. Burgers, fries, reality shows. It’s numbing.
But there’s only one you. No one else can bring to the world what you can. Only you have your lessons from your past, your vision for the future and the presence to use it all wisely.
There are many speakers who cover topics similar to mine. This is great, because we can serve many people this way. What’s also great is that no one addresses those topics in exactly the way I do. I have to champion my differences. And it’s only taken me a decade to come to terms with this!
Consider this: you have an interesting life.
Small things, triumphs, flat out failures, pain, elation. Whether you run your own business or just want to run your own life, the world is begging for you to show up as yourself. YOU are begging you to show up as yourself.
The coolest people I know are unmistakably themselves. That doesn’t mean you have to magnify your personality, it just means you remove the barriers that keep you from actually showing it.
Stepping into yourself without fear is one powerful way to tell yourself you matter.
You’ll no longer be chasing coolness. You’ll be living it.
Sue Ludwig is the President and Founder of the National Association of Neonatal Therapists. She is a consultant to neonatal intensive care units around the country, a national speaker, and a published poet. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two children.
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