Fifteen years ago, I was completing my bachelors degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A few months before graduation, I saw a flyer announcing tryouts to give the student graduation speech at the business college’s graduation ceremony.
I had spent the year prior developing an interest in speaking and doing a lot reading about the subject. Plus, the upcoming summer job I’d already landed with the university would have me speaking to hundreds of people each day for six weeks straight before I moved to California for my first job.
I was convinced I had enough credentials and experience to impress the judges and a good shot to win. I immediately started my application.
Over several days, I diligently crafted a talk that would be memorable and insightful for the graduating class. I worked late into the nights and, as the tryouts approached, began carefully rehearsing. I pulled upon all the confidence I’d gained in all my student leadership roles, classes, and campus jobs.
When I showed up for the tryout, a mix of about 20 faculty, students, and staff were in the room to judge. I was called up and walked right past the lectern, more comfortable holding the speech in my hands and facing the audience directly.
Less than a minute into the speech, I noticed the empty stares. The smiles, laughs, and eye contact I expected did not come. People were looking down or staring at me blankly.
My hands began to shake slightly. Then more profoundly. Within another minute, I could hear my typed pages crinkling in my ears, as they shook uncontrollably.
Today, when I coach others on presentation skills, I tell them that it almost never happens that someone shakes so badly that an audience would notice.
But on this day, I was the exception.
They definitely noticed.
When I finally finished, someone managed to utter a kind word for the effort I put in. The tone of their remark confirmed what everyone already knew:
When I eventually heard the winning speech, it was painfully apparent that even if I had maintained my composure, I was way out of my league. Had I not already committed to give presentations for the entire summer, I may never have done much speaking again.
Real learning came that summer and in the coming years as I worked hard and stumbled many other times in order to become a better speaker. I gave a lot of mediocre talks in those days. I was fortunate to get tough feedback and meaningful encouragement.
I’ve heard lots people claim that they love learning. Perhaps they do.
I certainly don’t.
For me, real learning means that I don’t get to make the same mistake in the future that I’ve been making in the past. Thus, it requires an actual change in my behavior that begets a different result.
I love the benefits of learning for sure…but the learning itself? No thanks.
When most people claim they love learning, I suspect that they mean that they like collecting knowledge. Many of us like going to classes, attending conferences, reading books, listening to podcasts…activities that make us smarter and help us recognize opportunities for learning. It feels good to be stimulated with new ideas and, of course, that's a starting point for learning.
All that stuff is easy.
I’d make a case anywhere for the benefits of learning. I’ve seen many amazing things happen because I’ve been willing at times to be mediocre or even poor at doing something for awhile, in order to learn to do better in the long-run.
But enjoy it? No — almost never. I tell clients today that if I knew of an easier way to learn without being awkward for awhile, I'd be the first in line. Sign me up.
It's shocking how hard it is to affect real change in behavior. Ask anyone who is working to become a compelling speaker, listen well to employees, learn to write, become a better parent, or lose weight (all things that actually require real behavior change).
With graduation season here again, many of us are reminded about the real value of a fantastic education. Let’s also remember that the times of greatest learning are mostly in the awkward moments of frustration, far from the academic regalia and ceremonies.
And although real learning is difficult and sometimes maddening, 40+ years on this earth has me convinced there's really no way around it, if you want to do meaningful stuff.
So, if you find yourself awkwardly stumbling through something, or a bit dejected because it turns out you weren't as good as you thought you were, or even passed up for a promotion (as I've been, several times) I hope you'll also notice that, just maybe, you're the one out there really learning, pushing though to do better, when others might not.
And if you see someone else stumbling around, that might be me. Please say HI.