In today’s hyper-connected world, it can be difficult to see so many success stories, achievements, and new products shared each and every day. It starts to wear down our self-confidence, and widens the mental gap between us and the ‘superstars’ whose posts we read religiously. On the one hand, we’re inspired by their work, and on the other, we’re depressed by it. It is a paralyzing cycle that can sometimes be the greatest obstacle to our own creativity.
In reality, though, these ‘superstars’ are not so different from us. They are regular people, with regular jobs, working as hard as we are and as passionately as we are. There is one key difference though — they share their work. They write blog posts, give talks, submit open source libraries, and so on. As it turns out, this is really the only thing that separates us from them, and it’s also the only thing that is preventing us from being the ‘superstars’ that inspire us. We can all be an inspiration — we just have to put in the time.
If we spent even a fraction of of the effort we put into our work toward sharing it with the world, we would unlock a whole new world of opportunity — for ourselves, as well as others who we inspire.
Of course, we all hesitate to do this for a variety of reasons — we’re afraid, we’re busy, and so on. I want to stress, however, that spending this extra time will open so many doors for you that you’ll wish you were doing it your whole career. To help walk through the considerations here, I’m going to play devil’s advocate with myself. Let’s do this!
NOTE: While this can apply to pretty much anything (e.g. writing, speaking, teaching, building, etc.), I’m going to focus on speaking (e.g. giving a talk at a meetup) as an example, since I believe it is one of the hardest things to get started with, but also one of the highest yielding in terms of reward.
“Why bother? I’m too busy.”
Yes, we’re all busy. In reality though, “busyness” is just a prioritization problem. You will make time for it if you think it’s important. Here are some reasons why you should:
- Teaching Teaches You: Explaining a concept to someone else in a concise way (such that almost anyone would comprehend it) is incredibly difficult. If you take the time to learn how to do this, you will learn so much more about the topic than you knew before. I would go as far as to say that teaching experience with something is equally valuable to working experience.
- Communities Help You: As you give these talks, your audience will appreciate the time and effort you took to put it together. They will ask you questions, connect with you, discuss opportunities. Everyone knows networking is important, but imagine if the next meetup you went to, everyone in the room assumed you were someone worth knowing and came up to you to try and figure out how they can learn from and work with you. That is what happens when you give a talk.
- Pressure Enhances You: Perhaps you’ve never been in a situation where your thoughts needed to be polished enough to present to a large audience. Being in that situation will push you to levels you never thought possible. I guarantee that when you give your first talk, you’ll be happily surprised at the quality of it. At the end of the day, if you are someone who puts care into their work, you’ll likely put the same care into your talks, and the ‘product’ quality will be just as good.
- Fun Excites You: It’s fun to give talks. It’s thrilling. It’s exciting. It’s something you look forward to, and are thankful for. It’s addicting, and once you start doing it, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll stop. What doesn’t want more fun in their life?
tl;dr: It’s a win-win.
“I have no idea what to talk about!”
You should talk about anything you are passionate about. Think about what really excites you, or what really annoys you — anything you would probably bring up and talk about at length during a conversation with peers or friends. It’s important you talk about things you have personal experience with (not just opinions on), but don’t worry if it’s not years and years of experience. It only matters that you care about the topic. If you are excited to speak about it, people will be excited to listen. It’s that simple.
“No one will care about my passions.”
People want to hear stories. When an audience is looking to be inspired, they are basically just looking to hear about why you are inspired. If you tell that story in a way where others can see your own excitement and emotion, they will be inspired too. It’s important to realize that your audience doesn’t necessarily have to be interested in the topic you’re talking about — they just need to be convinced of why it is interesting.
I want to tell you a story about how someone inspired me, and ended up inspiring many others through me. The story starts in San Francisco — my home and my favorite city in the world (yes, I’ve traveled a lot, and I mean that earnestly!). Here, we are surrounded by many forms of nature at its most beautiful modes. In particular, I am fascinated by the fog that randomly blankets the city. Most people dislike it, as it brings cold weather and dark skies, but I love it. When I am walking through a foggy street, I feel like I am touching the clouds.
Anyhow, one day I ran into a time-lapse video that recorded the fog’s behavior over many weeks and months. Placed against a gorgeous soundtrack (track called Window by Album Leaf), it epitomizes everything I love about San Francisco. Take a moment and watch:
Over time, I started to show this to more and more of my friends. While I was living in New York, I showed it to others to help them understand why SF is so beautiful. When I flew to Cape Town, South Africa to teach students, I showed them this video so they can see the kinds of things that inspire me. They could see the emotion in me as I spoke about it, the sheer overwhelming joy I got from every moment watching this. My students were in awe watching it — each of them took away something different, but the inspiration was universal.
Later, I had the incredible luck of running into Simon (the creator of Adrift) in person, and telling him how much it meant to me. I’m sure he has received positive feedback about his video online, but this was different. I don’t think Simon ever imagined his video would inspire me the way it did, and ultimately inspire my students too. What you create can inspire people from all kinds of fields, in places all over the world. You never know who you’ll inspire, or how. This is the magic of the modern connected world. Use it!
“OK, I know what to talk about…but I’m scared.”
Fear of public speaking is very common, and in some ways it never really goes away. No matter how many talks I give, I still get butterflies before speaking. The truth is, there are no shortcuts here — the only way to get good at this is practice, practice, practice. You cannot read a book to learn how to give good talks — you learn by giving talks. That’s it. Don’t overthink it, don’t overanalyze or spend months planning. Just pick a topic, lock down the date, and give the talk. Then iterate. By the time you stop to realize what is happening, you’ve already become a public speaker. Remember — you can’t win the game if you don’t play.
“No one will invite me to speak. I’m not famous.”
Some people assume it takes years of effort in self-marketing to build a reputation and get the point where people can give talks regularly. Well, in my case, that never happened. I don’t really have a big reputation in my community. Like most people, when I walk into a meetup, I’m essentially anonymous. Still, in the past year I have taught 3 full immersive courses (over 500 hours of lecturing), and given at least 15 talks at a variety of events to groups of sizes ranging from 30 to 150.
How do I get these opportunities if I’m not publicly well-known? It’s all about networking & community. Once you give a talk, you maximize the opportunity by doing the best job you can at the talk, impressing & connecting with as many people as possible. Soon, other organizers who attended will likely ping you about future talks. Referrals make up the majority of speaking opportunities I get.
“Good for you. But how do I get my first talk?”
Thankfully, this part is pretty easy. All you have to do is attend a meetup, and then speak to the organizer about potentially speaking at a future meetup. That’s it. Honestly, 95% of the time, they will happily say yes to whatever you propose (as long as it’s reasonably in line with the tone/content of that meetup). Most meetups are desperate for speakers and presentations and love it when people reach out to them.
That’s how I got all of my initial opportunities. I just went and emailed someone, and suggested what I wanted to talk about. Once there was a firm date, I proceeded to freak out. This fear actually applies the necessary pressure to do great work. Eventually, I gave the talk, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. In particular, I received more positive feedback after the talk than I had received at my job all year! This is just the nature of speaking — in a short amount of time, you can connect and provide value to a lot of people. I learned from the mistakes of the first attempt, refined my content, and offered the same talk to another meetup, this time doing a better job of delivering that content, and also being a more experience speaker. This is a tried and true process.
The hardest part is just getting over your own fears — once you do that, the rest is just work, like any other project that you have successfully completed throughout your career. This time, though, the customer is you. It’s time you took the effort to work on bettering yourself, improving your own opportunities, and having more fun. Before you know it, you’ll have some great experiences to share, and you’ll get all kinds of amazing feedback from people and places you never expected (then you can share your learnings from that experience, and the cycle continues…).
I promise you — once you start sharing, you’ll never stop.
“Alright alright… I gotta run, need to prep my talk!”
Sweet! Send me a link at @daretorant. I’d love to see it! 🙂