Learnings from my life (and journey) as a Prof
Or how non-challenging jobs killed my creativity and motivation — and how I got it back
Storytelling mode: on.
Ever since making the switch to academics and education I’ve been faced with questions by students asking me about what makes a good job, if the things we study at Uni really matter and how life after graduation actually looks like. Answering such questions is difficult and obviously needs a diverse approach as everybody’s life will be different. One thing that I can talk about though is my own experience in the hopes that this might shine a light on what could happen when faced with certain decisions.
Learnings from my time before graduation
Unlike many of my peers I didn’t take the straight academic path towards a Uni degree. I went to high-school just like many of my friends but then, in Germany (way back when), you (well your parents) have to make a decision. Will they enroll you in a school that focuses on academics or in a school that focuses more on applied studies. They had to make this choice in fourth grade. Great idea.
My grades in school were ok and would have enabled me to join many of my friends in one of those more academic (we call them ‘gymnasium’) oriented schools that would prepare you for time at Uni. However my parents though that, because I’ve always been pretty shy and not very outspoken, I might not be a good fit for such a school (also both of my parents never studied at Uni) and hence wanted me to go to a school that focuses more on applied subjects (‘Realschule’ — see, it even got the word ‘real’ in it). Said and done. I, obviously, was pretty sad as I couldn’t join many of my friends on their journey but had to try to make the best of it. I stayed until 6th grade in my high-school and then moved to that ‘Realschule’, as planned by my parents.
Upon completion of the Realschule, most students are expected to go into traineeships for ‘normal’ jobs such as accountants, bank clerks, and alike. Since I did rather well in school though I felt like I wanted to know more. I didn’t feel like I was at the end of the road in regards to my academic journey. This was supported by a few interviews I took in order to get trainee positions in banks, transportation companies, and alike. One of the guys interviewing me told me ‘you’re too smart, you ask too many questions, why don’t you study more?’. That was an interesting way of telling me ‘no’ but I took it to heart.
I then enrolled in an additional school, a school that tries to bridge the gap between the aforementioned ‘Gymnasium’ (upon graduation you can attend University since it was 13 years of school) and ‘Realschule’ (only ten years of school, then jumping into ‘real life’). They called it ‘Fachhochschule’. Basically two more years of studies and then the degree to attend Uni. Yes!
The biggest learnings here were:
- You are not defined by decisions made early on. There’s always time, and potential to change.
- You are not your parents! This means just because they didn’t study, doesn’t mean you won’t study. Just because they went to school A doesn’t mean you can’t go to school B, and so on.
- If you want something. You’ll find a way to do it.
Learnings from my time in the military
Upon completion of the degree mentioned above I, in theory, would have had the potential to attend University. Since studying is quite expensive though and since my parents didn’t want to support my academic conquests any longer they urged me to ‘go get a real job’ instead of ‘wasting time at Uni’. So I was looking around, applying for traineeships and, eventually, got accepted by a Bank to start working there. However, before I was able to start work, my country called and asked me to join the military service. Back then military service was 10 months and while the governmental office responsible for allocating young men around the country to their barracks told me they wouldn’t ask me to join as I already had a signed work contract, they changed their mind on short notice and called on me anyways which left me with no time to find alternatives (one could have tried to get ruled out of military service and do civil service instead). Which meant: Army, here I come.
My first day(s) at the army base were like in a movie. Yelling, more yelling, and even more yelling. You got a number assigned and that was who you were. This would last almost two months. Two months of sleeping in shitty bunkbeds, in rooms with people I would have never talked to in normal life (quite a few hardcore right thinking comrades as well), waking up at 5am, grabbing your gun, sleeping with your riffle, shooting, assemble guns and riffles blindfolded, eating disgusting stuff, getting thrown out in a random forrest and trying to find a way home, and alike.
But you know what? We survived and completed the initiation training. And it was a good feeling. At the end of the initiation period there’s a final test. They throw you into the woods, simulate a crisis situation, and watch you and your team react. As our team leader choked they then made me the team leader for the rest of the drill. Me, the shy guy who never speaks up. So I had man up (sorry, not PC, I know) and tell everybody else what to do. And we did it. We worked as a unit, the other guys helped me making the right decisions, and we ‘won’ our final test.
Afterwards, at the end of those first two months, was a celebration where you wear your military suit, participate in a parade in front of friends and family and swear on the German flag to protect the country from whatever might happen. After all the stuff we went through to get to this point I was actually super sick. High fever, cough, all that good stuff (no Covid back then). However I wouldn’t miss that ceremony. I wouldn’t miss the celebration with my fellow soldiers, teammates, friends. One last time being together before being send across the country to our final base assignments.
Learnings from this initiation period:
- You CAN work together with about just anyone if you really need (want) too. We had bullies in our team, guys who would have kicked my ass in school, guys who were stronger, guys who had weird (right wing) believes, but we all put that aside and worked together to make the best of it.
- You got way more ‘cojones’ (google that) than you think. When called upon, you will be able to ‘man up’ (women up) and rise to the occasion. Trust yourself.
After the first two months in hell you then get assigned your final position where you will serve the rest of your time of your service. This was less intense but also forced me to work with all kinds of people together as you need to make your every day work (office work, outside work, whatever you get assigned to do), well, work and also still need to train all those typical military skills in between and go out for drills with soldiers from different barracks and bases all around the country. Similar learnings to the ones mentioned before apply here, only in a little less intense setting.
Learnings from my time as a trainee in a Bank
As mentioned before I got a traineeship opportunity after graduating and due to the military calling my name this venture had to wait a year. After finishing off my military service I was then finally able to join the work force and become a decent, hard working, citizen.
A bank traineeship usually takes two and a half years and consists of 80% work in a bank (a few months in each department) and around 20% school time (dedicated program for bank trainees). To no surprise I enjoyed school time the most, of course. Simply because you had the chance to talk to peers, exchange ideas, share experiences, and, sometimes, even learn something in school.
On the other hand was the work time and while it was interesting to look into different departments (marketing and communication being my favorites, should have known back then) one thing that drove me crazy right away and what eventually led me to not start working in a bank after the traineeship was the fact how uncreative work was.
Everything you had to do had to follow standard processes. That makes sense and might work for people who appreciate that, I, however, did not. Always repeating the same steps over and over and over again was frustrating. To make the best of it I then tried to optimize those processes which led to me finishing tasks faster than expected but instead of receiving compliments, or being able to do something else, go home, etc. all I got was negative feedback saying that ‘we’ve been doing this that way forever, there’s no need for you to change it’. This combined with ‘you have to stay here until 6pm even if you don’t have anything to do and we don’t have any more tasks for you’ really killed my creativity.
Internet access was blocked for private sites so you couldn’t even distract yourself or take online courses while waiting for new tasks to arrive. All you could do was to sit and wait and try to not finish your tasks too fast in order to have at least something to do while you wait for the day to pass.
This was when I realized that this is not for me.
Learnings from working in a bank:
- While it sounds easy to do non challenging, uncreative work, it, actually, is very difficult to not lose your mind and kills your creativity
- Having ones curiosity and creativity is crucial to keep ones sanity and motivation alive
- Don’t compromise on what others expect you to do — find your own way as it’s your own happiness, not the happiness of others that you should be concerned about. At least in this case.
Learnings from my time at University
Eventually I was able to enter University. Unlike many of my peers I didn’t just jump right into it after graduating high-school but had a year of military service and two and a half years of bank work behind me. I felt pretty old.
As the (corny) saying goes though: You don’t get older, you get wiser. And while you most certainly also get older, I definitely felt a lot ‘wiser’ than most of my fellow students. At least when it came down to time management, team work, and all that. I might not have been the coding genius that some of my friends were, neither was I the most charming with the professors, I did, however, always understand how to plan, execute, and deliver not only on time but also to the satisfaction of the profs.
Except in Programming and Maths.
I studies ‘business information systems’ — a merger between business studies and tech stuff. Digital Marketing & E-Commerce focused. I did well in all those classes and enjoyed them a lot + thanks to my bank career I aced all those accounting related classes without actually attending them. The issues however arose with programming and statistics. I always hated Maths and while I felt confident programming on my computer with a program that tells you when your syntax has an error, I hated programming in class and in exams— on paper. I failed statistics once but then got my %%^@ together and passed the second time with flying colors. Not going to lie, the main motivation here was that my girlfriend at the time was studying towards a maths degree and she told me I’d have to stay the whole next semester by myself if I’d ever fail another math test again. Extrinsic motivation works ;-)
As for programming that was a classic case of failing under test situations. I even failed the course Programming II twice. That’s a course you take in your second semester and you should be done with it. I re-took the course in the fourth semester and failed again. So I had to take it again in the sixth semester. So close to graduation. If you fail a course three times, you’re out. For good. But you know, pressure makes….well it wasn’t a diamond performance but at least I did pass and was able to move on, graduate, and end up where I am today.
It wasn’t only those two classes that taught me a lot during University life. It was also that freedom — not being forced to wake up early, not having anyone checking in on you, not getting any blame if you don’t show up to class, not having to sign and out when arriving and leaving — is a double edged sword. It’s super cool, but also super dangerous. It can make your degree, career, life — or it can break it.
In our first semester our prof who did the introduction actually did the old ‘now look left, now look right, at the end of your studies you won’t be seeing those people anymore as 2 out of you 3 will have dropped out by then’ trick. And it was true. Not necessarily because all classes were super mega hard (even though some of them were super mega hard) but simply because lots of fellow students couldn’t manage their time. You didn’t get a syllabus or a plan to follow, you had to do everything by yourself. Do it, or don’t do it. Up to you. You’ll get the receipt at the end.
And this was actually one of the biggest lessons learned during my whole time at Uni. Time management, people skills, negotiations, compromises, and endurance.
The first ones were tested during group projects where, most of the time, you had to work with randomized groups so you couldn’t rely on your friends to have your back all the time. You had to make it work, no matter how friendly you were with your team member or how well you knew each other, if you lived close by, etc. In the end all that mattered was whether or not you were able to deliver a satisfactory outcome.
I remember one time where my team and I were tasked with creating a research on Business Process Management tools. Back then we had one of the biggest IT fairs in Europe in Germany (CeBit) and decided to go there to meet with all those BPM companies to get insights, quotes, etc. That fair was held in Hannover, a 3–4 hour train ride from where we studied. So we bought train tickets to the fair, met the day of the fair and….waited for a team member who didn’t show up on time. So we waited, and waited, and waited. He texted us via SMS that he’s on the way and almost there. And, of course, he was the one with the entrance tickets to the fair. So we waited. And missed the train. Those train tickets were over 100 EUR which was quite a lot for students back then but after short and brutal (VERBAL!) beatdown of our teammate we decided to make the best of it, buy train tickets for the next train, and go anyways. We then met lots of interesting people there, got the info we were looking for, hung out with our professor who gave a talk there, and so on.
Another team from the same class had the same fate but they decided it wasn’t worth it and didn’t buy extra train tickets and didn’t go to the fair, they didn’t get all the info, made connections, etc. Sometimes all it needs to make a difference really is your dedication.
As I mentioned endurance above. My endurance was tested the most when I was applying for an internship. You had to do a one semester internship and most of my fellow students stayed at home, took internships in companies their parents knew, our professors suggest, or they found by themselves. Fair enough. In my idea this period was the perfect way to try something new so I tried to find an internship in Australia. Without connections and without money to pay for a placement agency. So I send cold emails to almost every company related to e-commerce / digital marketing that I could find in and around Sydney. It took me 107 emails to get one yes. I was close to giving up not only once or twice, but several times. I had (very cheesy) picture of Uluru (Ayers Rock) in my room when I was a child and always had to think back and thought I couldn’t live with myself if I’d simply give up. So I kept the emails going, adjusted them, adjusted my CV, my cover letter, improved my English skills, and so on until eventually I got the yes that changed my life.
Learnings from being at Uni:
- Dedication can set you apart. It’s not necessarily always talent that makes the difference, it’s your dedication that does.
- Endurance matters. There are a million motivational quotes out there a la ‘if you believe it, you can achieve it’ — and while they all are vomit inducing, they also hit the core — because you actually really can.
- Being good to/with people matters. All those group work assignments, meeting new people, making connections, etc. helped us a lot in getting where we wanted to go. Be good to/with people. It’ll pay off!
Learnings my from time in agencies
During my time in digital marketing I did quite a lot of work in agencies. During studies I worked in agencies at home, did an internship in an agency in Australia, and eventually ended up in two agencies after graduation.
Once Uni came to an end I realized several things. A: Man, Uni life was really cool and b: Work life is tough. Like real tough.
First off all the application process was, of course, disastrous. Everybody out there seemed to be looking for young talent…..with 20 years of experience. After lots of discouraging emails though I did get lucky enough to land a few promising job interviews and eventually had the chance to choose between several agency positions in Munich, Hamburg, Berlin, and Vienna. The position in Vienna seemed most intriguing as it was an up and coming start-up agency in the heart of a city I’ve never spend much time in before. Said and done, bags packed, two, one, zero, der Alarm ist rot…Vienna calling oho. (Falco - ‘Vienna Calling’).
While all the people working in the agency were cool and the agency had a, well, agency vibe (chill room with playstation, football table, free fruit/juice deliveries, regular agency outings, etc.) to it I very quickly came to understand that working in agency also means giving up on private free time. On my first day on the job I got an iPhone….it would never stand still ever again. It’s always clients first. This might not seem something groundbreaking to you, but this means clients ALWAYS come first. Your birthday? Clients first. Late at night? Clients first. Client wants to meet at 1am in a club? Clients first.
When we made things work, we made things work though. We created campaigns for some of the biggest brands in Austria, shut down the biggest shopping street in Vienna for a flashmob (that was cool back then), organized huge events, and simply rocked some of the coolest campaigns around. I was involved in those things from day one, didn’t have much time to ‘slowly ease into the job’ and I appreciate that to this day. You learn best when you get thrown into the deep end. I’m taking this with me to this day when working with students. I don’t baby them, I let them struggle in the deep end but obviously prevent them from drowning.
It was cool to work with big brands, promote impactful products, and create engaging campaigns, but after a while it was just too much. In addition I realized that while creativity is welcome to some extend, it still comes down to selling and standardizing (minimizing workload) at the end. So we created campaigns that worked and then simply tried to apply what we did for client A, also for client B in a different sphere. This was reasonable as it saved time and still represented something creative / new for the new client — but it wasn’t the creative outlet I was looking for. Hence, eventually, I was looking for change.
That change come at the hands of another agency job. One could have thought I should have left agency life behind me right when I realized it wasn’t what I thought it would be but being young and naive I thought maybe it was me or it was an exception. Additionally the agency that I found afterwards was lead by a founder who had his background in design and told me in the job interview that they were all about creativity.
And what should I say. The company itself was pretty creative. The creative departments within the agency were pretty good and everybody working there certainly had great ideas. The only problem was that they just created my position there and I was the guy that should bring the digital marketing mindset to the table and, well, most creatives weren’t really on board with me. It was mostly ‘just make it work!’ as a guideline and when I reported back that I’d need some more support in a way they create websites, run ads, etc I didn’t receive much back-up. Not hating by the way as the strength of that agency clearly laid in the creative areas and coming up with creative and unique solutions. It was more my problem that I didn’t have the cojones to stand up and say ‘hey, listen to me, I’m the specialist here, so you gotta follow my lead’ — but that’s something you learn as you get older. It doesn’t come easy but it was a very important learning.
After quite a while in those agencies I eventually however realized that this wasn’t what made me happy and decided to do something else. Something different. Something to get my mind back on track.
Learnings from my time in agencies:
- There’s no better way to learn than to actually do things right away. Don’t play in the children’s pool. If you know how to swim, jump into the deep end.
- You got to be confident in your skills and stand up for it. If you’re good at what you do, make it known. That doesn’t mean you got to show off or be condescending — it means take charge when appropriate, help when need, and inspire when possible.
- (lots of clients, even big companies, don’t really know what they are doing. So if they don’t know what they’re doing, there’s no reason for you to be impressed by big names, job titles, and so on)
Learnings from my time ‘off’ as a volunteer
One of the things that I struggled with the most during my time in agencies was the lack of free time. Almost every day I left the office late when every supermarket had already closed so all that was left to eat was some fast-food, pizza takeaway, and alike. Don’t even get me started on ‘you could have cooked by yourself’ — I was so tired, sometimes I stopped on at the museum’s quarter on the way home and took a nap in the grass next to the museum just to get some fresh air before heading home and falling into bed again.
After a while this obviously gets to you. So when things didn’t get any better and my body kept telling me that the way I treated it at that time wasn’t sustainable (I got really chubby and looked pretty unhealthy) I decided I gotta do something. Little did I know that this something came in the form of being a volunteer teacher in Thailand.
I never wanted to go Thailand. I wasn’t eagerly fond of Asia per se and certainly never considered working there (here). As time went by and I wasn’t sure what I should do to get out of my agency life my friend told me that a friend of a friend of a friend….once did a semester in Thailand as a volunteer teacher. That sounds cool, doesn’t it? My friend also thought about doing it so we looked into it, met with a German guy who somehow had connections to the vocational college association in Thailand (I still don’t know how) and after passing his screening test he said he’ll get us in touch with the colleges there and upon providing our CVs they’d decide where they could use us. My friend ended up in Mahasarakham, while I got picked up by the vocational college in Udon Thani.
If you’re interested in my time in Thailand and all the crazy stuff that happened, check out my podcast, right now I’m more focusing on the learnings during my time there. After arriving in Udon Thani and having had a few days to check out the city I eventually had my first day at work. And while I thought they’d probably show me around a bit, use me as a prop, and so on a realized very quickly that this wasn’t the plan at all. On my first day I was led to a classroom, told that ‘this is your class, good luck’ and then left all by myself, without much preparation. Wow. My first own class.
It didn’t just stay at one class though. In my first semester I taught 28 hours per week, in my second semester I taught 32 and in my last semester I taught almost 40 hours per week. All without having studied education or knowing how to create a syllabus and alike. This can either go well, or very wrong of course. Luckily, for everybody involved, I kind of found a calling there and realized that those kids (16–20 years old) rely on me to not eff up their education and for the first time in a long time I felt something like positive pressure. I knew I could make a change here and I knew I could do it better than many others. I saw other ‘volunteers’ in other schools, met some other foreign teachers (unfortunately) and quickly realized that many of them were only coasting based on their nationality (native English speaker = free pass as an “English teacher” in many regions of Thailand) and status (white foreigner).
I really dug down, studied on my own time how to create syllabus (thx to my very helpful colleagues I figured that out fast though. They didn’t have time to show me around but during class breaks they were always there for me to answer all the questions I had, gave me syllabus and exam templates, and alike), exams, worksheets, and, most importantly, how to grade and give fun classes. My way of teaching became a very active one. I saw that Thai teachers mostly sit at the desk and read from books or slides so I decided to be different, be active, walk around, engage students, and talk to everybody in the room. At the end of the day, I was tired. No, exhausted. But it was fun. It was a different kind of exhaustion compared to the exhaustion I felt when working in an agency for a famous client. There it didn’t really matter (well, a little maybe) whether I would work for the client, my colleague, my fellow students, and so on. We all would have done a similar good job I believe — but here, in front of young minds you were still forming and so easily influenced, I felt that I actually could make a difference. If I would be a ‘good’ teacher, they’d learn, they might get a chance to leave this poor part of Thailand, work in Bangkok, go to Uni, or even go abroad — but if I’d be bad at being a teacher this all might not work out. Obviously I did understand that there were other influential factors at play as well but this kind of pressure helped me to focus, to dive head first into this whole becoming a teacher thing, and into finding purpose.
Learning from being a volunteer teacher:
- Pressure, if positive, works wonders. Don’t fear pressure, embrace it.
- Purpose matters. If you know WHY you are doing what you are doing, you will enjoy it and you will be good at it.
- The opinions of others, don’t matter.
Learnings from my time in higher education
After having found my calling in education I realized that work as a volunteer obviously wouldn’t fulfill me and wouldn’t be something I could be doing my whole life so I decided to mix the two things I seem to be rather good at, education and ‘digital’, and make the jump into higher education in order to reach a broader audience, a more diversified student body, and in return, hopefully, make a bigger impact.
Said and done. Kind of. It took me dozens of applications to Universities in the country to even just get one invitation to a job interview. Apparently there are too many foreign ‘teachers’ around that are just winging it and they left a bad taste in the mouth of lots of educational HR personnel. Not that this was anything new though of course. I already learned that persistence is key, so I kept researching, improving my CVs, and applying until I got the call from a private Uni in Bangkok to come in for an interview.
After three or so years I decided to leave that Uni to pursue bigger and better things but I am grateful to this day that they gave me the chance back then and whether it was them being desperate or them actually seeing something in me, I think I took that opportunity by the proverbial horns and made the best of it. While being there I clashed a few times with colleagues over how I thought higher education should look like (grading, treatment of students, and more) and even walked out of meetings (while being the head of digital marketing of the international college) due to unprofessional behavior by certain stakeholders but I also, once again, learned a lot. Once again I value the time I had with the students there more than anything.
I met some amazing/interesting/cool/crazy/fun people from all around the world (even from Germany) there and they all gave me a chance when I walked into the classroom, listened, asked, participated, and learned. The pressure of now teaching at a Uni and influencing young minds on their way through Uni towards Master degrees (or even later on teaching Master degree students), or jobs that would define their lives felt immense at times but having found what I enjoyed, once again, I was happy to embrace it.
After a few years at the Uni that initially took a chance on me I then decided to look for different options and found the place I work at right now. Once I walked into my first (guest) lecture there it felt like coming home. We all share similar interests and ideas — not necessarily always the same points of view though which is, of course, a good thing as you can discuss and learn from such situations.
Some of the biggest issues / hurdles I face while being in higher education were usually related to colleagues being %*&*# because they didn’t appreciate my ‘friendly’ (yet strict and professional) style I would use to communicate with students, or that I graded too ‘harsh’, or hurdles in academics per se, especially in Thailand (lots of bureaucracy with all the necessary documents you need to publish, speak at conferences, etc. being in Thai only), and the politics behind the scenes. If you want to achieve something you always need to politic which is really frustrating for someone who hates such things and believes in dedication & performance over politics and bribes. To be quite frank, some of those issues had me at the brink of saying ‘no mas’. Luckily my positive experiences always kept me going though and for that I am thankful.
Learnings from my time in higher education:
- Believing in yourself gets more important as time goes by.
- If someone gives your their time and patience, embrace and value it.
- If something is worth it, you will go through hell to defend/keep/reach it.
Learnings from my time as start-up founder
Since being in academics isn’t enough (ha!) I also been entangled in the start-up scene. I have always been interested in start-ups, creating new solutions, making changes, etc and hence was quite happy having had the chance to also be part of an organizing committee that ran some of the start-up weekends here in Bangkok. As only organizing it wasn’t enough I also ended up advising some of the start-ups that approached me as well as co-founding one.
The easies part of starting a start-up: Having a good idea. The tough part: Making it work. My co-founder and me had lots of (what we considered) good ideas but actually making them work took lots of time and sweat and tears. I probably could write a whole book on that so I’m just going to focus on a few ‘highlights’ here.
When applying for grants: Be male, be Thai. It’s somewhat understandable that local grants should go to local start-ups but just because your start-up has foreign co-founders doesn’t mean it won’t work with Thais. Every time we looked into applying for grants/funding though most applications were in Thai only and even once we submitted them, I usually got looked at in a ‘are taking advantage of those poor Thai co-founders’ kind of way.
After having realized that my co-founder, who’s female and Thai, then decided to put her name forward when we tried to get grants/funding. She then quickly faced issues with several contacts not taking her serious and asking for her male boss as she clearly couldn’t be behind that start-up idea. Thai patriarchy is still a thing.
We also applied for lots of start-up / pitch events of course and here then came to realized that the same stereotypes applied. Nice. So we then decided to just go ahead without having funding secured and just test the waters by ourselves. Exciting times, not necessarily the wealthiest times though. We’re still up and running though which means you can do it without big backing, it just might be a bit harder but therefore way more satisfying if you can say you did it all by yourself.
Learnings from this ongoing journey in start-ups:
- Don’t rely on anyone to help you. If you want something, you need to get it.
- If you feel mistreated, don’t sulk. Get up and get things done. This will ‘show them’.
- Finding the right people is important — as is trusting them, and them trusting you. Trust matters!
Learnings from my time as conference / professional speaker
I mentioned it a few times during this article but I was always a more quiet/shy person growing up and didn’t always necessarily go for confrontation or spotlight. I did, however, also think that I got some knowledge to share and maybe even would be able to bring that knowledge across better than others (that’s me now being arrogant). So I decided to just ignore my anxiety of the unknown and applied for one of my favorite conferences. I attended that conference as visitor a few times and really enjoyed the variety of the speakers and decided to give it a try and, well, they accepted me. This made me happy and anxious all the same.
For the next few weeks (months) I worked on my presentation, increased my research output, styled the visuals, etc and when the time came to board the plane to attend that conference I was…..still not confident. I practiced the presentation hundreds of times in front of the mirror at home and upon arriving at my destination in my hotel room. I knew all the facts, all the background studies, real world implications, had an interesting (I hoped) outlook and summary in there as well and thought my talk would be quite engaging. Yet I didn’t feel like I would belong there. Am I really supposed to speak here among all those seasoned, some even famous, speakers? Am I just a fraud who got lucky and now will be exposed?
That conference was huge and had lots of speakers in different rooms. My talk was scheduled to be in one of the bigger rooms (which I didn’t know) and they asked me to come 10 minutes before while the previous speaker was still on stage to hand over my presentation and go through the tech set-up. When I arrived in the room I realized that this room was, indeed, huge and could host hundreds of people. The speaker that was on before me talked about his time as a multimedia journalist in Egypt during the uprising. A super interesting talk in my opinion but the room wasn’t even close to 20% capacity. I felt disappointed for him, but also thought that’s good for me as not many people will see that I’m a fraud.
Once he was finished and we set up my presentation the room filled though. So much that people actually had the doors open and stood there. Why? Are they all here to tell me that I suck? That I’m a fraud?
When it was time to hit the stage I was shaking, made my stupid entry joke that I prepared and realized….they all got it and they were actually laughing. I then went through the intro of my presentation and since nobody was leaving I figured I’m doing ok and became more confident was I spoke. I started to walk across the stage, look at the audience, ask questions, take answers in between from the audience, basically work with the crowd and before I knew it the 30 minutes were done and I went through all the points I wanted to make and the room was still full. The audience even had questions that I answered and they seemed to have been happy with those answers. They even all clapped and some of them waited for me to come down from stage to ask more questions and to connect for future communication.
So. Did I fool them all into believing that I’m not a fraud or, maybe, I actually am not a fraud but actually am good at what I do?
This back and forth in my mind kept on happening over the years and still does. I still don’t think I’m good enough for people to pay to see me on stage but eventually I learned to use this feeling to fuel my preparation. If I think I’m not good enough I have to work a thousand times harder to at least feel like it’s going to be somewhat ok. Self imposed pressure. Drives me crazy, but also ensures quality.
Having attended lots of conferences and events as speaker over the past and having had the chance to talk to some of the most prolific speakers around I realized that many of them suffer from the same syndrome. Never thinking what they do would be enough and this makes them work even harder. You’re not alone.
Learnings from my time as speaker:
- Nobody is perfect. Nobody thinks they are perfect (well a few people might) and that’s ok. That’s your fuel!
- You are not alone. If you struggle, ask for help. Others usually gladly share their experiences and help.
- Facing your fears helps. If you face your fears they won’t just go away, but you will be able to channel your fears and use them as motivation.
Writing this article helped me a lot to understand my past, understand what I learned and how I applied it and how I could improve upon that. Reflecting is important to progress. What learnings did you have so far during your life? Would love to hear some take aways from others to share and discuss!