Learning to bomb

I had a speaking engagement about a year ago that was a disaster the minute I walked into the room. I didn’t know it’d be a disaster until about five minutes in but I should have known because of the way the room was set up. I was behind a sizable barrier, which made it difficult to feel “in touch” with my audience and the attendees were wrung out from a long day and most of them sat in the back of the room adding more of a barrier. Because my presentation was more touchie-feelie than straight information, it made for a lousy dynamic. I heard nothing but crickets when I’d ask for audience participation and had to do more of a song and dance than usual to get people to talk. I remember midway through the presentation wanting to just STOP and give in.

“Forget it,” I imagined saying, unplugging my laptop. “I’m outta here.”

I’d escape. Run down the steps and to my car before anyone had time to stop me. I’d go home and climb into bed, pull my covers up over my head and tell my husband to hold my calls.

Of course you can’t run; you have to get through it. And so I waded through the morass that my talk had become, pumping as much cheer as I could into my delivery and by the end of the limping, tired workshop, I actually got some encouraging feedback from the audience.

I’ve had disastrous interviews. I’ve gotten rejected by editors. I’ve stood alone, petrified by nerves at networking events. I’ve put myself out there and then, defeated, reeled myself back in. I’ve stood in front of audiences, mind blank and wondering what I was going to say before my memory kicked in. I’ve cracked jokes that fell flat to a room full of expectant faces. I’ve watched people’s eyes glaze over and scrambled to bring them back.

dosomething-insideOh I’ve failed, yes I have. But the more you fail, the easier failure gets. It’s true.

That disastrous speaking engagement, it was an hour in purgatory. As soon as I realized that it was not going to go well I thought of all the stand-up comedians who bomb. And most of them do indeed bomb. Even the great ones have off nights. I knew that the price of speaking in public, which I like to do, means sometimes having it go really really poorly. My stomach dropped into my shoes and my sense of time stalled and drew the hour out like taffy and I felt slightly outside of myself the way you do when you realize you’re falling or the car is crashing or some other disaster is impending. It was a nightmare happening in real time and for a second or two I lost my nerve and fought back tears. But at the same time I had some presence of mind behind my eyes that very calmly said, “Well, there’s no way to get to the end of it but to get through it.” Which is when I gave up my fright to flight instinct and settled down to trudge through the rest of my talk.

When it was over I felt exhausted and relieved. It was over. I had bombed and I was on the other side.

The next time (and thank goodness there’s been only one more time and that was a tech disaster that wasn’t of my own doing) a talk went poorly, I felt that same sinking then lifting and again I knew that the other side was right there if I’d just swim to it.

It’s just like the first time an editor said no. And the first time I got a terrible, nasty email from someone who read one of my essays and hated it.

It’s like the first time getting dumped or having a friend blow you off. It happens and you survive. But meanwhile you have whatever happened before. You have that first kiss. You have that heart-to-heart with a friend who gets you. You have that hope when you hit “send” on a submission. And then, too, you have those great times when it goes well.

I’m telling you this to say that if you’re thinking about trying something (writing, submitting, networking, etc.) but are feeling too scared to take that leap, leap anyway. It’s all right to be terrified but make the leap anyway. You might fail. You might bomb. But you also might have a really great time and you will definitely learn something about yourself.

A version of this post originally appeared on my now defunct personal blog, this woman’s work.

Comments 6

  1. I think I just failed a work project. I mean, I’ll get paid, but what if they never call me again? I keep reminding myself, though, that every time I’ve thought clients would never call again, they have (except for one, and really I pretty much told her never to call again, and was very glad she didn’t). And if these people really don’t want me to work for them again, then clearly it’s not a good fit. There’s usually a reason for failure, and it’s either something you can control in the future, in which case you will, or it’s not, in which case it’s not your fault. Rationalizations? Sure. But they’ve done me pretty well, including getting me through yesterday when I was distraught about this work project…

    1. Rationalizations work for me, too. Also Becca, you are great on the, “You so won’t care about this in X amount of time.” I know you’ve said that to me and I say it to myself when I’m watching some disaster unfold and thinking about how I never think of the disaster that unfolded 2 years before that I thought I’d never get over.

  2. Thanks so much for writing this. I’m just starting my first career job hunt in a brand new city, and I was thinking of writing to ask how you managed to get out and network. I really want to get out there and fail and try again, but taking that first step towards failure is terrifying. I’m also an introvert (INFJ), and it takes everything I have to put myself out there. Anyways, hearing about failure and fear from a fellow introvert makes me feel better. I’m cheering you on.

    1. You can do it, Brenna! Here’s a big thing I’ve had to learn to do — make sure I have time to have a total breakdown and recharge. I try to make sure I have room in my schedule to recover and I will fight hard for that room ‘cuz I know I need it if I’m not going to crash. Wishing you MUCH LUCK!!!

  3. Just reading this took me right back to my first (and I suppose only) true talk disaster. The laptop I had brought with me REFUSED to synch with the projector and therefore, my notes were completely invisible to me! ARG! I wrote the talk so last minute that I didn’t bother to “memorize” it, so when I got up to speak… I had NO IDEA what to say. There I was, in front of a room full of scientists and engineers, all 20+ years my senior… and I was blanking. Ah, what fun. But, like you said, I got through it and I didn’t die. And it’s made me a much more capable public speaker. Because now I think, really, can anything worse possibly happen?

    Great post!

  4. yeah, I know success is defined by succeeding after many many many many failures. For me though, I just lack the strength to try again. Right now, I’m down, figuratively speaking, and I am not willing to get up. I just exist. Think alot, and wish I could be as strong as you are.
    I am a sad sad person. Everytime I try something, the people I whose opinion I care most about give me feedback I do not handle well.
    Like with my blog, I used to do it, but a friend said my grammar is similar to a grade schooler, but it’s nice that I ‘pour my heart out’. The grade schooler thing got me, and makes me unwilling to release my heartfelt opinions where they can be found easily.

    I too, and an introvert, many people would not believe me, but I was tested, I am.
    I know I am because even the most invigorating conversations leave me weeping myself to sleep out of pure weariness.

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