To improve and to excel we need to become conscious of our actions, to overcome our self-doubt, and to be authentic. I’m going to explain what I mean by all of that.
After giving a talk at a public event last weekend, I’ve been able to reflect on the process of writing and speaking, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, have found that there are basic similarities to other arts or skills — including basic life skills.
When we practice an art or discipline, we have to do what’s sometimes called “conscious practice.” If you practice, let’s say, a martial art or Yoga, and you go through the class in a kind of automatic mode — going through the motions, sometimes without even thinking about what you’re doing (because it’s become so automatic — then it will take far longer to improve than if you become conscious of what you are doing, and why and how your actions can improve. The question is, then, how can we do that?
The first thing is to pay attention to those who are doing the same thing as us, preferably at a higher level. In particular, we have to try to realize what is good about what they are doing, and, for that matter, what some might be doing wrong.
If, for example, you’re going to give a public talk, then you should pay attention to the way in which interviewees on podcasts, radio, etc., speak, and what makes them either grab your attention or make you switch them off. If you want to write, you have to care about sentences, their structure, and understand the subtle differences when it comes to word choice. Most of all, you want to ask yourself, why one sentence impressed you and why another triggered daydreaming about something else. People who practice martial arts often watch martial arts movies or MMA matches, seeing what worked and what didn’t. (Personally, I prefer to watch instructional videos by martial arts and self-defense teachers.)
I’d also advise reading books on the subject of your interest as well as on other subjects related to it and, just as importantly, to the psychology of self-improvement in general.
Becoming conscious can also help us with the things we struggle with in our daily life. For example, people aiming to lose or gain weight might want keep a diary of what they eat, to really become aware of what, when, and why they are eating, how certain foods made them feel, whether they felt satisfied after a meal, or whether they were hungry and snacking not long after. We can also keep a diary of our exercise regime, thoughts on a specific issue, or even quotes from the things we read and that we really need to learn.
Public speaking is, apparently, America’s “biggest phobia,” and, in my experience, almost everyone actually feels something between trepidation and terror just before they go on stage. Long before that moment, however, the individual feels self-doubt — the nagging thought that he or she may not be up to the task.
Self-doubt may come from the belief that we’re just not that type of person (not aggressive enough to be a martial artist, or confident and outgoing enough to give a public talk, or some such thing). If that’s the assessment — and if the assessment is correct — then the process is going to be a long but (if you stick it out) rewarding journey of discovering resources buried deep within yourself, probably with the help, advice, and feedback from a trainer of others.
Self-doubt fades as we become conscious of our actions, and how they accord or conflict with the discipline we want to improve in. If we want to give a public talk, but mumble and can’t make eye contact, then we have some work to change that.
A mistake that most amateurs make — at least those that have reached a certain level of achievement — is that they will often become highly technical. I know that, at one point, when I advanced beyond basic punches and kicks in Kung fu, I relied on the new, more impressive-looking techniques, even though I couldn’t use them as well (or perhaps at all). I wanted to show that even if I was beaten (and perhaps injured) I was more advanced than the defeat might make it appear. Of course, I would have been better off capitalizing on my strengths, even if that meant using the more basic techniques.
It was the same when I first gave public talks. I would mention a lot of dates, names, and technical information. Besides being hampered, then, by inexperience, insecurity made me feel that I had to prove myself, and that I could do that by focusing on arcane aspects of my subject. I had to show that I was intelligent and knowledgeable. That, of course, is the wrong approach. Today, my priority — my aim — is always to engage my audience, to uplift those present, and give them something of value for their lives.
The amateurish allure of the technical and the flashy is normal, and anyone learning a discipline will go through something similar. I’m sure we’ve all heard a college student — or someone that believes themselves to be of way above average intelligence — filling their sentences with jargon instead of using simple language. They don’t understand what they are talking about, normally, and merely want us to be blinded by science, to believe that they are so smart that we should believe whatever it is they tell us. That is really a big trap for both the listener and the speaker. Those who understand their subject can put things simply. This is probably the case in any discipline. Simplicity is a part of mastery.
Body language expert Vanessa Van Edwards has noted that in a study of Ted Talks and their audiences, it was discovered that the talks that did not do well were those that the speaker had rehearsed to perfection. They remembered every word and had practiced saying it over and over again. It was flawless. But, as a result, the speech lost its emotion and energy. Probably like you, I’ve listened to such Ted Talks, and they feel flat and even a bit embarrassing — since such speeches usually include a number of jokes that fail to get a laugh.
Audiences, it turns out, are drawn to speakers who know what they are talking about and that have rehearsed their talks to the point where they know roughly what they’re going to say, but not to the point of perfection. Why is this?
It may be partly that where risk has been erased from the equation things are boring. But, more profoundly, a lecture is a two-way street. When you speak, you want to see how the audience is reacting, and react to their reaction — elaborating on what appears to be interesting the audience, and minimizing what does not.
When I give a public talk, I like to rehearse and revise the talk for a couple of weeks. But, as I read over it, I will often choose not to add in points that I know I will make on the day. This forces me to use the written talk only as a guide. Each paragraph is a signpost to lift off into a particular point and, with it, a particular emotion.
I was long perplexed by Bruce Lee’s command to put “emotional content” into the practice of martial arts. Which emotion? Why? Doesn’t that risk losing control? We might compare practicing the martial techniques, forms, and so on to writing a speech. You have roughly what you want to say or do. The forms give you sequences of moves. But, you have to improvise since it won’t be possible to use a form of twenty or thirty moves in a fight or match. You have to launch off from it, do something different, take a move somewhere more, push each thing further. I think, now, that is what Lee meant by expressing “emotional content.” You have your plan, or your speech, but then you launch off of it.
We can see this in any discipline. When we learn to cook, we generally stick to recipes. As we get better, we use the basic format and many of the ingredients but change the amount, take out some ingredients, and add others.
It is a difficult balance. We have to learn the techniques and the format of expression for our discipline. But, we have to know it well enough that we have internalized it, and can break through the format, pushing things further than we planned, to be spontaneous.
In that moment we are authentically ourselves, elevated by the discipline. The experience is one of becoming one’s higher Self, or true Self; there is a sense of freedom that takes place as you push the thing to its limits — or, rather, break your limits — whether that’s during a speech or during a martial arts session, or in any discipline.
To sum up:
We first have to become conscious of the demands and logic of our discipline — no matter what it is. Once we have achieved some level of success in it, we have to become conscious of our actions and our fears, understanding what we are capable of and avoiding the temptation of trying to impress, to be overly technical, to suggest that we have reached a higher level than we really have. Lastly, once we have mastered some techniques, as well as the format or the logic of our discipline, we have to be prepared to improvise, to go off the map, and to take the risk of going with our gut feeling and pushing what is working in the moment, to express our emotional understanding of that moment and of ourselves in relation to our skill, our art, and those we are engaging with.If we do those three things we will excel.