The fork in the road

Recently I was at a conference as a speaker. My presentation was about sharing three small and inspiring thoughts about being a passionate designer. I’d previously given this talk in Denmark so was fairly confident it would go well. 

When my presentation came to a close a few members of the audience approached me to offer their congratulations and share how the talk inspired them. It’s such a rewarding feeling when people come up to you thanking you. I smiled, chatted to a few of them and then went off to lunch. 

Any time you do an interview, presentation or workshop the most common question afterwards from peers seems to be how did it go? You never really know how something went immediately after. The crowd laughs along with your jokes, applauds and a handful come up afterwards to thank you. I thought I’d done pretty well. I pulled out my phone and replied ‘I think it went well!’

A few weeks later an email showed up in my inbox titled: You have feedback!. The conference organisers had surveyed the audience. There were some comments about my session. Curious and unfazed, I clicked through to see what they’d said.

I started scrolling. There were some lovely words from some very kind people. I smiled. But there were also some comments that weren’t so lovely. Soon my mind was tuning out the positive ones and  began focusing on the negative ones. 

It’s like they say in the hospitality industry; someone is much more inclined to leave a review if the experience they had was negative. You never hear from the silent admirer.

The above however was not something I had yet put the pieces together on. My mind was churning. Feelings went from one of pride to one of absolute humility. Immediately I started to question myself. Who did I think I was? What am I doing? What do I have contribute that’s better than anyone else? Why me?

I began to make irrational decisions. By this point I had already drafted up my new website which includes a Speaking section. Immediately I decided to remove it from my site – take speaking off completely. Then I started considering deleting my Twitter and removing myself from the internet as much as possible. I was embarrassed and started to second guess every decision I’d made in the last year. 

After a day of two of being down in the dumps (and a phone call to my mum later – thanks mum), I realised I had a choice. I could choose to either let this pull me down or make me stronger.

I was at a fork in the road. Negativity had taken over and in front of me there were two paths: A path of defeat, shame, humility and embarrassment. Or a path of learning, improving, persevering and creating. 

It was then that I realised that I could turn these negative comments into a learning experience. 

So instead, I started to ask myself what could I do better next time? How can I improve? What could have made it more engaging for people? Was it the right audience?

Reading feedback is one thing, but taking it onboard going forward is another. Honesty can be a harsh but useful truth. There’s a 50/50 chance that you may not like what comes out of the person's mouth. 

Asking the question of ‘why’ can be of tremendous help when making a decision or deciding what to do next. It can help uncover hidden motivations, identify new problems or give more clarity to a decision. Why did I take on this speaking gig? Was it because I wanted to help others or to make myself feel good? Did I actually have some insight to share with the audience that would be beneficial for them and their career?

It’s ok to question these things, in fact it’s probably a good idea to. Questioning yourself often is a good reality check – a check in with yourself to see what path you’re on and why you’re doing X, Y and Z.

I decided to use this fork in the road as an opportunity to do exactly that. Through asking myself some questions I uncovered my motivations behind why I wanted to do the presentation, which looked something like this:

  • To challenge myself
  • To challenge others in the industry to think differently
  • To inspire others to try something new
  • To meet other likeminded people
  • To get my name out there

You’ll notice that some of those motivations are selfish in the sense that they’re about me and my personal development. Selfishness is often frowned upon. Should we really be so unselfish that we do and give everything away, leaving behind the opportunity to learn and grow ourselves? I think both parties can benefit and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ultimately the goal of my presentation was success. I wanted it to be a successful, inspiring and engaging talk. But success isn’t something that happens overnight. Success is continuously taking small steps, one at a time until you reach your goal. I realised that’s what this presentation was: one small step in the right direction. 

Doing one thing well and expecting a life full of success to immediately follow is rare. After this experience I believe the opposite is also true. Having one bad experience doesn’t guarantee you a life of bad experiences. We can either dwell on it and let it hold us down, or learn from it and make the next one better. 

After two days of thinking I decided to choose the path on my right – yes I was picturing them in my mind like two yellow brick roads – the path of learning. Shaking off the feelings I’d had the last few days I picked up my feet and started to see the feedback as a learning experience. I’d keep the speaking section up on my site, consider the improvements I could make to my public speaking and continue persevering with my side projects and helping others. 

Sometimes life causes us to question everything. You may occasionally find yourself at a fork in the road and think ‘which way is the right direction?’ 

I decided that a few negative comments from people along the way are worth it if I know that sharing my knowledge could help just one person. This was enough motivation for me to not quit and choose the path on my right. 

Negative experiences are going to happen to you. Life doesn’t give you a guaranteed ticket to a smooth sailing. I’m in the process of training my mindset to take on these rough patches as learning experiences and challenges. If you decide to let every wave hold you down, it’s going to be really hard to move forward on your path (waves are pretty strong y’know). 

Which path will you choose?