I talked last week about finding a snake in my dishwasher, and how that one experience made me face one of my biggest fears.
Before that, I had another fear, not as scaly — but just as scary:
Standing in front of a group of people. The fear was even worse if I was expected to speak while standing up there.
Back in grade school, I was always one of the brightest kids in my class. One day, we had a spelling bee that would determine who would go on to represent our school at the first grade level for the regional competition.
My turn came, and the word I was given to spell was “black.”
Easy-peasy. I’d gotten it right on a spelling test earlier that week.
I was so terrified of being up there in front of my classmates that I spelled it wrong — on purpose — just so I could go sit down.
I never even told my family. I didn’t want them to pressure me to spell it right next time because I just didn’t want to be up there again. Whether I was the best speller in my class or not.
I felt safer hiding, dulling my own shine so no one would notice me.
Several years later, I wrote a speech that won a contest, and so I had to go to the regional competition to give my speech.
I wanted to throw up when I found out.
I didn’t know that was part of the deal when I wrote it. I thought it was just a regular class assignment.
No hiding this time. No spelling words wrong so I could go sit down in my safe little seat in the back of the classroom.
The day of the speech came and I still wanted to throw up, probably worse than ever before.
I gave my speech with shaking knees and butterflies doing loop-de-loops in my stomach, and the whole time, I was trying to make myself as small and quiet as possible — as if I could give the speech and still stay invisible, somehow.
Of course I didn’t win.
The winner was another girl whose speech topic and content was no better than my own, but whose presentation style seemed effortlessly theatrical and vibrantly engaging.
I remember my mom trying to make me feel better by saying, “They always pick the showy ones.”
I felt awful for losing, but I felt even worse for playing it down because I was so afraid of being up there.
And I made myself small for no other reason than that I had surrendered to my own fear.
Several years later, I won another speech contest, but there was a big difference this time around:
By this time, I’d been working with two different mentors for a few years, and I’d completely shaken my fear of being in front of people.
The first mentor asked me to come see her after school one day my freshman year. I thought I was in trouble for something — though I had no idea what for — but she shared that she was a former Mrs. California runner-up. She said she could see that I had what it takes, and she wanted to teach me how to compete.
She was talking partly about appearances, but as my teacher, she also could tell that I was a smart kid.
So, I got my parents’ permission, and she started coaching me on the basics. That got me into my first competition, where I made the top 15.
I didn’t win my first time out, but just getting that far helped me to see that maybe she was right. Maybe I did have something worth exploring in this arena.
One of the judges came up afterward and said that I’d done really well.
And where she said I’d done well was where it mattered most to me: in my interview. On stage, I had “posture problems” as she said. (I was a tall girl so like many tall, shy girls, I slouched, which made me look less confident.)
So, I kept at it, which is how I met my second mentor.
He was a judge in competition #3, only one year after my first foray into this world. He came up to speak to my mom afterward, after I’d placed as second runner up this time — and he said the same thing. I had what it takes to go far, and he wanted to teach me how to win.
Mentor #1 had gotten me as far as she had gotten herself — to a runner-up position — and it was now time to grow to another level.
As luck would have it, he lived very close by, and so my mom would take me to work with him about once a week. He became my own personal “Mr. Vic” (like Michael Caine was to Sandra Bullock in “Miss Congeniality”), except he was way nicer. Our coaching sessions were a lot of hard work but also a lot of positivity and laughs, for him, for me, and for my mom who bore witness to the whole transformational process, watching me grow from shy little caterpillar to confident butterfly.
Less than 6 months after we started working together, I tied for the win, and lost on a tie-breaker to someone in a shiny dress. They literally lined us up on stage, didn’t tell us why, and the judges had to cast their vote in a short span of time to break the tie.
The heartbreaking thing was that we reviewed the scorecards afterward and discovered that I’d come out so far ahead after the interviews that it was impossible for the girl who won to have have caught up to me. Something had gone wrong with tabulation of the scores, and that win should have been mine, by all rights.
But there was nothing to be gained by bringing that up weeks after the competition. It would have made me look bitter and not really given us the satisfaction of winning. I say “us” because by this point, my mentor was as invested as I was in my success. It would just have been a huge scandal. Better to choose our battles, we all agreed.
Six months later, the exact same thing happened: tie for the win, tie-breaker, lost to a sparkly dress.
That one was much harder to swallow than the first one. But still, I decided to shake it off — and thought to myself, “When you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
I got a sparkly dress of my own. No more excuse for getting out-shined. Literally.
I also went against my usual color palette and chose something that was on the opposite side of the spectrum from my usual tastes. It was also on the opposite side of the palette from what most girls typically choose.
And sure enough, the next time, I won. Lucky #13 in my string of competitions, and only 3 months after the most recent tie.
And the score cards showed that I had come out so far ahead in interview (which was always my greatest strength), and this time I’d held the distance in the on-stage categories, so that no one else was anywhere near my scores. It was a hands-down, clear-cut victory, which was exactly what we had hoped for.
The video of the night I won is quite hilarious, actually, because you can see my mentor bouncing up and down in the front row like a jumping bean when they called my name.
The Master of Ceremonies (who knew about the last two ties) even shared that little fact with the audience, right after he announced that I had won.
My work with mentors #1 and #2 had made me air-tight when it came to nerves about being in front of people. I simply wasn’t afraid of it anymore because I’d learned to find the fun in it. I’d learned to love being in front of people because it had simply become a conversation with a bigger group of people.
I wasn’t afraid of being judged by onlookers because I’d realized that it wasn’t the end of the world to be judged. Win or lose, I learned something every time. I took the losses in stride and learned what I could from what the numbers on the scoresheets said, and what that meant I needed to work on.
Plus, working with my mentors had humanized the judges because a few of them had come up to me afterward and said that they thought I had done well, that they believed in me, that I should keep at it. Seeing them as people instead of as critics made them less scary and intimidating.
And the audience members beyond the judges’ table, they were less frightening too because they had no influence on the competition whatsoever. The girl who got the most applause was not the girl who won. That decision lay in the hands of the judges, the people whose opinions mattered more than the opinion of the mob.
One judge had even believed enough in me to invest hours upon hours of his time in helping to make me a stronger competitor. And he did that simply because he believed in me. There was nothing on the line for him other than hoping to raise someone up who he believed had potential. He didn’t get the title, or the prizes.
He just got the satisfaction of seeing me achieve my goal, and in knowing that he’d helped me along my journey to get there.
Even with all that skill-building and confidence-building, I still had to do the “when in Rome” thing and glitter myself up on stage a bit, because sometimes — when it comes down to breaking ties in a competition — the human eye naturally gravitates toward the brightest thing. In a painting, in a portrait, and yes, even on a stage. [Or on a stack of media kits, when reviewing them as a group with a selection committee.]
In one of my recent posts, I was pretty harsh in speaking out against shiny stuff that exists to deceive. However, the right kind of sparkle, that’s a different story entirely. Inner sparkle is what matters most, but sometimes you’ve got to gloss up the surface just enough so it matches what’s inside.
Sparkle isn’t everything, but when it comes down to splitting hairs and you’re competing in the arena of snap decisions, sometimes the people who are responsible for choosing may forget what came before, what “should” be most important — and let their monkey-minds pick the shiniest thing in front of them instead of following their higher-mind guidance.
So sometimes you’ve got to let that inner sparkle out to play, so the choosy folks can notice you, and that by standing out, you have a better chance of holding their attention once you’ve got it.
Sometimes they can keep it in perspective, and sometimes they can’t. Better safe than sorry, right? So let that light inside you shine.
One of the best lessons I took away from it all was this:
Healthy competition is never about beating your competitors. It’s about beating your own personal best, about pushing farther than you did last time, shining brighter than you ever thought you could, letting that shine touch others, and about getting back up when you fail to try again. It’s a never-ending cycle of growth, evolution, and learning.
One of my favorite adages says “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.”
Trust me, it’s hard to be gracious and keep a smile on your face when you lose on a tie-breaker, especially twice in a row, when so much of your heart was invested in the first place.
But grace is the only way to rise above the disappointment and find the lesson lurking in the loss that’s meant for you, to help you grow.
And it’s the only way you keep yourself in the good graces of the people responsible for choosing who wins.
If you’re a sore loser, they’ll remember that next time.
And that’s not the way you want to be remembered.