It was lucky I got caught at some a formative age. When I was around 6 years old I was part of several “music clubs”: I recited poetry, played solo recorder pieces and sang with other children of a similar age.
Now I’m a scientist with little time for performing arts or creative pursuits. Yet the benefits of what my middle class British parents put me through as a child still kinda comes through.
A conversation with a friend and former corporate work colleague gave me pause – he described his visceral dislike of presenting in front of large groups of people. I was surprised to learn that: he is a confident successful people-person who has surely spoken a lot in front of audiences in his career as a scientist. Yet he didn’t like public speaking; didn’t think he did a particularly good job of it.
Most people dislike public speaking. Even teachers that I know! They have said that they don’t mind talking to a classroom full of pupils, but presenting in front of their perceived “peers” is a daunting task.
I think that my participation in musical events and youth theatre led quite organically into debating, which I took part in during primary (a mild, watered-down form), secondary school and university. Debating teaches you to differentiate between attacks on your arguments and on you as a person – to think calmly under pressure and, vitally, to speak without reading your speech off a sheet of paper.
When I first entered the workplace and had to present updates on my research, people were impressed with my ability to do so, “It’s like she’s been here for years.” It wasn’t a skill I cultivated any more, but the benefits of what I had done before came through. I’m lucky to be one of the people who aren’t terrified by the thought of giving a presentation, nor do I strongly dislike them. I always get pre-talk nerves, I am not usually skipping around with delight at the thought of imminently giving a scientific presentation…but I don’t mind them.
Why does this matter?
The other day I had to give a presentation with some of my fellow first year graduate students as part of our first-year “intro to grad school” compulsory course. It went well. I was unexpectedly pleased that it went as well as it did.
Graduate school has the power to drain you of all your self-esteem if you let it. The sense of intense competition – for jobs, grades, resources – combined with intangible goal posts (How do you know when you’re “working hard enough” or “making good progress”?) leads to the oft-cited Imposter Syndrome. I worry that I’m going to be found out and kicked off the program, that I’ll fall victim to a grad school horror story or just generally be the only one to mess up.
So when something comes along that unambiguously declares: You Are Good At This, I fall upon it. I am good at some things. Some things that may or may not be directly related to success in graduate school…but even if I prove to be a failure at grad school, what does it matter when I’m good at other stuff?
Even if it’s trivial achievements like “Cooking Up Delicious Pesto Pasta”, “Writing Very Neatly” or “Making Witty Remarks” – they are things that not everyone can do, certainly not in that combination. These are what I need to remember as I progress through the challenges of doctoral study – I am never going to be a complete failure.