In last week’s Democratic National Convention comedian Sarah Silverman quoted her shrink, who said ‘we don’t get what we want, we get what we think we deserve.’
I don’t remember why I chose to compete in an oratorical contest when I was 12, didn’t know it really meant, didn’t understand what the Optimist Club of Allentown was, but I wrote a speech, and it was about encouraging people to vote.
My speech coach was named Rick Sharp: and even though it was the 1980s, he was in the 70s still with his glasses, his hair and beard, the tie he wore the nights I competed. I don’t remember much about the speech or Rick, but I can see how his eyes narrowed as he focused on me while I practiced, how he twisted the hair beneath his lips, the kind of advice he gave me to be natural, to relax.
I won the first round, which couldn’t have been more than three or four kids my age plus our families, a room that maybe seated 20.
But when I got to the next level (it went from city to district to state), it was at the headquarters for Mack Trucks in Allentown, a big parking lot, a big stage with an auditorium and every seat full: maybe a couple hundred people, it seemed that many at the time.
I’d never been on a stage like that with the flags, the podium, the lights…we picked numbers to determine our speaking order, and I drew last. It was a long night of oration. The speeches were maybe five minutes each, and I was against a dozen others. Their speeches were good, and it was hard for me to sit there thinking about mine and not get intimidated. When I looked back at my parents, my grandparents, they’d smile and make encouraging faces, anything you can say without words to say you’ll do great.
When it was my time, I took to the stage but stumbled, nearly fell and dropped my papers but recovered, got to the podium and microphone, and delivered it. The speech talked about the diversity of our country, how we’re like strands in a rope that come together and tighten when we’re under pressure, that we actually get closer through times of tension, we get stronger. I used my hands to illustrate the strands coming together like Rick Sharp taught me, and when they announced who won it was me, William Gibbard.
But when I went to the next competition at the state level I really didn’t think I could go any further. I didn’t present well, didn’t win or place, but at least I wasn’t surprised or disappointed because I didn’t believe I could — I’d gotten what I thought I deserved.
The same thing happened my second year in college when I competed for a theater scholarship on a big stage at Penn State, the first time I’d ever gotten sick before a performance, my nerves were so bad: another big stage but no one in the audience, just a few serious-looking people acting as judges in the front, that look of disgust.
It was me and a girl I was dating, who our director later left his wife to marry, my scene partner (I tried looking them up years later but he never wrote back, probably best).
My color was off since I’d just puked, and I had no sense of the character or scene, I was just aware of myself acting, spouting out lines, trying to control my breathing, my voice, it was like one of those dreams where you see yourself about to die but you can’t do anything about it.
I didn’t believe I belonged there, and because my ability to rationalize had grown more sophisticated, more mired in fear and self-doubt with the life experience that high school and college brings, I expected only failure, which was easier to accept once you expected it.
The theater and speech performances helped me in corporate life though, when I got into managing projects and we often had to give updates or defend the work we were doing, a different kind of stage that still requires you know your lines, understand motivation, look natural.
What Sarah Silverman’s shrink said reminded me of how much we set our destinies by our own expectations and assumptions. So much of what I haven’t done yet in my life has been governed by what I’ve allowed myself to see, for what I think possible.
When I climbed Mount Rainier in 1999 I had no experience mountaineering, didn’t have the right gear, didn’t have a guide who even wanted us to summit because he was a jerk, and yet I got to the top by sheer will because I couldn’t imagine not making it.
As I’ve gone from the security of work to the limbo-land of changing professions and trying to find ways to monetize my writing but still do the kind of writing I love, I’m re-experiencing those fears from the past, and how funny it is we cling to those fears, we defend them: they’re predictable at least, something we can hide behind and control, by not taking the leaps of faith that let us do truly remarkable things.
Those times we’re at our best we’re probably using fear as a kind of fuel, which focuses us on a speech or a part we’re playing, or lets us traverse a dangerous stretch of trail where every step really matters. It’s what I think drives climbers to take those risks, how alive you feel focusing yourself that way, knowing you have to.
Once we manage the fear we not only get what we want or expect, we get both — and then I think, we really live.