I was presenting to a virtual audience of 100 people about my work, something I had talked about dozens of times before. I was excited. It was going to be my biggest audience yet. I expected to be able to ignite their thinking, just like I had dozens of times before with other audiences.
I realized I was very wrong five minutes into the talk when an audience member asked why I was presenting on a topic that wasn’t relevant to the event's theme. I explained. She pressed. I became defensive. Messages started to flow into the chat, criticizing the relevancy of my topic and flaws they perceived in my work.
An audience member said my presentation was a waste of his time. I worked hard to maintain my composure. I thanked him, and acknowledged that my work wasn’t going to be relevant and fit everyone’s needs. I tried to move into the planned activity and get people into breakout rooms. I said I wanted to give people time to process. The reality was that I needed a break. Chat messages questioning my motives kept pouring in.
Finally, the session ended. I tried to hold on as long as I could. Then I turned off my camera and cried. I cried out of disappointment, shame, frustration and resentment. And then I asked myself, what did I learn?
I don’t regret what happened. If I’d been warned ahead of time about what would happen at that event, I would have still done it. When I share the story, some people try to reason what should have been done to prevent the negative reaction. I have to explain that I’m grateful for the experience.
I learned more in that 75 minutes session than I had in the dozens of times prior I presented on the topic. I wouldn’t change a single thing. Pain is a teacher.
When I feel pain, that is when I know I’m learning.
I don’t process this pain by hiding it. I talk about it a lot, with my team, with friends, acquaintances, and people I volunteer with. I even talk about it with clients and potential clients.
When I share my pain, others learn too. I learn from their reactions and observations. I want to know their perspective. The learning spreads. And I model what it means to be willing to learn from my mistakes.
Sharing this experience has also resulted in something surprising. Many shared their own related painful, shameful experiences. They implicitly said, “I’m going to let my pain be your teacher too.” They reciprocated. Our trust deepened.
We all have difficult, cringe-worthy, experiences we don’t want to talk about. Share what you learned so that others can learn from you and you can learn from them. I’ve been doing this all my life.
It’s what allowed me to make rapid career changes.
I know a lot of people are looking to transition their careers. I’ve done that numerous times. I went from being an academic to writing a Vietnamese newspaper, to tech marketing, to nonprofit leadership, and then starting my own company last year.
My life has been a series of painful experiences that I rapidly learned from. My parents are an inspiration for me. As Vietnamese refugees, I watched them navigate America in their limited English. They had no choice but to get out and try and they knew that it wouldn’t be perfect, and they did it anyway. Over and over again.
When I was a grad student, I had to learn Vietnamese quickly. I didn’t grow up speaking it, so I had to learn as an adult. Within two years, I was volunteering to present in Vietnamese to Vietnamese researchers. I had a very heavy American accent and I’m sure that there are times when I made many grammatical mistakes. And I did it anyway.
I got my real-life MBA by returning to Seattle and running my family‘s Vietnamese language newspaper. One of the things I had to learn was how to sell. So I’d get on these calls with these ad agencies and they would ask me all of these questions and I just had to say I don’t know, I don’t know. But I didn’t ask other people to just do it for me. I remember so clearly after one particularly hard call, I told myself, “You are bad at this now, but you’re going to get really good in two years.” And I was.
I decided to leave the best job I ever had in the middle of the pandemic to start my own company called CuriosityBased. I’m constantly taking risks to push our own learning. Here are two examples:
Whenever we are about to go into a workshop with new exercises, I remind the team, “Even though we’ve rehearsed this a lot, we’re going to make some mistakes. And when they happen, we just need to roll with it. We will learn.”
When I created my first digital course, we opted for speed over quality. We created a course in two weeks, which usually takes three months to do. Some early testers criticized the video quality as unprofessional. And yet I put it out in the world because I wanted to start the learning process. I wanted to hear thoughts and reactions.
One of the things that I’m most proud of is that I share what I learn with others and in doing so, I model learning.
People often ask, what am I going to achieve?
I ask, what am I going to learn?
Some people are motivated by the impact that they’re going to have on the world. My motivations are much more selfish. I’m motivated by what I’m going to learn and sharing what I learned with others in hopes that they will share with me their perspectives and what they’ve learned. I’m motivated to create a space for people to be curious.
I want to return to the event I described earlier and share what I learned:
- I didn't manage the audience's expectations.
- I didn’t think enough about what the audience wanted to learn.
- I was warned before the talk and brushed off other people‘s concerns. I was naïve.
- When confronted with questions about the relevancy of my topic, I got defensive.
- I feared engaging in conflict in front of a live audience, so I retreated to the agenda.
All of these mistakes have since made me a much better presenter and facilitator.
It’s not just about getting better and changing, it’s about getting more clear.
I learned to lean into what I do and what I don’t do. From the pain came clarity.
Whenever you have these painful learning experiences, you learn what you can change and it becomes more clear what can’t change because it is core to who you are. You don’t have to apologize for who you are and what you do.
And remember, pain is a teacher. Spread the lessons you learned.