More than two thousand eyes are transfixed upon me, the Santiago Canyon College valedictorian. I approach the podium. They’re expecting a keynote speech out of me, and from the lofty introduction I was just given, they’re now expecting a great one.
Unbeknownst to the audience, my legs are trembling with fear. I place my notes upon the podium, take a deep breath, and begin.
I start by telling a scripted “joke”.
Crickets. The audience is silent. I gulp. Their eyes are glued upon my silhouette.
“Over a thousand people have taken the time to listen to me fumble,” I think.
My heart is pounding. I begin again. Suddenly, the microphone cuts out. It cuts back in, and then out. “This can’t be,” I think. Oh but it is. My voice is chopped, going from audible to inaudible.
Finally, it cuts back in for several seconds. “Okay, that was weird, it’s back though, good,” I think to myself. And just then, it cuts out again! I sound like a robot who’s extension chord is being plugged in and out repeatedly!
It takes me an unimaginably awkward twenty seconds to learn why I sound so foolish: I’m speaking too close to the microphone itself. Finally, I realize this, take a quick breath, and continue. I’m panting. I don’t want to choke.
“Can they hear me breathing through the mic?” I ask myself. With two thousand ears still listening (by now there’s no way everyone has the nerve to watch this train wreck), I barrel onward.
Midway through the speech now, and it’s still poor, but at least I haven’t done anything else to embarrass myself.. Just as people finally start to relax into the monotony of my speech, realizing that the awkward fun is over, something big happens, something I will NEVER forget.
As the script calls for, I go for “the home run”. Deepening my voice for emphasis, I sloooowly raise my now cupped left hand towards the sky.
Moving at the speed of a glacier, I turn my head towards my slow moving hand; my eyes transfixed into my cupped finger tips, as if I’m holding gold in my palm. With this gesture towards the heavens unfolding, I try to inspire the audience.
With long pauses and intent emphasis on each and every word, I recite Thoreau’s, “When you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams, and endeavor to live the life with which you have imagined, you will meet success unexpected in common hours.”
The quoted passage ends. Yet, I’m still staring into my cupped palm. I maintain the gesture for emphasis, my arm outstretched, my body rigid, the whole audience watching.
Finally, after a gloriously cliché five second hold, the gesture concludes. I come back to earth.
“Finally, I’m starting to get into the groove,” I think to myself.
I pause, glancing below towards the audience. Two young men catch my eye.
Seeing that I’m looking in their direction, their smirks transform into gigantic smiles across each of their faces. Then, it happens. Laughter ensues. They start cackling. Howling. They erupt in laughter. In a flash, I consider, “Does the whole audience want to laugh at me?” I conclude that it’s entirely possible that they do.
I’m still in the middle of my speech, with another minute to go.
I feel exposed.
Suddenly, a lightbulb flickers. I can’t explain the feeling. All I can say is I recognize, in a moment, in front of all these people, that embarrassing myself in the most stressful way imaginable, like I’m doing, is a moment to embrace. “This is a microcosm of life — we fail so that we may succeed,” I think to myself.
In a heartbeat, I feel emancipated. It’s a surreal experience.
Upon having this epiphany in the face of being laughed at, I now perceive the audience suddenly as being on my same team, even the guys who are still laughing at me.
I realize, everyone here is giving me a platform to fail, to grow, to learn, so that someday, I can thrive in a situation just like this. With a relaxed breath, I continue following the script. The speech doesn’t improve, but I certainly feel better delivering it. I conclude, receive a courtesy applause, and take a seat.
That night, I reflect on how my speech was symbolic of my life’s course. I think of my years as the last kid picked playing baseball, I think of the countless rejections I received before making sales, when I performed cold sales as a teenager. And I consider my speech.
From the reflection, I gain an insight. My ability to produce a result under pressure seems to hinge on the following:
Whether I embrace the stress of the moment, or resist it. I realize that I tend to thrive when I embrace the nerves, and contrarily, I choke when I resist those same nerves.
“I certainly didn’t embrace the nerves before my speech today,” I conclude.
This fascinates me. Could my ability to perform be so deeply connected to one single factor? Surely, there’s more, I think.
So what does make the difference between thriving under pressure, versus choking and fumbling? How does one cultivate the skills to perform, when everybody is watching, when the stress of the moment is there? I become determined to find out.
I didn’t know it just yet, but failing in front of all those people was the spark that would lead me to finding my life’s passion.
The following fall, I begin my studies at U.C.L.A. as a psychology student, which I see as perfect, given my new thirst for understanding performance, mindset, and stress.
UCLA is a top five ranked psychology school in the nation, and now, my passion for the learning subject has a far deeper meaning than simply “getting the grades”. I tackle the course work with fervent passion, scouring my lectures to understand how a person can learn to thrive under stress and pressure.
I sign up for classes that may give me clues. Courses such as sport psychology, neuropsychology, and mind-body psychology are eye opening. Suddenly, I’m learning strategies researchers conclude help a person thrive under pressure. The more I learn in school, the more time I devote to learning outside of the classroom. I take public speaking courses, improv courses, and read countless books on my own.
I’m becoming relentless: searching to understand how one can use his/her mind to thrive when the stress was there, and when the pressure was on. One day, I drive fifty miles to Cal State Fullerton and proceed to chase down arguably the best sport psychologist in the world, Dr. Ken Ravizza, and persuade him to let me pick his brain. I follow up by sitting in the front row of his three hour nighttime lecture, the most engaged student there, and I’m not even a CSUF student.
Likewise, I devour countless biographies, learning the secrets of the greats, and how they performed when it mattered most, to them. Some of my favorites today are those written about Michael Jordan, Sam Walton, and Jeff Bezos.
Philosophy also comes into focus, as I study the works of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Buddhists. They all use different language, but I find, each of these philosophies lays out ideas that concur with what modern day research indicates.
My passion for learning how to perform under pressure only grows — and my thirst for knowledge proves to be very fruitful. Within a years time, I realize I now have a growing list of jedi tricks that the experts, the philosophers, and the researchers propose work with great effectiveness.
But having the tricks in my back pocket isn’t enough… I’m like a kid on Christmas morning… I have to try out what I was learning! What actually works when we’re placed in a situation where our performance matters most? When other people are watching? When we experience stress?
During my last two years in college, I test the ideas I’ve uncovered like a mad man. Whether it’s giving public speeches, making cold calls and pretending to sell fake products, chatting up the cute brunette with her friends around her on my way to lecture, or doing improv in front of an audience, I literally can’t stop myself from trying out these strategies, ideas, and philosophies for thriving amid stressful situations.
During this time, I’m seeking out multiple “stressful” situations every single day (just ask my old roommates). The amount of speeches, cold calls, improvisations, and “pickup” routines I perform throughout college borders on insane, but to me, it’s deeply meaningful, because I’m solving for something that haunted me throughout my early life.
Through this process, I find that some of these secrets I’ve uncovered are profound. No longer is the stress of giving a speech, going to a job interview, or talking to the cute brunette in the presence of her friends, debilitating to me, but rather, the same stress is actually fueling my success.
I find that now, I perform best when there is pressure. This notion blows my mind. Upon cultivating this skill within me, after years of being the guy who choked under pressure, I become consumed with amazement and jubilant excitement.
The relentless drive to master this area of my life continues after I graduate from U.C.LA. I use the skills I’ve cultivated to break into Stanford’s psychology department by nailing an interview, giving validation that my ideas actually produce results!
Of course, this only increases my desire to acquire more knowledge, and now I’m involved with Stanford research, where I find more ideas and continue to apply my strategies for thriving under stress. Likewise, giving public speeches is becoming a passion of mine. I perform over thirty speeches and enter multiple speech competitions in under one calendar year!
Four years after breaking down in front of a large audience, I realize I must find a way turn my calling into my life’s profession.
Today, just several years after crumbling in front of that big audience, I have a well oiled framework that I use to help people thrive under stress. Now, I’m so grateful to be a speaker, coach, consultant, and founder of PEAK inc.— a business I created to coach & consult men on how to overcome social anxiety and thrive under pressure & stress, so they can give a peak performance in the moments that mean most to them.
This is a dream come true for me because my business is an expression of a deeply held belief. My strongest belief, the one I feel in every single fiber of my being, is that having some stress, rejection, and hardship are key to living the life we truly desire. For me, it was being laughed at in front of all of those people that snapped my life into high gear and ultimately, gave me my life’s mission.
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