Five Defining Life Lessons from a 20-something (turned 30) Professional Speaker in 2017
Every time it comes to the end of the year, it’s a potpourri of emotions for me.
To be more exact, it’s a mixed bag of revelry, respite, pensiveness, restlessness, anticipation, gratitude, regrets and what have you.
I’ve refrained from typing full length reflections since a couple of years back. Well, at least, not posting it because I’ve always wanted to indulge in this private and personal space to be away from work, clients and the craziness of it all.
Don’t get me wrong though — I still love my work to its core.
And to be able to discover my life work (or as it’s been so popularized as “ikigai”) before I hit my big-3 has been one of the things I constantly remind myself to be thankful for.
Yet, as a “quasi-public” figure, there’s always this need to “be seen, heard and known” — like you know, “if you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind”. Which funnily makes me think that the introverted me sometimes, is quite a misfit in the professional speaking world I’m in with its occasional glitz and glam.
Being such a small (ok, I know you may not agree on this) person on a huge stage with my fair share of insecurities, I am still honestly trying to get used to being in the limelight. To be judged and compared to my fellow speaking peers. To discover and speak with… what is my authentic voice.
So in the medium I think I communicate best, I write this post to powerfully move on from 2017 and boldly step in 2018.
These were some of the key lessons for me in this past year:
1. Everyone walks a different journey, there is no point peering elsewhere
I’ve a voracious need and desire to compete, prove and achieve. Not so much for “winning others” but for “winning myself”. If I stagnate too long or don’t get results fast (which caused me to be sometimes, short-term minded), I start to get frustrated about myself.
Yet, I realize that my journey is uniquely mine and yours, uniquely yours. I used to doubt myself if I was earning enough, compared to my friends who have exited from their start-ups, are financially free, have multiple assets.
Until I realize this year that when I truly put my head down to focus on my work and water at where it matters, does the grass in my yard truly blossom and be greener on this side.
The best litmus test of it all — having my coaching client break down in tears of joy after a deep session, walking off the stage knowing I’ve done my best with a 1,200-strong crowd, ending a training session with my learners coming to me sharing how the experiences have inspired them to confront their deeper fears as a speaker.
It is with no doubt that I still thoroughly enjoy and choose this work.
This lesson is about having faith.
2. The “Big Break” often comes after your breaking point
At the start of the year, I was planning to let a part of my professional speaking work “die a natural death”. Because I looked at the whole of 2016 and that segment of the work yielded a meagre 4 figure sum.
Then came February when I was being invited to pitch for a regional project (which turned out surprisingly well), did that pitch now evolve into a 12-cities, sizeable 6-figure training and speaking contract. In fact, when I was working with my mentor on the negotiation of this contract, one thing he told me over the phone truly shook me,
“Ben, how many people at your age can be negotiating a contract of this quantum with a corporation client like yours?”
After the call, I paused for a while and really acknowledged myself.
In fact, I was at the point of giving up after months of hard work but getting no results. But all it takes now, is that one “big break”.
This lesson is about patience.
3. Thinking and following through is more important than starting up
If you subscribe to enough entrepreneurial content like I do, you know the buzz words for 2017 are hustle, grinding (not the way you’re thinking) and get shit done. There’s even a book called “Ready, Fire, Aim”
Yet in this adrenaline-charged world we live in, I realized sometimes it’s worth to “Aim, Ready, Fire” first. Well at least for me because I’ve the propensity to frequently dive head in and it doesn’t always land well.
Case-in-point — I invested a small amount of resource to start up a video channel, Millennials in Asia (MiA). Got the domain, hired a web designer, invested into a videography team and only then did I realize that the video interviews I had produced were not going to achieve the impact I had desired. At least, not the long-form 45-mins one that I had intended.
So yes, MiA will be re-worked into a palatable medium and format so… watch this space in 2018.
It’s never been easier to start. But it’s one hell of a tough process to stick with and follow it through to fruition.
This lesson is about clarity before action.
4. Always choose to play the long game
Just the last quarter alone, I did at least 5 sit-down coffee chats at my office where younger folks (in their twenties) were keen to find out more about the work I do as a professional speaker and coach. On the outside, it’s the glitz and glam — traveling to new cities, taking photos with clients from around the world, putting up in 4/5-stars hotel (which you only get to enjoy for a night’s sleep, honestly), all expenses paid trips, shooting snippet videos on Instastories and Boomerang videos.
Yet, they don’t know that this industry (like the tech start-up world) has a high rate of failure too. There is a fair share of speaker, trainer and coaches who barely earn enough. It’s a case of Just Over Broke (JOB) for some of them who think that speaking (or training) is a convenient segue from their corporate lives. For many, behind every “success social media posting” lies the nagging doubt on when the next gig will come. For until you scale yourself up to be a highly sought-after and differentiated speaker and coach, you will struggle in many ways, big or small.
But a couple of these “younglings” who have met me — some of them just want the “overnight success” without wanting to invest the many nights of hard work.
(To be fair, I don’t even consider myself remotely successful, by my own benchmarks)
One of them whom I decided to establish a mentoring relationship just gone quiet on me after the initial meet-up.
It’s only until the third year that I realize the seeds I’ve planted are finally paying off. It was quite a moment to check back into my CRM to discover that a corporate client that I had prospected with cold calls and emails just plainly ignored me. This year, they met me in December and booked me at my full fee with no negotiation. And they even recommended me to their HK counterpart!!
This lesson is about playing the long game.
5. Getting up is Privilege, going down is Humility
As a visiting professional speaker to the countries I’ve been and clients I’ve worked with, sometimes you get treated like a “mini-royalty”. And this sometimes, makes me feel really uneasy.
I get that my primary job is to make sure that 60-mins or full-day program gets delivered well without any hiccups and… nothing else. So with good intentions, my clients take care of me like a VIP. From chauffeured pick-ups at the airports to putting me up at much better hotels compared to their local staff sometimes to providing private dining rooms before I get up on stage to snatching my luggage from me so I can walk hands-free to wiping off beads of sweat on my forehead (???).
At times, I wonder if the bar has been set too high by my peers. I get that the role of speakers are important but to be treated like a mini-VIP and celebrity and placed on a pedestal is at times, just too much for me to take.
On my recent trips, I’ve made it a habit to give back in small ways I can.
Like the private chauffeur who took me everywhere for 3-days on my last overseas engagement, I tipped him generously on the last day at the airport as I departed. Yes, it’s a mere fraction of my speaking fees but when I saw the look on his face and his profuse “thank-you”, it was just priceless. When the local staff wanted me to have my lunch in a private dining area, I insisted on eating where they would usually eat… i.e., in their staff cafeteria. On my return trips, I would make it a point to get a gift for them like a recent one where I bought a baby gift for the liaison staff whose wife has given birth. Or gifting my autographed book to my interpreter who literally sweated it out big time with me.
Call these… acts of kindness if you would. But for me, I feel as a professional speaker, this is one huge imperative:
“When more is given unto you… the more is sought out from you and the more, you should pay it forward.
It’s a huge privilege to go up the stage to share your life’s work.
But I think it’s humility and all the more humanizing to get down from the stage and be thankful for the many “unsung heroes” who made your show and work possible.
This lesson is about staying grounded.
So with this post, I give a huge endearing hug to 2017.
And now as I close of this post… I choose to enter the new year with gratitude, hope, love and wide open arms, I tell 2018 —
“Let’s do this and do it… darn bloody well.”
Benjamin Loh is an Executive Public Speaking Coach, TEDx Speaker, Author and Professional Speaker on Millennial Matters. As the youngest Associate Certified Coach in Singapore and possibly, Asia-Pacific, he has coached over 100 corporate executives and entrepreneurs individually with over 750 hours of direct coaching and trained over 3,500 clients in high impact mass trainings in public speaking, presentation skills and leading the multi-generational workforce and Millennials. His work in entrepreneurship and public speaking has been featured on over 60 occasions on both local and regional media platforms like Huffington Post, Inc ASEAN, Channel News Asia (CNA), Vietnam QKTV, BFM Malaysia, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), Straits Times (ST), Business Times (BT) and News938 Live.