Photo via Stefan Nitzsche

To hell with fear

Or “How I ended up singing my entire talk at Beyond Tellerrand”

I feel incredibly fortunate. My job occasionally affords me the opportunity to travel around the world and talk to people who are hungry for insight, for knowledge, and for inspiration. In the last couple years I have talked about my belief that “Design is relationships” and how incredibly difficult it can be to “Design all the things.” I’ve talked to entreprenuers about hiring designers and what to expect—and no, there are no unicorns and ninjas usually are a bad hire because they kill people and we really aren’t in that business, are we? I’ve been fortunate to share the design process behind the re-design of Twitter and I’ve talked to students about empathy, collaboration, and why it’s really important to build things. 

This week I flew to Düsseldorf to speak at Beyond Tellerrand, an amazing conference organized by one of the most wonderful guys you’ll ever meet, Marc Thiele. The line-up of speakers was awesome and throughout the first day I found myself nodding in agreement with so much of what was being said. It was the last talk of the day, however, that really blew me away.

James Victore gave an impassioned talk that had the audience cheering repeatedly. He told stories about taking a risk in order to do something greater. His message was simple: our work is a gift. Everything he said resonated deeply with me. I sat there mesmerized, as if he was talking directly to me, telling me that my work was a gift and that I couldn’t just nod in agreement, but that I had to respond with action. 

I have to tell you a secret, it wasn’t always easy to stand in front of people and confidently share my thoughts with a large group of strangers. I struggled with a terrible fear that people were going to find out that I was a fraud, that I had somehow been mistaken for someone else—someone more qualified, full of expertise and wisdom. I hated that feeling. I did everything in my power to replace that thought with what people I loved and trusted were telling me. And I felt like I had finally broken free from its hold on me. 

But it came back. 

I was about to go on stage at Build two years ago and I was looking at the rest of the speakers—people whom I have tremendous respect for, that have inspired me over the years—and that fear told me, “You’re not in their league. You aren’t qualified to share the stage with them. You are a fraud.” Thankfully, I ignored those thoughts and walked on stage to deliver a talk that summed up my belief that relationships are the core of everything we do and that being aware of those relationships in our work has the potential to change the world. 

The funny thing is, I think a lot of people experience this. Over the years I have had this same conversation with countless designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Each one confessing in a slightly hushed tone that they too felt like a fraud and were afraid everyone would find out. It turns out, there is even a clinical term for this in psychology: Impostor Syndrome.  

It made me wonder, “why do so many of us feel this way?” 

Is it because our industry is relatively young? Is it because many of us are self-taught? Is it because our work is on display for the whole world and instant criticism and sometimes even outright venom is the price we pay for sharing our work online? Maybe it’s all of the above in some way or another. Maybe that fear is there to ensure that mediocrity endures. Maybe that fear is there to tell you that it is better play it safe than do something big that might fail. 

Or maybe it’s terrifying to come to grips with the potential for greatness that exists in each and every one of us. 

I was scheduled to give my talk the next day and so I went back to my hotel to run through the slides again before falling to sleep thinking about what James had said. 

I woke up the next morning with this really weird feeling that was telling me I was being way too safe. My talk was good. I was super prepared. But this thought kept gnawing at me and as I crossed the park on my way to the venue, I thought to myself, “Screw it! I will do my talk with no slides. Just me and the audience. No crutches.” As I walked a little further, I thought to myself, “Screw it! I will sing them a love-song!” “No, no, no,” I told myself, “that is crazy talk. You don’t have a guitar. And you’re not going to get up there and sing for 45 minutes. Good god, man, what are you thinking?!?!”

The talks for the second day definitely shared a common theme and I was a little worried about some overlap, but not all that much. However, five minutes into Meagan Fisher’s talk I got a bit more worried. We had a bunch of the same slides. Some of them almost word for word. “That’s okay,” I thought, “a little reinforcement isn’t a bad thing.” But as the talk went on, I felt that gnawing feeling get stronger and stronger and I knew that I had no choice. 

So after Megan’s talk, I found Marc and told him about the overlap in our talks and that I already had this crazy idea, and could he get me a guitar? (Part of me figured if he couldn’t find one, I was off the hook and that I’d just go ahead and give my talk as planned and it would all be fine.)

Sure enough, Marc found me a guitar. I wasn’t getting off the hook. And I knew I didn’t want to. I was going to improvise my entire talk in song while playing the guitar. Part of me was excited, Part of me was sick to my stomach. “What if I blow the whole thing? What if I sound like crap? What if? What if? What if?” It was that same fear creeping back in trying to make me second-guess myself—to be conservative, to play it safe. Nothing of note was ever done by playing it safe. And staring down that fear was incredibly empowering. I had a chance to do something the audience would remember and so I seized it. 

It turned out okay, I think. I’m pretty sure my points got across, and, if nothing else, everyone had a good laugh. But more than that, I hope that every person in that room walked away a little more inspired to step out of their comfort zone.

To hell with fear. You are a gift and your work is a love-song. 

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