Three Things I’ve Learned From my Stint as a Talking Head
In just a few short months of doing something I find fairly excruciating — talking about things in public — I’ve started to finally understand more about how my own brain works, what it means to be an insightful thinker, and how human we all are.
They say you should do something outside of your comfort zone on a regular basis. Up until my 30s, I never took this advice. I spent the first three decades of my life mostly avoiding things I wasn’t good at, or at least not really trying at them. In day-to-day life, nothing takes me farther out of my comfort zone than public speaking. To combat this, I avoided it for most of my life. I literally went through law school without ever raising my hand to speak.
But one thing they don’t tell you about life is that things start to come together in your 30s. You start figuring out who you are, you start to get a little more fearless, you start hitting your stride. I have gotten so that I regularly challenge myself in a lot of ways, though I also take Susan Cain’s advice to remember who I am (a tried-and-true introvert) and try not to contort myself too much to be something I am not.
About six months ago, I volunteered to be a co-host on a weekly 90-minute podcast about law and technology called This Week in Law. Much to my chagrin, they accepted my offer. So now, nearly every week — unless work or travel gets in the way — I join my co-host Denise Howell and riff about developments in law and technology with two guests who are experts on various topics in the area. It’s terrifying.
Every week, I have a slight feeling of dread as Friday approaches. Oh, I should mention that it’s broadcast live and it includes video. Plus, it is recorded for posterity and distributed through a whole host of channels. Earlier in my life, this would have my definition of hell. Now, it’s a healthy challenge. I still get nervous every week, but each time I end up finding the 90 minutes talking to smart strangers (and my smart but familiar co-host) exhilarating and fun. During the process, I have learned so much, not only about the topics but about so much more…
(1) Reading more is not always the answer. There is a certain baseline of reading you have to do to get up to speed on something. But once you have the basics down (i.e. the who, what, when, where, and why), sometimes reading more can be unproductive, at least when time is limited. After that, the best preparation is actually just thinking. Putting together what you know about other things and applying it to that particular situation. This sounds so silly when I write it out, but this realization has actually been kind of life-changing because it applies in so many different contexts of life. In the workplace, for example, we rarely build in time to stop and think. We’re too busy answering emails, crossing off to-do lists. But it’s the thinking time that is arguably when we make the most real progress.
(2) There is brilliance in effectively connecting dots. What you come up with in your thinking time is probably something someone has already thought of. In fact, you should hope it is because that means you’re probably on the right track. So much of understanding things is connecting dots independently that someone has already connected. This is important. I used to think that I had to have an original thought to be worth listening to. I have realized that is garbage. Very few people have anything original to say, especially when it comes to things that are new to them. And honestly, no one really wants original. People want to understand. Connecting dots for yourself, and then for others, is a really useful exercise. This is what makes good writers, smart people, people worth listening to. I’m not saying I’m one of them, I’m just saying that I’ve realized that is what I should strive to be. The best thinkers out there are the people who can put ideas in context, connect dots, and help us fit new ideas into the bigger picture.
(3) You don’t have to know everything to have something to say. This has been such a comforting realization to me. So often in life, I feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about, even when it comes to subjects I know quite well. This is because there is almost always another wrinkle to consider, a small piece you have forgotten, a new twist to learn. Before this experience, I thought that meant I needed to shut up. But I’ve realized that no one knows all of this stuff, and yet everyone keeps talking.
We’re all just wading through the barrage of information we receive every waking hour, trying to make sense of things we haven’t had time to fully digest or spend much time thinking about. If we’re really lucky, we have a good chunk of time to spend on the subjects closest to our work. Even then, it means the other 99.9% of the things to know about the world are things we do not have time to think about deeply. So we take in little pieces where we can. We soak up a short article about this, or a short podcast about that. These little fragments form enough of an understanding about the world that we can feel reasonably educated.
We can’t know everything. We can’t even know one thing completely. I think the trick is to be confident enough to make an educated guess about something, but also be honest enough to admit that you might be wrong. This is a good lesson for me on the show, but an even better one for life.