Bell Curves And Threes

I saw this prompt on the interwebs somewhere:

You’ve been asked to speak at your high school alma mater — about the path of life. (Whoa.) Draft the speech.

I have for some reason already written a commencement speech, just in case. It will never be asked of me, of course, but… here it is:

Hello. Thanks for coming, though you wouldn’t miss this, right? You are all about to embark on your lives. That’s a pretty important journey, but what you might not know is that there is a lot of prep work involved.

Don’t worry – if you haven’t prepared, it’s not too late. I’ll tell you about that.

Any time a survey is done about what a person’s biggest fears are, the fear of speaking in public is always in the top five. Regardless of what tricks you use – well, nearly regardless – some reasonably high level of fear or nervousness is always there. Fear of making a mistake, of embarrassing yourself, of becoming a fool in front of a large group of people, that is always around. It’s around for me right now. But I have one of the effective tricks at my disposal. Preparation.

There are three classes of public speaking. Two of them enable you to perform very well. One of them is a total nightmare. Unfortunately, most of the time, most of you are in that last category. Since I’m not some mystical seer or something, I’ll just tell you what they are.

The first is when you know you’re going to speak, weeks or months in advance, and you prepare constantly and continuously up to that day, practicing the hell out of your main points, your side points, everything you want to say, using mnemonics or whatever. Expectations are high, and you do your utmost to perform at your peak and do the absolute best you can possibly do. You try to make the best impression you can. That is represented by the high end of an inverted bell curve.

*holds hand above head to the right*

The second is when you have absolutely no warning, no idea that you are about to speak in front of people. You have no time to prepare, no time to practice, and may not even know what you’re going to say. Fortunately, however, there are also no expectations, because how can you give a perfect speech under these conditions? You can’t. This somehow has a relaxing effect on you. The bar is set so low that you can’t ‘fail’, so fear of embarrassment is nearly nonexistent. Somehow, this enables you to string thoughts together, and you do well, if for no other reason than speaking coherently equals a good speech in this case. That is represented by the other high end of an inverted bell curve.

*holds hand above head to the left*

Most of you fall in the third category. You have a week or two of warning. In other words, you have just enough time to know something about your topic, but possibly not enough to make a huge impression. It’s enough time to ensure that everything you’re saying is true or mostly true, but not enough time to ensure that you won’t leave something out, something that would be glaringly obvious if you only had more time. The expectations are still just as high as in the first category, but the preparation time is more like the second. The stress is huge, the potential for failure is amazing, and it’s really a no-win situation. That is represented by the bottom of an inverted bell curve.

*holds hand down low, in the middle*

So what does all this public speaking have to do with your life, other than being one of your biggest fears? Everything. Your lives are like this inverted bell curve.

Think about it. Think about your classmates. There are some of you who have been preparing to be something for your entire high school career. Physics or chemistry. Art or music. English or politics or philosophy. Sports or mathematics. There are a few students who are studying or practicing to do something, and do it very well. They know well in advance what it is they want to do, and they are very prepared. But it’s not all about college. Some of you in this group know you’re going to tech school, or know you’re going into the family business, or something else. The point is, you know, and you probably like it as well.

There are some of you who have been taking classes because they’re required, and you don’t have any idea, and your parents, friends and pretty much everyone else has no idea what you should do. Not to insult you, but the bar has been set pretty low, and if you in this group were successful, even marginally so, at anything, that would be fantastic. Again, you may or may not be going to college. If you are, you’re probably going to take general education classes and hope that somehow, something will stand out for you and show you the way. If you aren’t, you are going to get a job and try to work your way up into a position that somehow does the same thing. The point is, you are wide open, but whatever you choose, you are probably going to like it.

But the majority of you are in that third category. You haven’t been preparing for anything, yet you believe you should be, so you are now cramming, and studying. You’re taking tests, and figuring out what you should do, whether you like it or not. You are looking at the job market, and making choices based on what the media and polls and surveys say are the jobs most in demand, possibly not realizing that the jobs that are in demand now might be completely filled up by the time you get out. Or you might go into some type of computer or technology fields that become obsolete when you get finished.

Even worse, and some parents might be upset by this, is that some of you will enter a field of study or training solely based on your parents’ input. At times it might be something that one of your parents wished they had done, and now they are pushing you to do it because you don’t know. They don’t think it’s okay to go into college, or out of high school, and not have any idea what you want to do. It’s true that you have to figure it out eventually. But not right away!

It’s okay to be at the bottom of the bell curve. Most of you are there right now. In fact, to be totally honest, despite the fact that you are expected to figure out your lives over the summer, you actually have lots of time. A few years. Consider, even the people who know what they want to do are going to go to college for four years, or six or eight or twelve if they want a master’s, doctorate or MD. So if you don’t know what you want to do, figure on taking at least 4 years to figure it out. That seems reasonable. You’ve started late, but you have some ideas.

The point of this whole discussion is this: much like public speaking, what you’re going to do for the rest of your lives is one of your top fears. You don’t know if you’re going to choose the right thing. But there’s a way to find out. Ask yourself if you love it. Ask yourself if you really enjoy the subjects being taught, the lessons being learned, the work you have to do that doesn’t really seem like work. Ask yourself if you hate what you’re into right now, if you can even stand what people are saying, if the work you have to do seems like a bottomless pit of soul-sucking despair.

And if you’re on the wrong track, switch!

It’s always better to do something you like than something that pays a ton of money. Well, unless it just so happens that what you like to do pays a ton of money. That would be awesome. But that doesn’t happen for everyone. So don’t worry about it.

The secret is that part of this whole career thing is absolutely no different than public speaking. You’re all worried about what people will say or think about your career choices, about your life choices, and you don’t want to be embarrassed or make a mistake. But you don’t have that kind of control over your lives. You will make mistakes. My advice to you is to make them early in your lives! As early as possible, and get them out of the way.

I used to have this trick when I spoke in public. I would insert some phrase or line that was funny to me, which had the effect of making me relax and get on with the rest of the speech. In one speech about a law governing internet viewing, I set up a harsh scenario and then asked the rhetorical question “Is this a nightmare?” – but in my head, I imagined myself throwing my hands up in the air during this speech, asking if it was a nightmare. It made me laugh inside, and I relaxed for the rest of the speech.

The same trick works for life. Insert all your mistakes early, and laugh at them! Learn from them! Shake your heads at yourselves. And then go on with the rest of your successful, happy and long lives.

Thank you.


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