The universe, it seems to me, is a teacher with a perverse sense of humor. The latest evidence I have of this is my most recent presentation in Germany.
The day started off well enough. I rehearsed my talk, had a fine breakfast, and caught my taxi on time. I remember smiling to myself at my good planning.
The first hint of trouble was when the driver asked, “North or South?” I had no idea what he was talking about, so he explained that it was a big conference center and there were multiple entrances. Since we were ensnared in traffic, and I could see signs for the North Entrance, I told him I would get out there.
The instant I stepped onto the curb, I knew I’d made a mistake. There were no signs for the event, no crowds. I walked the hundred yards or so to the door and asked a lone attendant for help. “Ah, that’s the South entrance,” she said cheerfully, and told me how to get there. “Just five minutes,” she assured me.
I started walking, looking up at the bright blue sky, squinting at the sun. It was starting to get hot. Then I looked down and noticed a white splat on my shoe. How did a bird do that? I wondered. On closer inspection, though, it wasn’t a bird’s doing. It was fresh paint. And it wasn’t just on my shoe.
There’s paint on the bottom of my pant leg, on the back of my other shoe, and on my other pant leg. I consider going back to the hotel and changing but I’m afraid it’ll take too long. I assess the damage, hope it might not be noticeable on stage, and head towards the South entrance.
Ten minutes later, I’m wandering around in a park of some kind. When I turn right as instructed, I’m at a highway on-ramp. By this time the sweat is dripping down my face and neck. I take off my jacket, and notice there’s paint on my thigh now too, spreading like a rash across my blue suit. Where is it coming from?! I frantically look for a source, and see wet paint on the straps dangling from my backpack.
I begin to panic. Gingerly holding my bag at arms length, I check and recheck Google maps as I walk, and I eventually find the elusive entrance. It’s now a full 30 minutes after exiting the cab. Wet from perspiration and paint-speckled like a robin’s egg, I’m eager to get to a sink and clean up as best I can. Perhaps no one will notice, I think.
On my way to the restroom, I see someone I haven’t seen for a year. “John!” he shouts out, smiling broadly. He extends his hand, and then leans in close to me and whispers, “You have something on your trousers.” I smile a frozen, awkward smile, and quickly move on. I curse to myself and look heavenward.
In the crowded mens room, I mop myself up with wet paper towels, Then I take off my shoes and scrub each one. Don’t touch the pants! Don’t touch the pants! I keep repeating to myself, imagining how much worse large cloudy white swirls will look on stage.
At this point, I’ve done all I can do, and it’s getting close to the time for my talk. I head towards the stage.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about what happened that day is that, details aside, it wasn’t so extraordinary. In the past year, I’ve prepared a workshop for hundreds of people only to have 8 show up. At the end of one long conference day, I had to compete with alcohol and food for a crowd’s attention, and lost badly. I’ve experienced a cornucopia of devious problems with slides, room configurations, and technology - and now paint.
What’s the universe trying to teach me with all of this?
I think the point is that it’s all part of the practice. Not the practice of becoming a better speaker, but the practice of accepting anything that might happen in work and life. All you can do is work on your craft as best you can, focus on offering your gift instead of focusing on the outcome, and try your best to embrace the universe’s lessons with humility and a sense of humor.
Note: This post is inspired in part by a funny, insightful, and practical book of the same name by Scott Berkun. I’m grateful to Scott for sharing his own lessons, as they helped me.