A Leaky Boat

At my Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony I gave a speech in Russian in front of the ambassador. I had written the speech, painfully, at the end of two months of language immersion. It was one sheet of paper long, written out phonetically in Roman script because I couldn’t yet read in Cyrillic. When I got up to stand at the podium in front of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, the trainers, and the ambassador, I looked down at my carefully written words and found they were gone, the paper made transparent by the light embedded in the podium shining up from below.

Blind panic. I tilted the paper, held it up close to my face, and found I could make out most of the words. I made my way through the speech haltingly, trying to understand or remember what I had intended to say. My Russian wasn’t solid enough to improvise. I made it to the end alive (though I wanted to die) and went back to my seat. After the ceremony the Ambassador came and shook my hand and said, “If I had been you, Lisa, I would have made them give me an easier speech.”

So I don’t like public speaking. I do not like it in the rain. I do not like it in a train. I do not like it here or there. I do not like it anywhere.

It seems, given my antipathy toward public speaking, that this is an area for me to grow. This is how we often define areas of growth for ourselves and our colleagues and maybe even our kids and others we love: identify the weakest point, the most tender spot, and mark it for improvement. So, I should become a better (less anxious) public speaker and challenge myself to do it more often because then I will be more complete as a professional.

This, people, is weakness-based approach to human growth: to grow you have to find your weaknesses, your fears, your gaps. It is like we are leaky boats, and we must find and plug our holes. Yeah, maybe, if the boat is going down. But if your boat is moving well, skimming the surface at a decent clip, and the bit of water you take on is easily bailed…should you really be taking your focus from getting the oars in and out of the water cleanly in order to patch the leaks? Let me clarify here that you hate patching leaks, and you like hauling on the oars.

We may be leaky boats, all of us. But rather than focusing on that, we could instead use a strengths-based approach to human growth (or making our boat go). What goes right in our boat? What makes it move, what brings us joy? We are good at the things we are good at for a reason. We grow faster and higher in skills we already are excel at and enjoy than we do in skills we dislike and for which we have no natural affinity.

To stretch the metaphor, a weakness-based approach to growth can turn you into a service-able rowboat with no leaks. But a strengths-based approach can make you a sleek racing boat with some manageable leaks. Which would you rather be?

Maybe more importantly, I think a strengths-based approach to growth leads us to make better career choices. Say I had decided, after my debacle in front of the ambassador, that I was going to do everything I could to become a better speaker: join the Toastmasters Club, say yes to every speaking opportunity, take positions where public speaking was a frequent part of the job. I would be a better public speaker today, no doubt. But perhaps I would have ended up doing work that wasn’t a comfortable fit for my personality, skills, and character, and I think I would be less happy. I’d take less joy in my work (and make less headway) because I’d be fighting against my natural tide.

Over the years I have gradually pushed back against the well-meaning advice to “get out of my comfort zone” in order to grow. It’s not that it is always bad advice – it can be exactly what we need when there is an uncomfortable place standing between where we are and where we want to go. But there is no point in getting out of your comfort zone just for the sake of it, for patching leaks just because they are there. Sometimes it is more productive to dig deep into your comfort zone and see what good and productive things you can find there. Essentially, I think we grow most when we grow in the direction of our strengths, rather than of our weaknesses.

It has been 20 years since I stood at that podium and my speech disappeared. I now always carry my notes in a notebook for my presentations, in case the light in the podium shines from below. But mostly I don’t worry that I am not a great public speaker. I do it anyway, when I should.  I know that my voice will begin to shake at the 2 minute mark, and that it will stop by the 8 minute mark. Knowing I’ll be nervous and my voice will shake doesn’t bother me too much anymore, because I try only to talk about the things that I feel strongly about, and then it doesn’t matter if I have my notes or not – I’ll get through it. I never did patch those leaks, but I do okay by hauling on the oars.

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