Wednesday, January 18, 2012

You can do anything! Really?

I enjoyed a very funny sketch on Saturday Night Live this past week, You Can Do Anything! It reminded me of a recent article in the Washington Post citing research that high self esteem in school does not necessarily translate to high achievement.

As a parent, teacher, and speaking/presentation skills coach, I have long believed that empty or undeserved praise benefits no one. I was one of those moms who felt my kids didn't need to get soccer trophies just because they completed the season. When I taught an after-school drama class to 4th & 5th graders it never occurred to me to lavish praise on my students just for showing up. And I exchanged less than cordial words with an adult acting student who once told me I was being too hard on my class because I expected folks to come prepared to work. So I am the kind of person who believes that everyone needs to put in some effort to acquire a new skill and even more effort to improve. It always amazes me when this is seen to be a counter-cultural stance!

As a speaking/presentation skills coach I run up against this bias all the time. "Of course I am a good speaker; I have been doing it for years!" But just because you have been doing something for a long time doesn't mean you are doing it well now. If you have never taken the time to examine your performance, you may well be as boring or pedantic or unfocussed as you were in your 20's.

So here are some questions to ask yourself: Do you feel connected to your audience? Does your message reach them? Do you have a chance to ever get honest feedback on your content and delivery? And when you do, if someone points out possible deficiencies (and we all have areas that need strengthening), do you seek help addressing these? Or do you rationalize them away?

We all have days when we are less "on" than others. But we should strive to be constantly improving, upping our game. "Phoning it in" is always disrespectful to your listeners, and never acceptable. Just as the wise teacher knows the student learns more when the bar is set a bit higher, we need to expect more of ourselves. Or we could just sit back and be content with our current levels of expertise and move to  Lake Wobegon.

And don't get me started on the amount of craft and technique needed to become a good actor! The very best make it look so effortless. But if you ask my students, they'll tell you: it's a challenge!

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