It’s the Anticipation that Kills You
It’s the anticipation, really. That’s what ends up killing you.
The crisis — the events, the tasks — are all they are. At the moment, they are just work. But that anticipation — that worry, that clinging anxiety — that’s where the stress is. That’s where the world tries to come apart.
- “Oom Sha La La” — Haley Heynderickx
- “Training Montage” — The Mountain Goats
- “Satanist” — boygenius
- “Turn the Page” — The Streets
- “Talk to Me” — Run the Jewels
- “Expert in a Dying Field” — The Beths
- “Hurt” — Arlo Parks
- “Blood in Your Mouth” — Colour Revolt
- “Bus Stop” — The Hollies
- ”Nobody’s Baby” — Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
- “Down in the Willow Garden” — Rufus Wainwright (w/ Brandi Carlile)
- “Fervent for the Hunger” — Adeem the Artist
- “Good Good Things” — DRAIN
- “Amazing” — Grand Puba
- “Live and Let Live” — Souls of Mischief
- “Sorrow” — Bad Religion
- “Rebellion (Lies)” — Arcade Fire
I know this because I’ve been watching my 13YO all week. It’s “stand in front of the class and read your poetry” time in middle school, a cruel time in a teenager’s life. The middle school part, yeah. But, in particular, the “reading poetry” part. Because while poetry might not seem complicated, good poetry is, as is the act of self-flagellation that comes from preparing to stand in front of a class of your peers — again, and I cannot stress this enough, middle school peers.
So, for the past week, instead of completing his homework each night, the 13YO has stared at the same poem. A poem he will not let us read. A poem that represents a lot of things, but mostly the frustrations and vulnerability of being open to the world at a time when kids are just figuring out their identities. A lot weighs on these kinds of performances, and I don’t envy him at all.
Which, of course, I say with a touch of irony.
In less than a week, after a dozen or so years as a web strategist, I am keynoting my first conference. First speaker after the introduction talk. Biggest conference in the industry. In front of a room of peers and friends and mentors and icons.
It’s fucking frightening. When I think about it, I get a pit in my stomach. And then, I open Keynote and practice, and it’s absolutely fine. I flub up words, and I don’t care. I read my notes, and I don’t care. I feel at peace with the entire process and present a talk to help frame a discussion. I smile, and I close my laptop.
And then I think about it again, and I’m scared.
Introversion and extroversion are a spectrum. Most of us are a little of both, leaning in one direction or another as the mood shifts. My kids are like me — introverted around strangers; extroverted around people we know and trust. Nothing is interesting about this, except there are points when extroversion becomes a life raft — when our minds understand the stakes and a kind of survival-by-confidence forces its way in.
For example: on stage, at a conference, in front of hundreds of people. For me, the weeks before are a pendulum, swinging from confidence to impostor syndrome, each swing (against the laws of gravity!) getting faster and faster until, in the hours before a talk, I can’t eat or speak or really do anything other than worry.
And then, like Matilda, everything else shuts off — the room goes silent, and the lights hide the back shadows. It’s me and my slides and a lavalier microphone, and I am not doing any better, but I am indeed doing something different and then the exercise just … begins. There’s momentum. I roll downhill until I come to rest on a final slide.
When we talk about being visible — any place along the line of visibility, from standing on stage at a conference to mustering enough confidence to ask for an extra napkin — not enough attention is placed on momentum. We’re told all kinds of tricks regarding how we envision our audience and how to prepare, but no one ever tells you that it’s not supposed to be easy. Evolutionary tendencies keep us from putting ourselves in harm’s way, but once we’ve surveyed the scene and understand we’re safe, everything flows forward from there.
No one can teach you that momentum because it’s not a thing that can be taught. It just happens.
So, now, try explaining that to a 13YO.
Or, try explaining it to an 18YO.
As a high school senior, I took a theater class. It was: a mistake.
I’m not a theatre kid. I’m not naturally inclined to stand in front of a group of any size. But, as a senior needing a fine arts credit, I took what was ensured to be an easy A.
And, for the most part, it was. This was not an acting class, which means we talked about the entire experience of theatre life — writing and acting, tech and lights, and on and on. Enough that I would get lulled into a sense of security. Enough that I’d forget that, once a month, we’d have an acting exercise. This is why, when it came time for one of our final projects — a partnered project where we read and acted out an existing scene on the Lincoln High School stage — I just kind of … gave up.
I didn’t prepare. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t bring myself to even practice. On the day of our performance, I called myself in late to school. I arrived just after class ended and continued with my day.
And the next day, I did it again. Except this time, I ran into my theatre teacher at lunchtime, and because she wasn’t stupid, she called me out on my convenient back-to-back late mornings. A bigger rebel would have doubled down. I just promised I’d be there the next day.
I was a good student. A timid kid but a smart one. But this mental block — this aversion to completing the project, this bucket of anxiety I carried around, trying not to spill — skewed my usual consistency. That third day, I performed my half of the project — poorly, if I remember correctly — and I successfully graduated high school, and I forgot all about it, until recently, with the wisdom of time on my side. I related the story to my kids and realized how embarrassed I still was.
Not embarrassed with my performance, but embarrassed with myself, filled with the same self-reflective horror I feel when I think about how horrible of a roommate I was in college. I look back, and I feel selfish. I was throwing off the entire class’s schedule. I was throwing my partner’s final project into chaos. I was selfish and dumb and completely unaware of how someone should act.
I was a kid, acting out of defense. Defense against that knot; defense against those sweats. Fight, flight, etc.; all that matters is that I hadn’t learned the real lesson. No one gives a shit how you perform in your theatre class; the real lesson is learning how to handle your insecurities.
Every once in a while, because I’m a Person Who Has Spoken At A Conference, a friend or colleague will ask me for presentation advice. I can provide some okay guidance about creating a presentation — write things out, keep your slides simple, practice a lot — but very little in the way of performing.
Despite being a public act, performing is an internal — and deeply personal — practice. I can’t teach anyone anything about how to stand up and perform because I barely know how myself. That’s how you learn, I guess. You fail a few times, and you figure out your own trick.
The 13YO came home yesterday, performance complete. In true 13YO fashion, I got no details. According to him, it was “Fine, I guess.” He didn’t need to say a thing, though. I knew it the second he walked in. The weight lifted, his shoulders high. How it went didn’t matter. It went.
The anticipation’s what ends up killing you. The momentum is what keeps you going. But the relief — the weight melting away, the selected amnesia already editing a highlight reel in your head — brings you back. That’s what gets you to agree to do it again, and again, and again.