What do these labels mean?
To some people, especially those who are competitive, they mean a great deal. They can mean the difference between pure joy and bitter disappointment.
For me, in the past few years, they have meant both, as my experiences with competition have changed who I am.
First for the better, then the worse, then finally for the best.
Lately I have been doing a lot of soul searching about my experiences as a competitive speaker. For the past 4 years, I have been entering speaking contests through Toastmasters.
The first time I entered was in mid 2012 for a Humorous Speech Contest, and I was lucky enough to win the top prize of District Champion. At the time I was shocked that I won and was grateful for the experience and the people who pushed me to enter the contest.
A year and a half later in early 2014, I decided to test my mettle in the International Speech Contest, which is an inspirational speaking contest with much higher stakes. The winner of this event is crowned the World Champion of Public Speaking for the year they win. Each year about 30,000 or so people enter the contest. One person ‘wins’.
I was fortunate once again on my first attempt to win the District round and receive a chance to compete in the Semi Final round of the International contest. At that contest, speaking in front of 1,000 people, I placed 3rd in my semi final, ranking me in the Top 30 speakers for Toastmasters that year.
When I achieved this, the feeling inside was a strong sense of self-confidence and satisfaction. I went home with a large perspex trophy, placed it on a shelf and told myself for the year I had done quite well. I decided I would return stronger the next year.
Little did I realize, that during the next year’s contest I would experience the dark side of competition.
In 2015, I started earlier than ever before, writing and practicing my speeches months before the contests began. I got speaker coaching, and worked on as many aspects of my speaking as I could. I once again earned the award of District Champion for the 2015 International contest. This meant for the second year I would have a chance to compete in the Semi Final round and potentially make the Final round of the competition.
That was when ego started to take over.
Instead of actually enjoying the process of speaking and learning, I started to be guided to my desire to win. I thought only of tactics to beat other competitors and worked relentlessly to ‘get through’ the Semi Final round.
On the day of the contest, I was focused like never before. I was confident, I was calculating and I was ready to take the trophy and get to the finals.
That day, the Universe decided it was time to teach me a lesson.
I once again placed 3rd in the Semi Final, falling short of my goal to reach the Final contest by to places. This time however the reaction I felt inside was reverse to the year before. Instead of being grateful to once again place in the Top 30 speakers, I was furious. Furious at the judges for deeming me 3rd place. Furious at my fellow contestants for having speeches that were sillier than mine. Most of all I was furious at myself for investing so much effort into the contest.
I went home, and instead of placing the trophy on a shelf, I hid it in a box. I couldn’t look at it. It was a symbol of failure, embarrassment and shame. I had gone to the competition to get to the Finals, and I wasn’t able to do it.
These words started to haunt me. Every time someone would ask me about the contest, I would feign humility and say it was a good experience. But inside I wanted to scream ‘This is bullshit’ and throw a temper tantrum.
The dark side of competition, the ego, had me in its grip.
Life after the 2015 International Contest started to go downhill. Because I was filled with so much negative energy, I found myself unable to thrive in the rest of my life. My business started to suffer, my girlfriend and I broke up, and I became incredibly unhappy.
But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst thing was that I stopped speaking. I actually avoided and turned down opportunities to speak to audiences. I told myself I couldn’t do it, and that I didn’t have the energy anymore.
Instead, I started to hide. I focused on work, social activities, entertainment and anything I could to distract myself from the pain I felt from falling short of my goal.
That was about 9 months ago. I’m embarrassed to say the for most of it, I lived in a cloud of self-pity and regret. Thankfully, recently, I started to rise.
I finally had a realization one day that I wasn’t being myself anymore. I was hiding my talent as a speaker from the world, and was being selfish. I knew that I had messages to offer the world and that people gained a great deal of value from hearing them.
I resolved that enough was enough.
I asked a friend of mine for a chance to speak at her upcoming event. She graciously offered me 5 minutes at the end. I said I would take it.
As soon as I agreed to speak that night, I knew that I was turning a corner. I felt a small joy in my heart that I hadn’t felt since the days of the contest in 2014. I prepared some ideas that I thought would be valuable for the group, and I got ready to speak.
(Here is a video of the speech I gave that night, titled “Why I’m a Toastmaster”)
That night, I felt alive for the first time in 9 months. I walked off the stage knowing I had said something important to a group of Toastmasters. I could see the looks on their faces as I was speaking showing me how much they valued my message.
That was the night my ego died. Instead of speaking to win, I spoke to impact.
I finally learned that lesson the Universe wanted to teach me.
Speaking from a place of ego is guaranteed to get you only so far. You can impress some people with flair and learned tricks. But they will eventually see through your act, when they realize that all you want to do is win.
Conversely, when you speak for impact, you are giving a gift to people. You are taking the best of yourself and transferring it into the hearts and minds of others. You are truly making a difference.
The last year has taught me something very important: I will never again speak to win. I will only speak to give something of value to a person sitting in the audience.
The people listening to you speak are giving you the privilege of their attention. If you speak to them to gratify your ego, you are robbing them. And you will lose.
But if you choose to speak with the desire to impact, to uplift, to contribute value, then you are on the path of the champion.