In a previous post, I was writing about a teaching experience I’d recently had. I was talking about doing my best and I specifically used the phrase “The best that I was capable of on that day, in that environment, with those students.” I wanted to spend some time clarifying that a bit, because I think this is an important concept.
We always talk about being the best we can. About achieving excellence, performing optimally and giving our maximum effort. I have learned, however, that there is a lot more involved in being the ‘best’ than simply one’s own performance.
Let me explain what I mean.
In the right environment, with the right people, at the right time, even the most unskilled speaker can probably do a great – or at least acceptable – job. Like, for instance, someone who has to speak at a church. Now most churches are populated by religious people (not surprising) who are generally nicer than the average bunch of people you’ll meet at, say, your local movie theater or 7-11. I am of the opinion that – very generally speaking – most people you’ll meet any place are nice or at least courteous. I know people who think the exact opposite, but it has been my experience people generally hold doors open for each other, say hello (especially when in a common environment such as work or school) will try to help you if you are, for instance, wandering around aimlessly on the street and that Good Samaritans do in fact still exist. (I do believe that a number of not so nice people exist in our world and have a very healthy degree of paranoia, but that’s a subject for another post.)
But in church, people seem to be nicer than even these generally nice folks. If you fall down the steps from the main floor to the basement (happened to me), they will pick you up, dust you off, ask you if you are okay with a straight face and then wait until you leave to release any gales of laughter they may or may not be holding in (as I suspected they did as soon as I limped my pathetic self around the corner). Or, say, your child (who is tone deaf) is chosen to lead the song that the young people are singing and proceeds to yell the whole song off-key (rather than, say, actually singing), they will clap and tell her what a good job she did and she will smile and enjoy the rest of her day as if she had really done something. Or if the teenagers decide to put on a play and it turns out to be a bit overly dramatic, not well-rehearsed or very well-written, they will clap and tell them what a great job they did and these teenagers will smile and enjoy the rest of their day too.
I say all this to say that church people are generally nice folks. And of course they are even more excited when someone with a good presentation (homily or sermon) speaks and makes good sense and inspires them to think harder or live a better life or is just uplifting. The right church crowd can make that person feel 100 feet tall, wise and amazed at the generosity of spirit displayed there in church.
Therefore – theoretically – a speech, song or play performed in a church setting will receive a pretty good reception. Whether you are mediocre, good or brilliant, church folks will generally try to be supportive, go out of their way to tell you what a great job you did and really make you feel good about yourself and your accomplishment.
In a church then, even an okay speaker can do a good job. In church, people are pretty attentive (as they are there by choice), engaged (and usually smiling or at least pleasant-looking) and very appreciative of your efforts as you sing, proclaim or act in your finest manner.
Contrast that with an adjunct professor who is teaching an undergraduate class of 150 students in an auditorium for a required class (and, for fun, let’s make this class start at 8:00am on Mondays and Wednesdays). Now this professor may be brilliant, eloquent and gracious, but how attentive do you think these students are going to be? For one thing, 150 students is an overly large number of students. This makes it hard for the professor to have any personal engagement with the students during class. Second, even well-designed auditoriums are usually cold, large and austere. The only thing I’ve ever personally enjoyed in an auditorium are movies, plays or concerts, but I find it excruciatingly hard to concentrate on a speech given in this type of setting.
Third point – students in a ‘required’ class are in effect a captive - possibly hostile - audience. They are forced to be there by the university, have no choice in whether or not to attend and may or may not even be interested in the subject matter at hand. (This reminds me of a four-hour Art Appreciation class I had when I was an undergraduate student. It lasted from 6pm to 10pm Wednesday nights and was usually four straight hours of lecture and PowerPoint. The only thing that saved me in that class was the amount of diet soda and chocolate I ingested.) Sure, they’ll show up (they have no choice) and may even go so far as to take notes, but will they be interested and engaged? Maybe. But probably not. Will they participate in the Q & A, discussion and debate? Perhaps – if they’ve had enough coffee (remember – it is 8am). A scintillating audience to which to teach? Definitely not. No matter how great the professor is, it’s hard to teach to a captive audience of 150 students in a large auditorium at 8:00 o’clock in the morning. The cards are clearly stacked against you, which will probably be rapidly evident by the students’ yawns, surfing the net (when they are supposedly taking notes on their computers), text messaging, facebooking, averting eyes so as to avoid eye contact, chatting with their friends (if they’re awake) or gazing off into the distance (or a window, if one is close by). But take heart professor – it’s not you, it's the environment!
So from these two illustrations, you can clearly see what I mean about doing the best you are capable of, in that environment and with those students (or with any activity that involves you having to perform a task with feedback from an 'audience'). So far, we've talked about the environment and the audience, but we haven’t even talked about the wonderful world of personal attributes and idiosyncrasies!
Everybody has their good days and bad days. Though you may be briliant on occasion, it's hard to be brilliant every single time you have to speak or perform a task. So not only do you have to deal with the environment and the audience, but your own personal limitations. Which may be impacted by a number of things, including what kind of sleep you had, whether or not you are sick, how much stress you are under or, well, anything! And even if you are in a particularly good mood that day (having had enough sleep, little stress and no sign of illness), you may not be particularly thrilled by the task at hand. There's whole world of difference between getting the job done and hitting it out of the park. Sometimes you have to settle for getting it done, but in the back of your mind, you always want to hit that homerun.
So you do what you can to be at your best when you are faced with a challenge. Like for me - I literally did not become a regular coffee drinker until I started teaching full-time. I learned (the hard way) that not only do you have to be awake to be a good teacher (for those early morning classes), but you have to be ALERT! It’s one thing for the students to come into the classroom drowsy and barely awake – it’s a whole other level of embarrassment and incompetence when the instructor comes in the same way! Sure, everyone understands that professors are people too, but there’s nothing worse than barely dragging yourself to a class to find that your instructor is in worse shape than you are. For goodness sakes, someone has to be interested in what is being presented and if it’s a choice between the student and the instructor, surely the instructor bears that responsibility.
So I learned that while it’s okay to occasionally be a little foggy, sleepy or overly drugged-up by allergy medication (a common mishap by me), it’s certainly not okay to make a habit of it. It impacts your credibility, makes you seem disinterested and disorganized and generally doesn’t represent you or your organization well. When you get up in front of people (or have an audience of any sort), you need to be ‘on,’ even if your ‘on’ starts initially at a slower pace. You still need to be the most excited person in the room. You absolutely cannot depend on your audience (or peers) to pump you up. You certainly hope they’ll pump you up, but you can’t rely on it. So it’s your job to drink a cup of coffee (me), run a few miles, listen to some uplifting music or do something to bring your A or at least good B game when you need to speak in front of people.
However, having said all that (and I really do mean it all), some days are simply not going to be your best. You got too little sleep, you are still recovering from an illness, you lost all your notes, your accountant ran away with all your money (it happens), you’re going through a divorce, you got soaked in an unexpected rain, your flight was late, your dog ate your presentation or, whatever. And for whatever, insert whatever lousy thing it is that depressed, discouraged or derailed you from being your best. Stuff happens. And then you have to present anyway. Or you have to carry on anyway in whatever capacity you work, live or play. That’s life.
And these are the nuts and bolts of what I mean about doing the best of which you are capable, in whatever environment you find yourself, with your particular ‘audience’ (which could simply mean a meeting with your boss, going on an interview, working at a retail outlet or wherever your find yourself). Not every day is going to be your best. And not every situation will be optimal for you being the best you can be. And certainly not everybody is going to be on your side, interested or supportive. Yet you'll go on anyway.
So that combination – you, your environment and your ‘audience’ – is what tends to make or break you. Having one of the three be right is usually not enough to guarantee success. Having two out of three go right gives you a better chance of succeeding, but stil no guarantees. With three out of three, you should be golden.
Just remember – when things don’t always go right, it’s not necessarily your fault. If the ‘you’ part is right (you got enough sleep, you are well-prepared and on top of things and are in a fantastic mood when you show up) and things still go wrong, it might just be a confluence of other factors. For heaven’s sake, the Bible tells us that even Jesus was not respected in his own country (and you know how hard friends and relatives can be on you). Everybody is not on your side. Some people are just uppity and irritating and it has absolutely nothing to do with you - that’s just the way they are on that particular day. In that same vein, every environment is not equally supportive. A cavernous, dark auditorium is simply not a good place to teach 150 undergraduate students no matter how hard you try.
Your job is to be the best you can be, in whatever environment you find yourself, with whoever your audience is. But understand that all personal bests, environments and audiences are not created equal. When you do your post-mortem, make sure you consider the other factors that may have negatively impacted your performance. Be honest with yourself and honest with others. Just take heart that sometimes it really isn’t you – it’s them or that lousy sound system or some other factor beyond your control.
And also take heart that on some days all three items come together in a beautiful and melodious way, On those days, you will seem brilliant, scintillating and intelligent. You will feel like you’re on top of the world and whatever you want is within reach.
Value those days and accept those other days as just another reality of life.
And you will be just fine…