A few years ago I was the invited keynote for a private conference in Toronto. It was one of my first big events. I knew the event director and was deeply grateful for the invitation. I prepared diligently. The ballroom was packed to the walls. I had published my first book and was just starting my work seriously to share ideas on stage. I was knowledgable, rehearsed, confident, and relaxed. On stage just before me was a professional comedian. She was disarming and fun. She even sang. She was killing it. The crowd was totally enjoying her opening.
I was sitting near the stage next to the technician who was handling the audio-visual stuff. The comedian started to introduce me. She was warm, vibrant. She made a few jokes about me being American. Everyone laughed. She was just finishing my introduction, when the techie guy next to me said, “Uhh, hang on, your remote and the slides aren’t working. Mmm, just go. Go and I’ll fix it in a minute.”
Good lord. The room was clapping for me. I gulped. My opening set piece was an in-depth story choreographed with a cascade of photographs and rich imagery. I designed the first few minutes to immerse the audience in a tale that would be a metaphor for my key points. But now I had no visuals.
I smiled. I walked the length of the stage to burn a few seconds, and said some ridiculous nothing comment about the wonderful comedian. I had no idea what I just said. My head was clamoring. I could feel my field of vision start to close. I glanced at the technician, who clearly did not have his shit together yet. Or maybe that was me.
I took a deep breath, smiled, found some friendly eyes in the audience, and launched into my story anyway. It was probably only a few seconds of dead air but it felt like an eternity. It worked. As I built the story, I warmed into it. I opened up, revisiting and punctuating each step of the journey. I started to own it. People leaned in. I had just jumped off a cliff and somehow found the rip cord.
I once had an interview with the magnificent speaker, writer, and marketing guru Seth Godin, who said if he ever gets that rising panic feeling, he takes it as a reminder that he’s in exactly the right place. He knows he is in a high-opportunity moment for learning and growth. What he means is that when your palms get sweaty, when your heart rate jumps, when your hair stands on end and you get nauseous, these are all symptoms of panic. And also the conditions for challenge, opportunity, and growth if you choose to see it that way.
It’s true. The first thing to do to lower your heart rate, calm your nerves, and open your mind again, is to breathe. Breathing is the body’s built-in stress reliever. It’s ground zero to rebuild your calm. Simply breathing deeply can do everything from resetting your heart rate to changing the chemical composition of your blood. In the practice of yoga, focused breathing is called pranayama, which literally means “control of the life force.”
Did you see this last year? Odell Beckham, Jr. made, what many argue, the greatest wide receiver catch of all time. It looks like a magic trick out of Cirque du Soleil. But here’s the thing: he worked on that exact type of catch over and over and over in practice. He didn’t just summon that move on the spot, unrehearsed. He spent many, many hours preparing for that exact moment.
Competence Creates Confidence
Want to summon confidence? Power posing certainly helps. Amy Cuddy, the TED goddess of Wonder Woman posing has dedicated the last few years of her life to spreading the gospel of striking a power pose. And it does work. When you stand like Superman, you get a shot of dopamine and oxytocin, which spreads a warm cocktail of confidence throughout your brain. But it’s a stop-gap. It’s the duck-tape of confidence. Go ahead and use it, but real, sustainable confidence is found through developing competence. Tough love, but nothing substitutes for hard work, perseverance and dedicated practice.
And when in doubt, get pronoid. Pronoia is the opposite of paranoia. Pronoia is the belief that the world, and everyone around you, is conspiring for your success.
[Originally published here for Huffington Post.]
Shawn Hunter is the Founder of Mindscaling and author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive great results.