6 min read

Public speaking in 2014

Public speaking in 2014
Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen / Unsplash

I've come a long way on my journey with public speaking.

While preparing for my upcoming presentation for our All Team on Tuesday, I couldn't help but reflect on how cool it is that I now speak at conferences in front of thousands of people, and have a lot of fun with it along the way.

The first time I remember choosing to speak publicly was during my second-semester senior year of college when almost impulsively, I decided to enter the Yale public speaking competition. It was a bold move, but I was a month out from graduation, so what did I have to lose?

I remember being absolutely terrified, and telling none of my friends about it. Somehow my best friend Mike found out. He always does.

Here are a few memories I dug up from that day, April 28, 2014:

The competition

An email from Dean John Meeske:

Come see your fellow students as they present their speeches in the Public Speaking Competition today in SSS 410.  Here is the schedule:

Juniors             10:45am-12:00noon
Sophomores    12:45pm-2:00pm
Seniors            2:00pm-4:00pm

All are welcome to view any of the sessions.

(Presenters have signed up in advance.  Walk-ons are not permitted.)

The speech

A note to myself at the top of the page:

GOAL: Inspire these people; Tell them your story so that they will be inspired to change their mindset about learning

The speech I gave:

I want to start by asking you to think about your answer to two questions:

“How do you feel when you think about yourself getting old?” and
“How do you feel when you think about putting yourself in challenging situations where there’s a good chance of failure?”

Well, if you’re like me, the answer is that you are absolutely terrified. Ever since that I turned 22, I’ve had this horrible fear of graduating, and getting old and not knowing what I am going to do with my life.

I was deeply fascinated by how people’s attitudes towards aging and learning affect their decision-making process and decided to study this for my senior thesis. Today, I want to share with you two studies I came across while doing my research that drastically affected my thoughts about aging and failing. 

The first of these studies was conducted by Becca Levy, who noticed that in general, Americans have a very negative view of aging wanted to know, does our self-perceptions of aging affect how long we will live? 

To study this, Levy measured the attitude towards aging of 660 participants in 1975. 23 years later, she simply looked at the mortality rates of these participants to find out who was still alive. It turned out that participants with a more positive view of aging back in 1975, lived 7.5 years longer that those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.

Reading this blew my mind, because it means that simply by being negative about getting older, you’re slowly killing yourself. This advantage remained after controlling for factors such as age, functional health, gender, socioeconomic status, race, and others. This study was particularly noteworthy because other studies have shown that physiological measures such as having lower cholesterol levels only predict a longer life span of 4 years or less. For those of you who think about aging like I did, we should really be focusing on the positive aspects of getting older such as becoming wiser.

The next study I came across in doing my senior thesis was conducted Carol Dweck, who was also interested in attitudes, but the question of how do children’s mindset about intelligence affect their behavior when they are given challenges? Dweck characterized people as being on two ends of a spectrum when it comes to thinking about intelligence. On one end, you have people with a fixed mindset, who believe that intelligence and talent are traits that are fixed at birth, so essentially you are born with a certain amount of intelligence and there’s nothing you can do to change it. And on the other end, you have people with a growth mindset, who believe that intelligence and talent can go up or down based on your effort.

Dweck looked at how children with these two types of mindsets behave when they are presented with problems that were too difficult for the children of that age to solve. She found that children with a fixed mindset showed a helpless response pattern when confronted with challenges. They attributed their failure on those tasks to a lack of ability and believed that putting in effort was a further indicator of their inadequacy. In contrast, the children with a growth mindset seemed to have seen the challenging problems as an opportunity to learn and improved their problem-solving abilities. They not only believed that they could overcome the obstacles, but they even relished in the opportunity to do so. So this tells us again that our mindset has profound effects on the way we live. 

So when I tell people about what I learned from my thesis, that essentially, it’s all in our heads, they say, “I don’t know if I believe that. Because even if putting in effort gives you a better of chance of succeeding, other people are just born a certain way that makes them more likely to succeed in life.”

That really resonated with me, and I want to tell you a story about how changing my attitude is affecting my life after graduation.

Like probably many of you in the room, in September I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. And like many other confused people, I decided to go through the consulting interview process, which as you might be able to imagine, was a miserable experience. I got asked to interview with over 10 different companies, Bain, McKinsey, Dropbox, and for two weeks was at UCS every single day and the next few weeks traveling to interviews all the time. When the process was over and December came, I had zero job offers. Which really left me feeling helpless about my ability to function after I graduate. Because this wasn’t just like failing an exam, and getting told that you know nothing about fluid mechanics. It felt like all these people looked at what I did with my college experience, and talked to me, and got to know me, and decided that I wasn’t good enough.

And so January comes, and I still have to figure out what I’m doing next year. And on a whim, I decided to reapply for a position at Dropbox because, why not? And for whatever reason, they wanted to interview me again even though I had just been rejected a few months earlier and on paper nothing about me had changed. But I got a phone interview, and I got flown to San Francisco. And all of a sudden, they seemed to be responding in a different way. Like they liked me and thought that I was good enough. And a week and a half later, when I got the call that I had the job, I realized that even though not a single line on my resume had changed, the person who applied for the position after January was a different person who had been at UCS all those months ago. Going through the experience of getting rejected and doing my senior thesis changed my mindset about success and failure, which changed the way that I came across when I interacted with other people, and in turn, the way that they saw me.

And so what I want to say to all of you, is that whether it’s about aging, or learning, or getting a job, the way that you think about yourself profoundly affects the way that you live.

And to go back to questions that I asked you to think about at the beginning of my speech, I hope that now when you think about yourself getting older and when you think about putting yourself in situations where you’re likely going to fail, that maybe you can change your mindset so that instead of being terrified, that instead you can see these as opportunities to grow.  

The afterwards

An email I wrote afterwards:

Hi <person>,

I just wanted to let you know that I participated in the public speaking competition at Yale today. Your encouragement during our conversation at YAAR really helped give me the courage to do so, and entering the competition and giving the speech today has been one of my proudest accomplishments at Yale. Hope you have a great week!


(I don't recall writing this email, or recognize the person it was sent to.)

Fast forward to today, and public speaking is not just a skill I've developed, it is also a source of immense joy and fulfillment in my life. Speaking at conferences has allowed me to travel the world, and seeing the sea of faces in the audience no longer intimidates me— it inspires me.

As I think about my upcoming talk to my team on Tuesday, I can't help but appreciate the path that led me to finding it fun. The memories of April 28, 2014, serve as a reminder that sometimes, doing the things that scare us the most, can lead to unexpected joy and self-discovery.