Mark Twain is quoted as saying “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

It has taken me more than seven years, and sadly my father is not around to hear or see my appreciation, but over the last few years I have learned a lot about just how much he had to show me.

When I was in my thirties, I had to give a presentation at work. It was a first for me, the audience was about 45 or 50 colleagues. I was incredibly nervous. I had always been shy, and the thought of standing up and speaking in front of a group felt like my worst nightmare. In fact, I had been having dreams about it for days. My father was trying his best to give me tips on preparation and practice, and I was far from being my “best self”. Throughout my life, I was often impatient with my father, and truth be told he could be infuriating, but with my mounting nervousness, I was even less tolerant of him than usual!

dad speaking light
Rick Kelly 1987

On this particular occasion, my impatience was caused by his obvious complete lack of understanding of my plight. I had seen him present many times to many audiences. He was a scientist and had presented to schools and colleges, conferences and seminars all over Europe. He was always knowledgeable, humorous, even paced and entertaining. He could not possibly know what I was feeling.

After twenty minutes of him drilling me on my content and then urging me to run through the presentation one more time, I completely ran out of patience and snapped at him that I had had enough practicing and needed a break. As I walked away from where he was sitting I asked “Dad, how do you do it? How can you stand there and present to anyone on anything, and be so calm and comfortable? You have no idea what it is like for me! I will NEVER be able to be like that!”

His answer has stuck in my mind ever since that day, and when I am about to do something nerve-racking I play the words back in my mind.
“You just have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said and wandered off to make some strong black tea – the taste for which is something else I have inherited.

I stood there for a moment and thought about those words. I needed him to explain further. There had to be more to it than that.

Following him into the kitchen I asked for clarification. He thought for a moment and then said, “Well, Lord knows I know it is not easy to stand up in front of people and deliver a message in a meaningful way. I find it hard to hold the audience’s attention and make them want to hear what I have to say. Whatever the situation, it is a responsibility, and it is nerve-racking. So it would be strange NOT to feel at least a little anxious. The appropriate reaction is to feel nervous. So just embrace it, recognize it, give yourself a moment and then brace yourself and get on with it. Ultimately all you can do is to make sure you are well-prepared, and then just do the best you can. Usually, it goes at least OK, and if not, learn from it, pick yourself up and do it better next time.”

At the time his advice did not really make a whole lot of sense to me – not least because I really did not believe that he got nervous when he spoke! Now, years later, I recognize his advice as a combination of permission to be human and using strengths to accomplish more than we think we can. By recognizing we are worried about something like a presentation and acknowledging that it is natural and normal to feel that way, we give ourselves permission to have that unpleasant sensation without harsh self-judgment.

Then, by using prudence, perseverance and maybe a little love of learning we can be well-prepared. By using honesty, judgment, and humility we can be authentic, and with a healthy dash of humor to lighten the delivery, and bravery to be nervous and do it anyway, we can move ahead and stand in front of the audience and put our message across.

And if it doesn’t go well? Well, then we forgive ourselves, adopt a growth mindset, and learn from what we experienced to get up and do better next time!

Thanks, Dad!

Richard Terence Kelly 07/19/1930- 09/10/2000, was an industrial chemist and worked for most of his career at the Greater London Council Scientific Department working on such exciting things as procedures for handling hazardous materials, testing of concrete structures for safety, resilient but safe playground surfaces, and fire retardant materials. He was a caring leader, he was curious, loved to learn (he taught himself five languages), he was analytical, humorous and, above all, fair. He loved people even though he was an introvert – although it has taken me a lifetime to recognize that that last fact was true. He really WAS an introvert!

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