I want to start this with a somewhat un-horse-related tale, so please bear with the tangent! A few weeks ago, I found out that I was accepted into a competition here at my university called “Three Minute Thesis”, which is a public speaking competition wherein you introduce a general audience to your thesis topic and work under a strict three minute time cap. You cannot use any props or dynamic powerpoints, just one static slide with an image that (hopefully) succinctly sums up your entire Master’s or PhD thesis.

My superstar Zulu, who was always (rightly) convinced that he was doing things exactly right.

My superstar Zulu, who was always (rightly) convinced that he was doing things exactly right.

When I first signed up, I didn’t really think my application would be accepted. When it was, I had a bit of a paralyzing sense of anxiety as I realized I would actually have to present this speech in front of people. I’ve never been a particularly accomplished public speaker, and while I can get along okay with a Powerpoint to base my ideas off of (and draw the audience’s eyes to), I have a lot more issue with a crowd of more than one or two staring blankly at me while I blunder through a (hopefully) memorized spiel.

So I worked at it. And practiced it. Wrote it out first of all, tried it in front of my supervisor first, my friends second, and a local branch of Toastmasters third, getting different but relevant feedback from each group. I practiced nonstop driving to the barn and back, in the shower, and in front of my patiently-suffering boyfriend. I filmed myself with my phone and watched the video, cringing at some of my nervous shuffling, trying again, and seeing a bit of improvement.

Yesterday was my first heat, and my heart was pounding as though I was going to go into the ring for a jump-off. I was fourth in, and while I was hooked up to the lapel microphone I was fleetingly convinced I was about to pass out. Anyway, I managed to pull through, get out there, and do my thing. And you know what? I felt pretty damn good about it. I didn’t stutter or freeze, as I’d been afraid I would, and I didn’t lose the thread of my speech. I finished with 12 seconds left on the 3 minute limit.

But I didn’t place, and I didn’t advance.

At first, I was really disappointed. I felt like I’d wasted my time working so hard on that presentation, and I even felt a little embarrassed for spending so much time on it and not being able to pull off a win. Did everyone else spend that much time preparing? Maybe not. I had started to put a lot of significance on this competition, and had hoped that placing in my heat and advancing to the final would be a good show of competency as a speaker to my supervisor, colleagues and friends. But it didn’t happen. I failed.

I’ve always had a tough time dealing with failure. I tend to set my sights on a certain goal, and if I achieve it, write that goal off as being “small” or “insignificant”, and move on to a more lofty goal. And that more lofty goal becomes the only thing important, the only thing worthwhile, whether it’s a class at a show or a competition at school.

At a big A show a few years ago with my hunter, I went in feeling prepared and strong. We’d been schooling well all winter and I was ready to dominate the three foot hunter divisions. But more than that, I had my sights set on the end of the week 3’3 hunter classic. We’d been schooling over higher fences, and I felt ready for that class. I wanted to win that $1000 hunter classic so badly. It would be proving to myself that we were ready for the 3’3 amateur divisions, that we were real competitors. All week my classes went great and my horse was a star. We ended up pinning in every over fences and flat class we went in, and I took home a Reserve Championship in my division. He tried his heart out and never put a foot wrong. Our last day was the day of the hunter classic. I was incredibly nervous. Heart racing, palms sweaty, the whole deal. But I was confident. We could do the height and my horse had a killer jump, knew the fences. He warmed up great. My coach warmed us up over a few spread oxers, then a big upright vertical at almost 3’6, and my horse rounded over and snapped his knees like a Wellington open hunter. We had this, it was ours.

The first round was okay — the first oxer was almost a chip, but not quite, and we got the strides and all the fences, though not as sharply as we had in the 3′ divisions earlier in the week. It was enough to advance to the second round call-back. And then I butchered it. My horse was tired after a long week, and I was too. I wasn’t fit enough. Galloping down to the two stride, I lost core strength, second guessed my distance, and he jumped in weak, stuttering in the combination, and stopped at the out-oxer. That was it. We wouldn’t be in the ribbons. I jumped the fence and exited the ring, feeling a wash of disappointment. My horse had tried his heart out, and I had dropped the ball. That was the only chance we’d had, the show was over, and I’d failed.

It seems like such a silly thing now, and I think a few years removed I can maybe begin to rationalize how I felt to myself a little better, especially after the Three Minute Thesis competition. I like to win. I’m competitive, even in ridiculous things like Risk and rec-league Ultimate. But I have a stupid tendency to decide that the only competitions that matter are the ones that I fail in. When I do win something — when I get an A+ on an exam, when I win a class, when I place at a conference — I write off the achievement as unimportant, easy, trivial. But when I fail, when I get a C, when I have a rail, when I place nowhere amid my peers — now those are the moments that matter! Those were the competitions where I should have had it, I was so stupid, I wasted such an opportunity, I showed my mediocrity against a field of exceptional students/athletes/researchers — basically, I give more weight to my failures than my successes, nine times out of ten. I let them define me.

But you know what? That’s exactly the opposite of what truly successful students/athletes/researchers do. When they fail, they accept it, and they move on, and when they succeed, they let themselves feel that they earned it, that it means that they are doing the right thing, and they develop confidence. They learn to deal with failure so that they can enjoy success. And maybe that’s a lesson I need to learn!

Now… any tips on how to do so? 😉


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