Last month I gave a conference talk where I was one of several invited, keynote speakers. The audience was around 300 people, and I felt prepared, but a bit nervous. Giving talks like this are not necessarily new for me, but only a few times have I been featured in such a prominent role. Once I got going with the talk two things happened that I was unprepared for. First, there was a technical issue with my some of my PowerPoint slides where the words were misaligned on some of the figures. My guess is that whatever version of PowerPoint the conference was using must have been different from mine, which I didn’t notice until I was well into the talk. Second, I ended up getting through my talk much faster than anticipated. I was slotted for an hour and planned to talk 40 minutes and then take questions, but ended up only talking around 25 minutes. Questions did fill up the rest of the time, but still, it wasn’t what I planned, and I wondered if people would feel disappointed.
A few weeks later I got a short feedback report from people who attended the conference. The good news was that over 85% of people felt the talk was “good” or “excellent”, but that still left several viewing it as “OK” or “poor”. When I read the narrative comments my initial fears during the talk were realized, with a few people specifically pointing out how my slides looked unprofessional and were disappointed that I spoke for such a short period. For about half of the day after reading these I was crushed and went to the place of questioning my own worth as a speaker. Perhaps I had really let the audience down, and I wasn’t valuable enough to take the stage in such high profile roles.
But then after a little while, I remembered something – something a mentor had told me several years ago, and once I remembered it, I started feeling better quickly. Their message was this:
Ryan, people barely, if ever, think about you.
I was told this message in response to being overly concerned at some point of how others were perceiving me professionally and this message was a bit hard to swallow at the time (no one thinks about me!!) but ended up being extremely helpful. The point of the message was that no matter how critical people are of you, for the criticizers it’s more often than not a fleeting thought and within a minute they are thinking about something else, most often themselves. Yes, there are people out there who will be critical of you and never forget your flaws. But these people are very few and far between. For example, take a moment and try to remember what you have thought about in the last hour. How much of it had to do with what is wrong with others versus the stressors, worries, or even joys of your own life?
As a professor, clearly I still get insecure about what people feel about me and so it’s not surprising that this type of insecurity runs rampant among graduate students. I have frequently experienced graduate students fearing that I have global and stable negative feelings about them after I have offered a small, temporary criticism. The reality is that professors – like anyone else – have so much more going on in their minds that dwelling on one particular person for very long rarely occurs. In fact, whatever critical thoughts I had about someone usually completely vanish within a day or two. And so my advice. If you find yourself in that place of worry or even panic over people’s opinion of you, remember that they are barely thinking about you. The next time you see them whatever that negative thought was has likely completely, utterly disappeared.