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Without Failure, I Can’t Step Out of My Comfort Zone


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Commentary by Tracy Simmons | FāVS News

I failed at something this summer, and I’m still harping about it. 

Some months ago I was invited to apply to be part of a speakers bureau for statewide humanities organization. I was honored by the ask.

But I’m not a good public speaker. I stumble over my words and my hands shake. I write and rewrite what I’m going to say, agonizing over every word, and then practice my talk in the mirror repeatedly. Even if I have my speech memorized, I need my notes because surely a transition, or sentence or maybe even an entire paragraph will just disappear from my brain.

So, naturally, I accepted the invitation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”

That’s why I gave both a TEDX Spokane and Pivot talk in 2020

But that was during COVID, when the crowds were smaller or virtual. It was a good step outside of my comfort zone, but I knew I still needed to improve my public speaking skills.

The speakers bureau was a way to keep pushing and challenging myself. 

Plus I had something to say.

For my audition I decided to focus my talk on the importance of religion reporting. 

Perhaps that was my first mistake. People tend to be more interested in my experience growing up in a cult, but I wasn’t sure how to connect that to the humanities. 

Journalism and religion, to me, seemed like an obvious fit. Religion reporting explains how people experience and express the world around them based on their values. After 20 years on the beat, I could talk about that all day.

Bad Timing

The virtual audition, though, came at a bad time.

It’s a poor excuse, but I had just gotten home from three weeks in Greece where I had led 21 undergrad students on a journalism study abroad trip. 

I was jet lagged. While abroad, I didn’t have as much time as I thought I would to prepare my talk and prep for questions. And I hadn’t used Zoom in weeks and with program updates, had unexpected technical snafus, like not being able to play audio or share only a portion of my screen.

As a result, the committee saw me reading tiredly from my notes and heard a speech that was written on a 12-hour plane ride and needed refinement and a lot more editing.

I wouldn’t have selected me either, based on that performance.

So I wasn’t surprised when I got the “We’re sorry to inform you” email.

Still, I was disappointed.

Perhaps too Cocky?

I know better. I know I need to write drafts and practice, but I didn’t make the time. Maybe I was a little cocky because I was invited to apply for this bureau and thought I had an edge. Thinking I had an edge, and lost it, makes it worse.

The experience has me thinking about failure, which has always been unacceptable to me. 

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron once said at a commencement address that failure can be like a “portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh perspective.”

That means there’s a lesson in this, an opportunity.

I do still believe in the key message I was trying to share — that religion reporting makes a difference in communities. 

Perhaps there’s still an innovative way I can share this idea.

But maybe the more important lesson is about self compassion. We all mess up sometimes, and that’s OK; it’s part of what makes us human.

And I’ll try again if an opportunity like this one comes along again. It would be a failure not to.

Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting and digital entrepreneurship. In her approximate 20 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut and Washington. She is the executive director of SpokaneFāVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and national publications. She is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of Journalism at Washington State University.

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Lynn Kaylor
Lynn Kaylor
9 months ago

You’ll make it. You’re no worse than I ever was before I took up public speaking. When I was 18, I had to pick up a lot of pieces from my childhood. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye because I was filled with existential shame imposed by my relatives. Project my voice? My voice projected to about 3 feet away. How did I overcome this image of a shrinking violet? I got past that by getting involved in teaching youth. It took me a couple of years before I became comfortable with public speaking. But I did get there. So will you and I had never known you to falter in your speaking episodes anyhow.

Tracy Simmons
9 months ago
Reply to  Lynn Kaylor

Thank you Lynn. It’s funny, I’m in the classroom everyday and am very comfortable there. But on stage with strangers, it’s another story.
I’m glad you’ve overcome your fear or public speaking!

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