Last week could be categorized in the top five most stressful weeks of my life—the kind with uncharacteristic mishaps and cruel humor. All the usual margins I plan my life with ran out and one small accident caused every responsibility and demand on my life to come crashing one into the other. Wednesday evening I was scheduled to give my first presentation for a research fellowship I was recently awarded. By this time, it was all catastrophe. I was giving myself high fives for eating and wearing clothes the right way out. I had anticipated this, so I was prepared. I had laid out my dress earlier that day, and allotted 3 minutes to put it on, and 27 to prepare my presentation. You know it’s a bad week when your plan of action involves the last 27 minutes!
The zip broke. The zip on my brand new dress. It just broke. I put it on. It broke. I googled “fixing broken zips”. I tried graphite pencils and mini pliers. I watched youtube demonstrations. I considered spontaneous dress modifications of the “backless” variety. I alternated in speaking kindly and threatening punishment on those tiny little teeth that refused to pull together. I wracked my closest only to verify there was a jolly good reason I had spent so much money on this brand new dress.
I generally don’t feel large quantities of stress or frustration. I’ve worked hard on learning how to structure my life so that I can carry large loads without these emotions. But at this point a broken zip was enough to make me cry as I stood undressed in my dorm room, tugging aggressively at the zipper. Both 3 and 27 minutes had passed and I was without dress or presentation. I pulled on a blue and yellow polkadot dress underneath my black jacket—a beach-sailor-meets-work-force combo that wasn’t working. I looked in the mirror, told myself to own it, printed out some research notes and finally walked into my meeting 20 minutes late.
Squeals of mental accusation. “This is beyond excuse. They think you’re irresponsible. Your wardrobe is a disaster—a photographed disaster that is about to be immortalized in publications all around the UN and New York City! You’re not prepared. They can tell. And they thought so highly of you when they gave you the fellowship. They must be so disappointed.” Much of this was true and I was not at all prepared in the manner I wanted to be. But I told myself greater truths and got up. What happened was beautiful.
I had but one option. With nothing prepared, all I could bring them was me—my research, my passion. I couldn’t bring them prepared notes or hours of thoughtful practice. I didn’t have time to think about how to phrase it or what it was they wanted to hear. It forced me to give them my research in the most truthful manner—true to what I had found and true to who I am and my passion for the subject. It wasn’t a carefully crafted slant of “here’s why you should care about this,” but a simple, “here’s why I care about this.”
My topic is a simple one and there’s a temptation to dress it up—a temptation to tie it into all these other factors to make it bold and dressy. Even more so, there’s a temptation to try and bring what I think they’re looking for—to give them performance instead of passion. Ultimately, I will be presenting my research to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York this March, in front of people who have dedicated their lives to being professionals at these issues. That’s intimidating. “How do I not sound stupid” was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind when I got the call saying I had been awarded the fellowship. Since that call I’ve had numerous other thoughts about how to make what I have to say really matter.
But that drive can sometimes rub away the most importance pieces of your message till it no longer comes out as you. And if you’re not presenting you, how can you present your passion?
Sometimes you have to be caught off guard so what comes out of you is unaffected and deeply real.
By the time March comes around, you can be sure I will have a prepared presentation (and two dresses!). I will have stood in front of imaginary and real audiences dozens of times to practice. But what I prepare and what I present will ultimately come from the preparation of my life. How I have invested my time, how I have come to see the world, and the passions I have cultivated are all preparation. I am preparation. And I hope that what I bring them is true to me—that everything I have practiced and prepared will only enhance the truth and passion of my topic. This is me, this is my research, this is why it matters.