Don’t Let Mistakes Derail Your Success

Recently I (successfully) defended my oral exams as part of my doctoral program. The experience was very stressful, but not for reasons you may think. I wasn’t stressed because I was going to be presenting a 50-page paper to my committee, whose decision could either allow me to continue on in the program of force me to quit. Nope. I was stressed because right before the meeting I realized that I was missing a key piece of equipment.

Feeling prepared that morning, I got to the conference room twenty minutes before I was scheduled to present. In the process of connecting my MacBook Pro to the projector, I was horrified to discover I had forgotten my VGA adaptor. Fortunately I had brought a second computer, a Windows machine, as a backup. I’ll just run the presentation from that computer, I thought. Only, for reasons I still don’t understand, it didn’t work. So my next thought was, I’ll just ask our support person if she has any extra adaptors. Since Mac usage is rampant in our department, surely there is a spare lying around somewhere. There wasn’t. At this point committee members are starting to filter in, and my panic level is rising.

I then try to switch my Skype session (one of the committee members is currently at another university) from my Mac to my PC, no luck. Again, for reasons I still don’t understand, Skype is not functional on my PC, only on my Mac. At this point one of my committee members feels sorry for me and suggests that I simply make paper copies of the presentation since I can’t project it on the wall. Simultaneously, our support person offers use of her personal laptop, which “has Skype.” Only, since she’s never run the program before, it is not set up. So at this point I am seated at the end of a conference table with two laptops and the projector, all useless. And the paper copies our support person is making aren’t collated, so I go into the copy room to help her.

Finally, at 11:15, I begin my presentation. I am pointing to my laptop, which had to be flipped around so that the committee could see it. And we can’t see the fourth committee member since I can’t run two programs simultaneously on my desktop.

Why am I telling you all of this? Despite my best efforts to be prepared, anything that could go wrong that morning went wrong. And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.

Well, that’s not really true. I could control my own reactions and emotions. So that’s what I did. Even though I was panicked and sweaty, I purposely modulated my voice to project calmness. This helped me slow my pressured speech and feel a little bit calmer. I made myself smile, which made me feel confident. I immediately launched into my material, which I knew well, and pretty soon I had almost forgotten the multiple snafus. In short, I remained calm. I remained flexible and open to alternative solutions. I did not allow the technical glitches to affect my performance. I did whatever it took to get my presentation done, focusing on content rather than the delivery medium. In short, I passed.

I share this experience with you in the hope that you can learn from it without my blood, sweat and tears. Be prepared, yes, but be flexible. Something can, and will go wrong no matter how prepared you think you are. Know this, and know that no matter what you still know your stuff. You simply may have to present it in a different way. So, be flexible and open to new solutions. Adapt and adjust. You WILL accomplish your goal, but the road you take to get there could look a lot different from what you envisioned. And that’s OK.

Yours in the Joy of Knowledge,

Barbara LoFrisco