(Alternate title: "How a Board Brought Me Down a Peg.")
"I don't know what to write on my board!"
In half an hour, my first National Training would be over. Our annual three-day training event always closes out with "Breaking Through," a session where you actually break an inch-thick board as a metaphor for what's holding you back in life. On the side that's facing you, you write a fear, an obstacle, or something else negative that you want to get past. On the other side, you write your goal.
I knew it was coming, and all week the question "What should I write on my board?" had flitted through the back of my mind. Now it was time. I had listened to everything speaker Brian Biro* had said - but I still hadn't decided.
(*Small tangent: Can I just say how impressive a speaker Biro is? Every now and then, you'll see a speaker who starts out the session by having everyone stand up, stretch, and shake themselves out a little, "so you're not falling asleep when I give you the speech." Biro, on the other hand, has constructed an entire presentation around physical exercises to build the energy in the room - his thesis is basically that energy breeds success, in business and in life, and it's one I completely subscribe to. At one point, he asked people to think of someone they know who always seems filled with energy; I hoped a few of my friends at work were thinking of me.)
What could I write on that board? Kari, who had broken a one last year and was taking us through the session, grabbed a small plank off a chair and wrote "FAILURE" on it in big letters. "This is what I wrote last year," she said.
I wasn't at all afraid of failure. In my core, I knew I could do anything I set my mind to. I ran a half marathon, dammit! Still, it was something to write, at least. I grabbed a promising-looking board and wrote "FAILURE" on one side.
The other side, where you write your goals, was easier. I wrote "LEADERSHIP" on that side, and when Biro asked us to make a dedication, I added "for Mr. W,"* because he's always encouraged me to recognize that I have what it takes in that arena.
(*Almost immediately, I decided that the phrasing of my board was awkward and that I should think of some other way of writing it, prompting Ellen to remark that maybe I should put "second-guessing myself" as an obstacle. That's not second-guessing - that's editing!)
So, I was all ready to break my board - but the presentation kept going. I started to get anxious. Earlier, I had told Bob I would work the room with him for video of the presentation - him with the camera, me with the microphone. How could I be standing here, ready to selfishly break a board for no reason other than I thought it would be cool, when I had made a promise to help someone else out?
... I picked up my board again, crossed out "FAILURE," and wrote, "DISAPPOINTING OTHERS." Now that's a fear I can relate to.
Finally, it was time to start breaking. I posed in the stance I had learned, with my dominant hand back in my armpit and my other hand in front of me in a "stop" position. Sweet! I was going to be a ninja! I had no fear of failure. I knew I was going to break that board!
Until I thrust my hand forward - and felt it meet solid, unyielding wood.
Shit. All of a sudden, I had plenty of fear of failure.
I dropped my arms and looked at Kari, who was holding my board. "It didn't break," I said. "It was supposed to break for me on the first try."
Kari said, "That's OK! Let's try again!"
No, you don't understand, I wanted to say. It was supposed to break for me. I succeed at everything I put my mind to. Everything. And that means breaking this board on the first try.
But I didn't. Instead, I reset my position and tried again.
And again I failed.
My hand was stinging. I knew that participants who failed five times were sent up to the stage to have Biro help them break their boards personally, and now I was 40 percent of the way there. "Don't make me go up on stage!" I begged Kari.
"You don't have to go on stage," she assured me. I readied myself for the third try. Nearby, Jessica and Ellen chanted, "Kel-ly! Kel-ly! Kel-ly!" I was grateful, but would have preferred a quiet room where I could have attacked the board on my own.
Possibly with a chainsaw. You know, if one happened to be available.
I failed a third time. "Maybe we need to take a break," Kari said. I was trembling. By now, I was supposed to be halfway across the room, interviewing women who had just broken through their fears and felt the exhilaration of sudden, extraordinary success. Instead, here I was, failing over and over in a way I didn't consider possible before this. (And it was taking way too long - I had a job to do, dammit!)
On the fourth try - finally, miraculously - the board gave way. Relief and gratitude flooded through me, and I grabbed Kari and hugged her for dear life. Then I cheered on Jessica and Ellen as they broke their boards (no, neither of them on the first try, either), picked up my microphone, and went - still shaking slightly - to do my job.
As far as I could tell, my fourth hit wasn't much different from my previous three. I have no idea why it should have caused the board to break that time and not the others. I can only assume that Kari picked up a tip last year - something about how to hold the board or maybe a way to push it towards me at the last second so that our combined force causes it to break - that made my attempt a teensy bit more effective. I don't know what she did, but I thanked her for being there for me about 12 times throughout the evening.
I don't think anyone else in the room reacted the way I did to the board breaking. For all the other women, the crucial moment was that of finally breaking the board, of suddenly knowing they could do it. I remembered only the three failures that came beforehand. I remembered the certainty trickling out of me and being replaced by cold dread. I even wondered if there was something wrong with my hardwiring - was I supposed to doubt myself at first and then triumph? (Thankfully, Mr. W told me he would have felt the same way. He theorized that it comes of being editors: "We expect perfection." If that's weird, at least he and I are weird together.)
But while board breaking was not at all the experience for me that it is for most people, it was still valuable. I learned that sometimes, I will not live up to my own expectations. When that happens, it's good to remember that I have friends who will be on my side - who might even help me out during uncertain times in ways I don't always notice. I want to be more constantly grateful for those people in my life.
Not exactly a breakthrough, but it's something.