The Arc of Progress

Bob Ewing
September 1, 2023

Often we must endure disappointment before we succeed.

Talking Big Ideas.

“Break on through to the other side!”
~ The Doors

A couple years ago I wrote about a training session with a few executives.

They all had huge presentations coming up. More than a thousand people would be in the crowd to see them deliver their remarks. Towards the end of the session an executive named Elise said to one of our clients:

“Matt, you’re amazing at this. You’re just a natural.”

Afterwards, Matt told me it was one of the best compliments he’d ever received. Years ago, he confided, he was pulled aside at work. His Board wanted to make him president of their organization. But there was an issue that had to be addressed.

“Matt, you’re amazing at this. You’re just a natural.”

He tells this hilarious story about an early attempt on stage. He ended up stumbling and sweating so profusely he made everyone cringe.

Matt assures me that public speaking did not come naturally for him. 

He put in tons of effort to get good. And, in the beginning, that effort didn’t always feel like it was paying off. Skill development takes time and doesn’t follow a straight path. Rather, there’s an arc to progress that looks like this:  

Once we start practicing something we tend to expect a payoff right away. When I was in high school I got my first guitar. I was so excited to rock it out around the campfire! The first time I played it in front of other people I sounded terrible. I worked hard to learn the chords and notes but was disappointed in my progress.  

Eventually, though, if we keep at it, we experience a breakthrough moment. I’ll never forget the first time I jammed with my buddies and felt truly connected to them through the music. It was amazing. 

I’ve been thinking about this because Elise – the executive I mentioned above – started working with us after that conference call a couple of years ago. She confided to me that speaking in public is wholly unnatural to her. It has always made her feel nervous and awkward. 

We worked together on a speech she delivered to a large audience. Perhaps her most important talk of the year. She told me afterward how it went: 

As I was walking onto the stage, looking out at the crowd, I realized that I wasn’t nervous. That was totally unexpected. A significant change for me. The voice in my head wasn’t critical. It said, ‘you’re good at this. When you talk, people want to hear you.’ My confidence was at a completely new level. 

When she finished several people came up to her. They told her how much they loved her talk. One woman said, “Can I ask you something? How did you become such an excellent speaker?” 

Elise was caught off guard by the question. She thought about it a moment and said that she’s been working hard over the past year to get better. In a beautiful moment of things coming around full circle, the woman replied: 

 “I just assumed you were a natural!” 

Elise laughed telling me this. She loved hearing it – just like Matt did when Elise said it to him a year ago. She never thought someone would say it to her.

I asked if her opinion has changed on public speaking. She said, “I never thought that I would enjoy it so much. I’m so happy with how everything turned out last week. It was the best speech I’ve ever delivered.” 

The disappointment phase of skill development is hard enough to make most people give up. The San Antonio Spurs basketball team has a quote hanging in their locker room from the writer Jacob Riis

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it – but all that had gone before. 

Press on! In time, disappointment will transform into delight. 

Latest Posts