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“I was looking for work that would make my heart sing.”

Jamie Ford said that recently at a UQ Business School alumni event as she told us about the path her career has taken. She said that her current role as Head of Customer Experience for Uniting Care Queensland does exactly that.

Jamie was one of the people that I interviewed for Design Thinking and Creativity for Innovation which is a free online course – please check it out! One common thread across the people that I interviewed was that nearly all of them described their career path as weird, or unconventional.

Mine has been too.

I do a lot of public speaking, and several time recently at these events, I’ve had people say to me something like “That was a great talk – you’re a natural!”

I’m very much not a natural public speaker. Not even close.

When I was younger, I was painfully shy. Just being able to talk to people in the first place was a skill I had to build over a long period of time. The thought of speaking in front of a group was petrifying. so how did I end up in a job where speaking in front of groups is a huge part of my responsibilities?

It started at my campus radio station – WPRB – when I went off for university.

I was passionate about music – it’s a pretty good hobby for a shy introvert. But within my high school, my taste was weird enough that it was rarely a bridge to others. When I first heard WPRB it was a revelation – they played the same stuff that I loved! So I signed up for DJ training.

Being a radio DJ is interesting. It is unquestionably public speaking, but you can’t see the people you’re addressing. That made it a bit easier, but I still hated the talking part. I just wanted to play stuff I loved, telling everyone what it was just came as part of the deal.

In those early days, if someone was in the booth while I was talking, I could barely get words out. But I wanted to keep playing music, so I figured I had to get better at the talking part. So I practiced – a lot. I taped shows and tried to find ways to improve, and I spent a lot of time in the booth with the really good DJs, so I could learn from them.

After a few hundred hours of doing shows, I became comfortable with the talking part. After a few hundred more, I was actually pretty ok at it.

It was one of the first experiences that shifted me from primarily having a Fixed Mindset (believing that our capabilities are inherent, and not very changeable), to having a Growth Mindset (believing that our basic qualities can be cultivated through effort). Growth Mindset, based on great research by Carol Dweck, is a core innovation idea for me now – mainly because I’ve seen enormous changes in myself come about through directed practice.

This is important in relation to Jamie’s point too. The things that make our heart sing aren’t always things that we’re naturally good at. In fact, they might be like public speaking was for me – something that was painful to learn, and slow.

I went through the same process when I started work at UQ. My radio experience had been great, and it helped me become less shy. But I still wasn’t anywhere close to confident in front of actual people. Out of curiousity last week, I added up all of the public talks I’ve done over the past ten years. This doesn’t count anything I’ve done that has been teaching in a classroom – just talks that people have invited me to give at workshops, industry events, panels, and so on.

It turns out I’ve done about 175 talks in that time, to around 12,000 people. That’s why I’ve laughed every time someone has called me a natural. I’m not. Not even close. It took a lot of work to seem natural and be authentic when I talk. And now it makes my heart sing.

If you knew how terrible I was at it when I started, and how scared, that might make you realise that there’s a whole lot you can do too with effort, and practice.

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