During the past month or so, I concluded a campaign for Congress, wrote a couple of articles about it, submitted a significant scholarly project, and then spoke at one of the big Southern Baptist seminaries. In between, there was a lot of teaching.
As I stood in front of the seminary audience of what looked like a couple hundred people or so, I felt the challenge. Felt the necessity of having had to write something that would be meaningful to them. Felt the obligation to try and keep their interest. I had written about 6000 words for that purpose.
When you speak to an audience and have about 50 minutes, that can be a big mountain to climb. It isn’t the same as teaching. When you teach, you invite the students into conversation (or at least I do) and between the questions and answers 50 minutes can go by quite rapidly. But when you carry that ball alone (and the audience is grading you instead of receiving a grade from you), it’s a bigger task.
I thought about how much I wanted to speak to audiences like that one when I was younger. How I wanted to get the attention of groups and have them listen to what I had to say! Now that I look back, I realize that was a classic example of the immature desire to do something when you aren’t even close to being ready.
I make no claim to being a great speaker. For example, I don’t have the gift of memorization. (It was tremendously comforting to me when I learned the same was true of William F. Buckley.) But I do make a strong effort to develop the content and to really have something to say. When I was younger, I think I would have felt fantastic about speaking to a big audience all the way up until the moment when I suddenly realized I didn’t have the rhetorical horse to ride. (The same was true of the first time I tried to write a book. I suddenly realized that I barely had enough for a chapter!)
I didn’t begin to hit my stride career wise until I was in my mid-thirties. But all during those earlier years I was reading, thinking, making attempts at writing, learning from wiser men and women, and generally preparing. I didn’t know whether all the preparation would bear fruit, but it did. And now, when the time has come that there is some interest I have something to offer.
So, to follow the title of this piece, I want to offer advice to the young (or maybe even the mid-career or the old). Perhaps you are like me. Maybe you are that person who didn’t have a clean path to engineering or accounting or nursing or whatever profession where the steps seem fairly clear. Maybe you have had some ideas about what you want to do with your life, but you have a lot of uncertainty about how to do it. My advice is to turn preparing for that life into your hobby. Read, watch, and learn. Find smaller opportunities to do the things you hope to do on a bigger and possibly professional scale.
If you spend enough time getting ready, you just might have something to offer when a door opens before you.