Last March, I was a spectator; last night, I was a competitor. Our Toast of the Valley Toastmasters club was one of six clubs represented in our Area C4 competition, the step in between the club competition and the District 12 competition. Watching the six prepared speeches could have been like attending a master class. Even when I am not competing, I enjoy going to the contests to support my colleagues and also to learn from those who do it best.

Last night I learned in a different way, through my own participation in the Table Topics (impromptu) portion of the competition. All day I experienced a combination of nervousness and excitement, offset by that surreal tired feeling of having been up all night with my daughter who caught my stomach bug. Strangely, I found the lack of sleep to have a relaxing effect, yet it turned out that it may have been more to my advantage to have been better rested.

I was the second competitor to field the question: the Table Topics Contest Chair poses the same question to everyone. All of us are sequestered from until it is our turn, and therefore no one has the advantage of having time to think about the question.

Although I found something to say, in my assessment I said it very awkwardly. I took a risk with my opening—it involved, uh, singing—and we’ll leave it at that. Although my opening had relevance to the rest of my speech, I would have been better off going in a different direction, I think, especially since I felt a bit of awkward vibe coming from myself and from the audience response. In retrospect, I should have gone to the far side and made the speech funny by being more extreme in my answer. The question almost begged for it.

We were asked about the prediction (based on the Mayan calendar, I guess…I was probably one of the only people in the room who has never heard of this or watched the movie…what bubble am I in?) that the world is going to end on December 21, 2012. Agree or disagree? Why or why not? It was a well written and well posed question. I know now that I could have made a humorous speech by simply agreeing and talking tongue-in-cheek about all the ways I’m living it up ’til then: being in Toastmasters, eating the cream puffs set out for dessert, etc. No one took the far side of agreeing, and I wish I had just to be funny.

I didn’t see the first competitor since I was sequestered, but I got to watch everyone after me. It was one of those moments where you know you are watching people perform better than you, watching them win…and win well. There is much goodness in watching something like that. To know you are not only being beaten, but being beaten by truly great speakers who shine and letting that shine flow into you, becoming part of it, and celebrating with them in their moment. I don’t mind being beaten like that, in the right venue, in a fair contest, with everyone truly doing his or her best at the moment. Of course, part of me was kicking myself in the time that I had to ponder the question at length: I wish I would have done this. Oh, it would have been awesome to open that way. Etc.

Yet when we come upon our own limitations, it is a beautiful experience. Humbling. Powerful. I wish I could have done that. What an amazing thought to be able to have: it means that I have something to work towards, strive after, a goal for improvement and growth. I love being good at things—who doesn’t? Yet I also enjoy those times when I think I might be semi-decent at something and then realize how much further I have to go: it is a chance to be shown a part of myself, a chance to learn about what it feels like to wish I’d done better. If we never have a chance to wish that, we never go anywhere. For a recovering perfectionist like me, it is also a chance to practice loving myself anyway even when I feel I’ve messed up. My high school history teacher, a Berkeley grad who teased me when I decided to go to Stanford, said something profound to our class once, something I will never forget. He was talking specifically about the college atmosphere, but it has applied to every other experience I’ve had, too. No matter where we go in life, there will always be someone who can do something better than we can. We can either choose to love ourselves as we are and realize that the true contest is only within ourselves to be our best version of ourselves; or we can become eaten up by it, jealous, un-growing. I think my history teacher Mr. C was speaking one of those Truths we are meant to hear if only we listen.

You know what else was a blessing, too? My Toastmasters friends took the positive view of my extemporaneous speaking attempt. They picked out some aspects to compliment, and some offered constructive critique—just like we do in meetings. I felt supported and encouraged, even in that moment when I was chiding myself. This is why I love Toastmasters: my colleagues are there to hold each other up even in our less successful moments. To know that and to feel that…well, that was grace right there. Can it be anything other than humbling and beautiful to have a group of people do that for you? The good part of camaraderie in action…

I loved watching the prepared speeches, especially knowing two of the contestants. Bob Freel, who spoke of the legacy of freedom’s pledge, is a member of our club and also an advanced club called Circle of Champions, and he was representing them last night. John Richardson, who talked about the importance of time management, represented our Toast of the Valley chapter. Both of them presented excellent speeches, engaging the audience, using thoughtful props, delivering what seemed to me to be masterful presentations. Bob earned first place with his speech, and John was the runner-up. Great job, you two!

Bob also secured the runner-up spot in the Table Topics competition (he competed for Circle of Champions, and I was competing for Toast of the Valley). A gentleman named Gene from the nighttime Temecula club placed first.

John, Gene, and Bob with their awards! Great job, you guys! I really thought these awards were well-deserved.

All of the volunteers and leaders for this contest were also recognized. My dad (on the end in the white dress shirt) served as the Sergeant-at-Arms for this competition.

So, would I like a chance to compete again? Definitely! Will I ever be opening with a few bars of a song again? Uh…I doubt it! 😉

There is joy in victory, and joy in losing. Gather it all and find the goodness in the experience of it.