What I did on my birthday

I turn 31 today. I had some respectable plans of playing Overwatch for most of the day and speaking to some high school students about a career in IT this afternoon. April baked me a birthday cake last night. Tomorrow we’re going to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival.

And then, around 9 a.m. this morning, I started to have an anxiety attack. My head was killing me, I couldn’t get enough air, my emotions were all over the place, and I just felt terrible. This is really unusual for me. The last time I had an anxiety attack was freshman year of college, so around 12 years ago. Anxiety isn’t something I typically struggle with.

I decided to go back to bed, with a damp washcloth over my eyes, and just lie there in the silence. I napped for a bit. When I woke up, I felt better for at least 30 seconds. Then it hit me again.

I’m not anxious about anything in particular. Everything is great, actually. There’s no cause that I can reckon.

I had agreed to speak to about 40 high school students this afternoon about careers in IT and business. There wasn’t much of an agenda, I was just telling them my story: the sort of education I got, what I think is important, how I got to where I am, and what I recommend. I spoke to a similar group of high schoolers on Wednesday and totally rocked it. The teachers said I should give a TED talk. I knew I’d done well, and I felt good about it.

Today, I had trouble keeping my lunch down. I made myself go, but I was bombing. I couldn’t think of what to say. I was repeating myself. I was stumbling around.

So, I broke the cardinal rule of public speaking and told them I was having a tough time. I told them I was having an anxiety attack, and then I talked about how we can prepare ourselves by practicing and working so we can then get through times of great anxiety and still do our jobs.

I got some great questions. One young man said that I was actually their best speaker so far, and he couldn’t believe I thought I wasn’t doing well. He wanted to know how to become good enough at public speaking to get through anxiety like this, and I reiterated: practice.

Practicing reading makes you a better and faster reader. You can comprehend the information more quickly. And this is important for working in IT and business where we need to learn a lot.

Practicing writing makes you a better, faster, and more eloquent writer. You should strive to be concise and to use the right words to convey your meaning. But you have to practice.

The same goes for public speaking. I’ve done it enough that I can do it again. It also helps to have a sense of perspective: despite my anxiety today, I knew I could do it because I had done it. The thought process was much akin to Harry Potter casting the Patronus charm.

I didn’t speak as long as I did on Wednesday, but I got more questions, which helped a lot. I think the students got something out of it, and they were very kind to me.

I’m feeling somewhat better, but not all there. I’m not my usual stable, solid self. I can’t wait to go back to sleep because I think that will help.

Happy birthday to me.

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