Inside: Most of this is an embarrassing story of failure until it’s not. Take the career lessons from this story and enjoy a good laugh at my expense.
I spent five summers as a proctor (fancy name for camp counselor) at Project Contemporary Competitiveness – PCC (really fancy name for summer camp).
As a proctor at PCC, one of my roles, beyond shaping and inspiring young minds to help them achieve their dreams (no big deal), was to assist with a class called Music and Movement.
The kids in the class sang, danced, and acted and were super talented. The other proctors in the class sang, danced, and acted and were super talented. I think I was there by clerical error, and because I was good with the kids who cried. We all have our strengths.
The show the kids put on every year was incredible. It was always deep and meaningful, and mostly I didn’t get it because I was neither deep nor meaningful and my shtick was wearing a lot of pink.
All the World’s a Stage, and I Should Really Be In the Audience
I think the theme for that year’s show was loneliness, or maybe it was something about math? I still don’t know, but what remains very clear is that the four proctors for the class were always the intro to the show and we had to be on stage doing something interesting to welcome in the audience. This year, the four of us were wearing dark shirts and sunglasses and standing or sitting perfectly still while the audience walked in.
For visual: The four of us were standing, sitting on a tall stool, sitting on a chair, and sitting on the floor. I was on the floor, stage right.
I could have chosen to sit like a normal person, but I was feeling artsy and sat with one knee up and the other leg tucked under. (I was going to pull my weight in this show, dammit.) So there we were, being artsy, and the audience started coming in. So…slowly… So painfully slowly that I realized after about 25 minutes that my bottom leg was starting to tingle. The tingle of impending doom. My stupid leg was falling asleep but rules were rules and I was not supposed to move.
(Internal monologue: Becca, you’ve done nothing useful this whole 6 weeks. You have one job. For the love of all things holy, do not mess up the beginning of this show. Suck it up.)
Those Aren’t Acting Tears
As I sat there, impending doom became real doom over the next 20 minutes. My leg fell fully asleep. Hip to toe, totally numb.
It hurt so badly that I started to cry under my (very fortunately) dark sunglasses. There was a big mat in the pit in front of the stage that later in the show a kid was going to dive into it dramatically. I considered tucking and rolling into the pit, but that would also ruin the show. There was no way out and everything was terrible.
Finally the music stopped, signally for us to get up and leave the stage, stage left. I desperately tried to let my coworkers know that I couldn’t move but apparently panic makes me mute. (Not a good sign for future moments of panic in my life. Turns out I’m neither flight nor fight. I’m “do nothing.”)
The Show Must Go On
My three coworkers got up and walked off stage, still looking artsy and cool. I on the other hand, managed to pull myself up using the chair to my left looking like an injured deer.
I tried putting numb leg in front of functioning leg and my body crumpled to the ground like a rag doll. Through all of the strength in my being, I was able to push back up and get functioning leg to propel me forward a few feet before numb leg once again let me down, immune to both positive self talk and lambasting. This staggering display of athleticism continued for the next 3.5 years as I tried to get myself 25 feet off the stage.
Did I mention we were in an auditorium? 500 kids, 50 proctors, all of the performers’ family and friends, and the Queen. As I recall the Queen of England was there.
It’s a toss-up for what I think is the best part of this story:
1) The Curtain
Behind us was an outrageously expensive curtain. You could see shadows through it for artistic effect and it was also made of spun platinum I think. If I mangled this magic curtain I would have to sell my kidneys on the black market to pay for it.
So that’s the other thought going through my brain as I stumbled gracelessly across the stage – touch that curtain and not only will the director of this show throw you into his trunk and drive you to the desert, you will also lose your kidneys. There was a lot of pressure.
2) Turns Out I’m an Artistic Genius
At least half the audience THOUGHT IT WAS PART OF THE SHOW!
Forget what I said before, that is the best part of this story.
Because every year the show was always deep and meaningful, it made perfect sense for me to be staggering off the stage looking lonely, afraid, injured, and confused. (Maybe the show was about fear? God, I really still don’t know…)
In any case, unbeknownst to me as I took my last flying leap off the stage into the wings (yes, I summoned up everything I had and just leaped when I got to the last 5 feet) hardly anyone was remotely concerned. I just gave the performance of a lifetime and set up our show for greatness. Totally nailed it.
The Career Lessons
Can we squeak some career lessons out of this story? Oh, absolutely.
Know Your Strengths
I was not an actor, I shouldn’t have done an actory thing like sit weird for artistic purposes. If you are not a math whiz and a major project that your company depends on requires math wizardry, delegate that out if you can. It’s great to learn new skills, important even. But when you’re up on the stage, in that moment it’s best to play to your strengths.
Let’s say you are a small business owner and you come across a roadblock. Keep moving, one fumbling step in front of the other. It might not be pretty, and you’re going to make more mistakes as you go. But if you stop moving altogether, your business is going to be sitting there in the middle of a stage holding up the rest of the show.
Keep pushing through the roadblock, it might end up being your crowning moment.