Make Your Own Calling (Transcript of Talk to NSA NYC)

On Thursday, August 22nd, I gave a talk to the National Speakers Association New York City chapter at their annual Summer Social event, to which they invite a lot of prospective members, mainly people who may want to make speaking their business but who aren’t yet there. The theme of the evening was to make it clear that we all have a process by which we get there, and I shared mine. The following is a transcript of that talk.

Photo credit: TE McLaughlin

All my life I’ve envied those people who say in interviews that they always had a singular vision of what they wanted to do with their lives.
I’ve never been one of those people.

I always wanted a calling. I would read interviews with famous people and so many of them said they knew that they had to write or they had to act or they had to play baseball.

I mean, did I have to become a professional keynote speaker, talking to corporate leaders about emerging technologies and digital transformation?
Uh, no. I did not have to.

In fact, throughout my life and especially throughout my career I’ve struggled with pinpointing and defining what I do and what I’m about. Maybe you have, too.

So whether you’re here tonight because you’re building a career as a professional speaker, or you think maybe you’d like to, or whether you just want to be able to do it well enough as a secondary part of your occupation to generate leads for your primary business —
whatever the case, I think now and then it’s helpful to go back and look for clues throughout our lives about what has led us to where we are, and how we can take it further.

Me? I grew up interested in lots of things. Reading was one of my favorite hobbies, as well as writing and making up stories, poems, songs, and plays, and performing them for my family and our friends. And charging maybe a quarter for admission. (Because I was also a budding entrepreneur.)
Also learning to program — which in the ’70s and ’80s meant typing up pages of code I’d torn out of printed magazines.

So somehow I was equal parts book worm, aspiring writer, stage ham, and computer geek. I was very adaptable, multi-skilled, as it turned out. But I would’ve traded it all in to have had a singular calling.

I wanted my calling to be music — I loved music — I sang at my church, played clarinet first chair in my high school band, and taught myself literally a dozen other instruments. My dream career was to be not just a singer or rock star, but specifically to be a singer-songwriter.

I have this one memory of being very young — maybe 6? — and using the family typewriter to type out lyrics so that I could study them as inspiration for learning to write great songs. You know the earliest one I can remember studying? Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.”
Yeah, that’s right: a song about an aging man reflecting on the hard decisions in his life.
I was precocious, yes, but I think it also showed that I was also already fascinated with people and their stories, and the human condition.

Anyway, I really wanted music to be my calling, but I loved too many other things. I was too adaptable.

In first grade, I even won first place in two different statewide competitions:
one for a statewide young author’s contest
for a book called Herman the Horse Gets Lost,
and one for a statewide computer programming contest
with a game I’d written/coded called Doggie.
My love of animals was clearly strong even then (and I’ve now been a vegan for 21 years).

And then there were languages. When my grade school class hosted some foreign exchange students from France and we got handouts with French phrases to learn (“bonjour! je m’appelle Kate”), I discovered that I was good at learning them. (It turned out it ran in the family — my dad had been a linguist in the military, and was fluent in Arabic. Side note: he had also been a singer. Also multi-skilled.) I loved language. I taught myself basic Spanish during family trips to the public library. My older sister studied German in high school, and I helped her with her flash cards — and along the way, I picked up the vocabulary and an affection for the language. I’m not kidding, I loved languages.

So while there was no single calling, there were all these recurring themes: writing, performing, computers, music, fascination with people, and language.

That’s not exactly a college major.

So when it came time for college, I couldn’t decide if I was going to major in music, theater, or language. Ultimately I decided that what I wanted to do in music and theater I could do without a degree in those fields, but what I wanted to do with languages
— which was, get this, to become an interpreter at the United Nations
(remember that, because it comes back up later)
— I could only do with a specialized degree.
So I majored in German, minored in Russian and linguistics, and had a concentration in international studies. I went all in on languages.

And then I built my career in technology. But that actually makes a certain kind of sense.

I’ll explain.

I think the thing I always loved about language is that things could mean different things. That a book is also a Buch and a livre and a libro and a книга(kniga)… that you could have different names for the same thing. Which meant, I realized, that a thing exists separately from whatever you call it. Which meant that meaning itself was adaptable.

It turns out that that idea — that meaning isn’t fixed, that we learn and curate our own sense of meaning, that we can create meaningful connections with each other based on what we have in common — that idea became the undercurrent of the work I’ve done throughout my life.

Part of what drives my work in technology is a curiosity about what makes humans human. My contention after some 25 years of working in this field and researching this topic is that the most notable attribute about humanity — and the one most pertinent to a discussion of technology — is that humans crave meaning.

Meaning, after all, takes many forms in our lives: the considerations of relevance, significance, purpose, even our own existence in the cosmos. Meaning is about what matters.

And one of the ways I describe my work is that I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future, and what’s so fascinating to me about the idea that meaning is what matters is that you can also say that innovation is about what is going to matter.

And all of this is true on both an organizational level and an individual level.
So conveniently, the same tools that I now talk to corporate leaders about in preparing them for digital transformation are tools we need as speakers:
Purpose, relevance, alignment.

We need to define what is most meaningful to us and to our audience to find the alignment between them. We have to be able to tell our own most meaningful stories and talk about our own experiences in a way that people can see how those insights are relevant to them.

And we have to dig deep for our clarity of purpose and know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and as I tell business leaders, we have to know what we are trying to achieve at scale. In other words, what does this look like when it’s very successful? For us that means, not just how much money do you hope to make as a speaker, but what changes do you want to be part of making in people’s lives and in the world?

For me that can be summarized in the phrase Tech Humanist, which is both the term people sometimes call me and the title of my most recent book.
The idea of the book — the idea of my work — is that technology is changing everything, most notably (and what I care the most about) human experience, and business is most responsible for those changes. So there has to be a way to marry the interests of business and humanity through tech, and my work is dedicated to doing just that.

So in practice, what I speak about is digital transformation. But every speaker’s subtext is transformation, of some kind: we’re all trying to help people see their way from one state of mind or being to another state.
In my audience’s case it’s from a state of fear about the future and technology to a state of preparedness for the future and curiosity about how technology can help amplify their company’s purpose.

And in the biggest picture sense, as I mentioned before, I like to say I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future.
That idea is endlessly inspiring to me, and in my experience, to make a career out of this, you have to draw from what you’re naturally curious and inspired about.

There also has to be alignment with what the market wants. Sometimes that’s not entirely what you want. My moments of strongest market validation this year followed a sarcastic conspiracy tweet about facial recognition, so now I get tagged on a lot of posts people make about technology conspiracy theories and invasive use of facial recognition. Some of that is relevant and interesting to me, but I can’t imagine reshaping my career to become the Tech Conspiracist.

In any case, this is what it all boils down to, all the advice about finding your niche, your positioning, your value proposition… it’s about whatever consumes you in the middle of the night anyway, and what you’ll wake up with fresh ideas about. For me, that is somewhere at the intersection of meaning, technology, and the human condition.

Because eventually I realized that if you aren’t born with a singular calling, you get to spend the rest of your life knitting the threads of your passions together to form one. You get to make your own calling.

In many ways what I do now is the perfect combination of what I dreamed of doing as a kid.

No, I’m not a singer-songwriter, but I do write and I do perform.
I certainly use my skill with language both in a broader sense of understanding the meaning of things
and in a literal sense: I get to try out my foreign languages when I travel internationally.
And these days it takes a pretty good deal of tech savvy to do some of this work, in terms of the digital marketing it takes to build a business. So I’m grateful to have that in my background, too.
So although it sort of bothered me as a kid, I now consider my versatility to be my strongest asset as a writer and speaker:
so many things interest me that I can draw parallels between unexpected ideas for new insights.

Speaking has become my main source of income, and it’s an amazing career because once you decide what your message is,
you can get the message out to people who can take it to heart and make decisions with it
And I’ve been honored to be asked to speak for big companies with huge impact like Google,
forward-thinking cities like Amsterdam,
and even this year, thanks to my friend Jennifer’s invitation, at the United Nations.
Remember I mentioned that?
When I saw the interpreter booths at the back of the room I got chills.

Getting to speak for cool clients is definitely a perk of this business, and there are plenty of other upsides to this job: travel can be fun, the money can be good, and you can feel like you’re making a difference.
The downsides? The road warrior life can also be exhausting, the time away from friends and loved ones is tough, and most people have no idea what it is you actually do.

As a speaker, you have this weird job no one quite understands
— a lot of people think it’s more glamorous or more sleazy than it really is — 
so it’s nice when you can be around people who understand
that what you’re doing is mining the depths of your experience,
sharing truths about yourself and your observations about the world
so you can help your audience understand how to make a difference, how to transform.

The barrier to entry in this field isn’t very high: you can start speaking anywhere and anytime.
There is no one right way.
You can absolutely use your unique combination of skills and life experiences to carve out a path that suits you so perfectly you might swear it’s your calling.

But the barrier to greatness is a lot higher
and you need great people around you to support you,
to challenge you,
and to encourage you to do better and bigger work.

That’s what’s so great about building our network here and in other communities of speakers, amongst all these other adaptable, versatile, multi-skilled people like you with varied and colorful life experiences who are just as much on a quest to make your life into your calling, get your unique message out, and transform the world.

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