I'm an introvert, born without a single extrovert gene. If I go to a party I get all anxious and wobbly at the thought of talking to people I've never met before. I worry about what I should say and then worry what I've said isn't witty/interesting/serious enough. It's an affliction.
And public speaking? An introvert's worst nightmare. The thought of standing up in front of a group of people, even people I know and love, makes my voice box seize up. I'd honestly rather just send them a little written note. This may explain why I love blogging - it's like public speaking without saying a word.
But then back in July a message popped into my inbox.
Hi Fiona! How are you? I wanted to invite you to give a talk at TEDxBrisbane. We think you'd make a wonderful addition to the day if you were interested? I hope so!
TEDx? I thought.
Isn't that PUBLIC SPEAKING? Like, in front of LOTS OF PEOPLE??
I immediately broke into a cold sweat and pretended I hadn't received the message. For two days.
For those of you in the dark about TED, it's an organisation devoted to 'ideas worth spreading'. Invited speakers talk for 18 minutes about an idea they're passionate about. TEDx are independently organised TED events in places like my home town, Brisbane.
To be honest, I was terrified at the thought of speaking at TEDx. It made me feel physically sick. I really, really wanted to say no, but deep down, I knew I really, really needed to say yes.
Why? Because I knew from experience that when something scares me witless, that's just the thing I ought to do. Like travelling alone to rural Thailand as a naive 21 year-old. Like helicopter rescue as an emergency doctor. Like publishing my first blog post. Like writing my first book. All of these were terrifying, but I knew they would somehow be good for me if I could just overcome the fear.
So I said yes, partly because it was such an overwhelming honour to be asked to speak, but mostly because one of the organisers said to me - "Just think of it as the message you'd like to leave your children." That spoke directly to my heart.
What happened next was truly life-affirming. I spent days and weeks thinking about all the disparate elements of my life; medicine, my children, my long happy marriage, writing, China, eating, photographing, and road trips; and somehow distilled it all into 18 minutes of my life's philosophy, with a few funny China stories thrown in.
At forty-five years old the chance to do this, to really deeply reflect on what is important to me, was a great gift. It made me enormously grateful for the rare and special opportunities life has thrown my way, and all the wonderful people I've met on my path through life. And suddenly, the zig-zagged journey to where I am now made some sort of crazy sense.
I could be a doctor. And a writer. And a photographer. And I could stop feeling guilty about wanting to be all those things.
And telling it all to more than five hundred people? Well, that part was truly terrifying. I wrote, and re-wrote, and re-wrote the words I wanted to say. I practiced like a fiend, in secret, then in front of my husband and a few friends whose opinions I really trusted. I sweated and fretted and drove myself crazy with anxiety. I meditated. I pretended it didn't matter if I stuffed it all up on stage in front of everyone. And then I spiralled into black panic attacks thinking about what that would feel like, to make a big mess of it while someone was filming you and five hundred people were watching.
So I just tried to think of it as the story I wanted to tell my children. And it turned out OK.