My TEDx talk came out a few weeks ago. Based on the thumbnail pic of the video, you’re probably assuming that I start rapping at some point during the talk. Sorry to disappoint you, but no beats were thrown down during the making of this TEDx speech.
I’ve been procrastinating sharing this until today. Not because of the speech itself – but because how much was wrapped up in it for me emotionally. Now is the time to tell you what happened.
All of it.
I’m going to let you in on the past few months of my life, and the beautiful themes that are tangled up in the 11 minutes of video above. I recommend you watch the video before reading the rest of this post, otherwise some of it won’t make sense.
This post is a timeline of my life’s events as I prepared for, delivered and awaited the video to be released of this TEDx talk. Anytime I work with speakers, I always tell them their topic will wildly confront them as they develop the message. The topic teaches you, so you can then teach others. And my experience was no exception.
August 8, 2017 – This was the day I was chosen to speak at TEDxBoulder.
I applied to TEDxBoulder in early August with an idea that I hoped might be worth spreading. It was about the difference between transparency and authenticity – and how to be more real with people.
The idea was inspired by a scientific study I read about authenticity, plus being fed up with lackluster interactions with my fellow humans as the accepted status quo. Lately I’m a bit incapable of shallow small talk. Go deep, or go home. (I’m super fun at parties.)
The curator of TEDxBoulder, Andrew Hyde, really liked the idea and gave me a high five. At the end of my interview he said, “You’re in.”
At first, it was a thrill. I celebrated that evening with people I love. I couldn’t stop smiling.
But the next day, it started sinking in what I had signed up for. I have taken many clients on a TED or TEDx speaking journey, but I have never actually done one myself. Stakes are always high with these talks, but mine felt higher because I coach these people for a living! I mean, this is a ripe possibility for professional suicide if I bombed on that stage. #nopressure
The thing is though, anyone can come up with a good reason to create pressure for themselves. This pressure doesn’t help much when it comes to creativity and performance. It causes a spike in adrenaline, and living in that space for weeks will only cause burnout. I knew this was a great opportunity to learn how to manage my thoughts and energy better.
Throughout the exhaustive creative process of outlining my talk, I was brainstorming all the best stories, most powerful personal lessons and most relevant universal truths that helped to explain true authenticity. I spent a lot of time thinking about my failures and successes in this arena.
I recalled a story about a time last spring when I was going to take my friend Ruthie to her chemo treatment, and I showed up at her door dressed as her favorite super heroine, Wonder Woman. As you saw in the talk, I stopped at a Starbucks for coffee before picking her up and had the opportunity to be radically authentic with total strangers.
But I didn’t want to include the story without Ruthie’s permission. So I told her about it, and she loved it. Since we we met at college, she was one of my biggest supporters and cheerleaders. This was no exception – she couldn’t wait to see the video when it was done.
***Quick backstory on Ruthie: She was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer when she was 37. Just recently she turned 41. For over 3 years I have known her death was certain, however every time things looked bleak, she rallied. Her cancer almost started to feel like a manageable illness than one which would take her life. During this time of developing the TEDx talk, I believed she’d live forever.***
At the final speaker practice before the TEDx event, we were told what order we’d be speaking in. And I was dead LAST. The anchor. The person to bring it all home…
September 17, 2017 – This was the day I gave my first TEDx talk.
Finally, the big day arrived. I sent Ruthie an audio file of the final talk. I was happy with it, but damn it’s HARD to get so much packed into a short amount of time. People from across the world were sending me text messages of encouragement.
In the few weeks prior, my process for memorizing (or as I prefer to say, “embodying”) the speech was a combination of listening to an audio recording of it, and also looking at one page of notes when I needed prompting. As you can see from my kitchen setup pictured at left, I kept the full written script nearby if I needed it.
By the day of the talk, you just gotta throw it all out the window and OWN IT.
So instead of rehearsing, I played with my kids. I went for a hike. I prayed at my altar. I made sure to keep my thoughts and mood light and playful. I got my hair done with a fellow TEDx speaker. It was an awesome day before I even spoke.
Not taking ourselves so seriously is a super power.
That afternoon was the speaker meeting, followed by the tech rehearsal. I took the mic and the clicker for a test drive. Standing on the big red dot felt a bit surreal. I visualized the 2,200 seats in front of me were filled with happy, beaming people who couldn’t wait for all of us speakers to rock the stage.
And then came the waiting. Arriving early for tech practice, plus a 4 hour event when you’re speaking LAST is pretty much torture. At some points I thought I might go a little crazy. I spent more than a half hour sitting in the grass of the University of Colorado campus talking to a squirrel who I named Gus, my emotional support animal. Check out this video I made while sitting there, an hour before giving my talk.
And then, finally, it was my turn.
The crowd welcomed me jovially. The lights made the stage feel like a warm cocoon. I had a big smile on my face. This was my spot. I was ready. I jumbled a few minor things, but nothing people would notice.
My focus was on staying present, and to be IN the experience versus letting it happen to me. (This is why some speakers have those black hole moments where they forget everything – it’s because they aren’t present.) I had fun with the audience and they were super responsive. Eleven minutes flew by.
At the end, I was greeted by an enthusiastic standing ovation. I’m not sure if it was in response to my talk, or simply because their asses hurt so bad after sitting for 4 hours. Either way, I’ll take it. I sent every person in that room love beams and bowed with gratitude for their time and attention.
Afterwards, there was a party at a local restaurant. My tribe was there. Strangers became friends. We all bonded over ideas worth spreading.
It was magical. It was liberating. It was perfect.
September 21, 2017 – This was the day we learned Ruthie was dying.
Four days later, I was still coming down from the high of TEDx when I got the news. All treatment options for Ruthie were exhausted. The end of the road was now in view. He liver was shutting down and there was nothing the doctors could do. While I had always known her diagnosis was technically terminal, somehow I still felt incredibly shocked about this.
She’s Wonder Woman after all. I was all like, “Wait, WHAT???!!! She only has a few weeks left?!?” I felt totally leveled.
Ruthie was both brave and terrified in the face of this news. She has been one of my greatest teachers about “duality” – when two seemingly opposing concepts can be utterly true in the same moment. She asked me and some of her other close friends if we’d plan a living memorial for her.
Whatever the hell that is, YES. Because she asked me. And I would have done anything for her.
As it turns out, a living memorial is basically a funeral where the person who is dying is still alive and comes to say goodbye to people. Ruthie’s friends and family moved into action to plan this thing. Within a week, we booked a ballroom, got a PA system, ordered food, made the invitation and handled all the other logistics.
My role was to organize speakers for the event, and be the emcee (for lack of a better term). All of a sudden, speaking at TEDx felt like small potatoes. I needed to pull together a night of speakers who would be the last speakers Ruthie ever heard.
I wanted it to be the best night of her life.
The night before her living memorial, Ruthie’s closest friends stayed at the hotel where it was going to take place. Myself, our friend Susan and Ruthie stayed up talking until 3am. About life. About purpose. About meaning. About legacy. Ruthie has been a huge supporter of my work doing The Dig.
If you’ve never heard me talk about The Dig, it’s a process for helping people narrow their whole life purpose down to just ONE WORD. This distillation of our life’s meaning allows us to better align our choices with our reason for being here – as well as serving as a beacon for how to communicate our truth to others. That night we figured out Ruthie’s word.
Her Dig Word is SEE.
She had a way of making people feel so seen. So cared for. And she deeply desired to be seen in return. Now her request for a living memorial made complete sense to me.
She gave me permission to audio record that conversation, and listening to it today gave me chills. At one point I asked her what the purpose of her life is.
She said to me, so clearly and confidently:
“My job here is to love people.”
Well, SHIT…shouldn’t that be ALL of our jobs? To love people? She loved people by seeing them. For who they are – no more, no less.
The living memorial was epic. Above is a 2-minute video of after the speakers were done, and I had a last-minute idea to walk the Facebook Live phone over to Ruthie for a message from her. People from all over the world gathered to celebrate in person and online. She hugged everyone. She thanked them. She told them she loved them.
She said her final goodbyes to EVERYONE that night. Let that sink in for a moment…
Imagine having a party where 150 of your closest loved ones have traveled from across the globe to gather in your honor. You will never see them again.
By the time they leave, you will say farewell, forever.
I watched these goodbyes go down all night long. I was in awe of her stamina, her grace and her never-ending well of love and acceptance as people simply showed up as they were. In the joy, in the grief, in the pain, in the fear – she welcomed it all, she WANTED it all. She held it all. As for her group of girlfriends…it was our job to hold Ruthie.
The next day all of us girlfriends were hanging out by the hotel pool with Ruthie. As a side effect of her liver slowly shutting down, her skin and eyes were turning yellow. I’ll never forget the color contrast of Ruthie’s golden body floating in the sparkling blue pool. She had big Jackie O sunglasses on. As she drifted away from all of us sitting on the pool chairs, she said…
“You guys, that was the best night of my life.”
An hour later, everyone was leaving the hotel. Now Ruthie said her final goodbyes to her most inner circle. It was excruciating to witness. Ruthie was exhausted.
Finally, just me and Susan were left at the hotel. We couldn’t do it. We couldn’t make her say two more final goodbyes. So when she came in for my hug, I said to her, “I’ll see you soon.”
“See you soon?” she said, looking puzzled. (She hadn’t said that phrase in awhile.)
“I’m coming back. I’ll text you when I get home and we’ll figure out dates. But I’m thinking the weekend of October 14th.”
“Do you think I’ll make it until then?” she asked.
“Yes I do,” I said.
And I believed myself.
She smiled. She was relieved. She needed help getting into her car. Turns out, goodbyes are exhausting. Maybe that’s why so many of us avoid them.
Later, I booked my plane tickets to fly back to Illinois on October 14th.
October 3, 2017 – This was the day I turned 40.
I saw a glimmer of a new way to be in life. With others. With myself. A way with more grace and less control. More peace and less unrest. More driven by love, less driven by fear.
My 40th birthday was one of the best days of my life. Friends from all over sent birthday wishes. My closest girlfriends took me to lunch at my favorite taco place, then to a swanky spa for an afternoon of massages and hot tub soaks. My Boulder tribe met at a brewery that night and threw me a big party, complete with loud singing and a birthday cake with number 40 candles. I ended the night smoking a cigar in Chautauqua Park. (Don’t ask – it’s a thing for me lately.)
SO. MUCH. LOVE.
In life, in death – this is all we have, my friends. I’m still very much immersed in a beautiful and challenging existential crisis. While part of me would rather revert to “business as usual”, a much larger part of me doesn’t want to go back to sleep.
I don’t want to forget how little time we have here.
I don’t want to forget how easy it is to accept others, if only we stop trying to change them.
I don’t want to forget that pretty much my only job here on this planet is to LOVE PEOPLE.
Everything else is just details.
October 14, 2017- This was the day Ruthie died.
The TEDxBoulder crew gave me a rough cut of my TEDx video to take with me to Illinois to show Ruthie. They rushed it, bless them for that. I packed my kids in the car and we headed to the airport. We were off to Chicago to see my friend one last time.
This was the last text I sent Ruthie. I thought we’d be taking off soon. She never texted me back.
But alas, we spent much of the day sitting in the airport, delay after delay. Ruthie’s husband called me in mid afternoon to say she was slipping into a medically induced deep sleep. (similar to a coma)
I’m a pretty damn optimistic person, even to my detriment. I knew I’d make it in time.
Until I didn’t.
Sitting on the plane, finally about to take off, the flight attendants told us to power down our phones. Just then, a call came in from Ruthie’s childhood friend Kelly.
Kelly said, “She’s gone.”
I missed her.
Shortly thereafter, instead of taking off, we were smacked with another 3 hour delay. I had reached my limit. My eyes were like faucets I couldn’t shut off. I was alone, traveling with two little kids. It’s one of the very few moments in my life as a single mom that I really wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through it. But it’s funny how help shows up when we need it most.
Help was the nice people letting us get off the plane in front of them.
Help was Frontier Airlines giving us a full refund on the spot.
Help was finding an awesome hotel in Golden for a cheap rate that would allow me to drive for a bit and collect myself, and also give my kids an adventure. (They were super upset not to go to Chicago. My son wanted to visit my parents’ dogs, and my daughter had been promised Fruit Loops cereal by Grandma. All of us were devastated for our own respective reasons.)
Help was hundreds of people watching me and my kids walk down the main terminal of DIA (all of us sobbing) and offering kind glances instead of harsh ones.
Help is the random fun Dad who enthusiastically played with my kids in the hotel pool along with his kids, while I fell apart in the corner, crying and mascara-streaked, mashing said Cheetos in my mouth and slurping red wine.
Help is him not appearing to judge me one bit, despite having zero context of the situation.
Help is having children like mine who will openly discuss emotions and sadness and offer foot massages when I’m down (which are executed rather feverishly and last a total of 4 seconds, but hey, it’s the thought that counts).
Help is getting the kids to bed, then texting and talking with loyal friends on the phone for many hours on the bathroom floor of a Marriott hotel room.
Help is angels who somehow lift us up from the literal or figurative bathroom floor at some point in our lives.
Help is Ruthie, who I still feel very strongly around me. Picking me up. Urging me on. Making me laugh. Haunting my house a little too. (but that’s a whole other blog post)
Help is sunrise the next morning, a reminder that life continues even when life stops…
Perhaps you were expecting this to be a how-to post about giving a TEDx talk. Or how to get picked to give one. Or tips for how to look polished on stage. If you had hoped for this, by now you are surely disappointed.
I’m actually not the best speaker coach, because I don’t care about all those things as much as I’m expected to. I care about speaking truth. At all costs. And
sometimes most times that’s the opposite of polished. Sometimes it doesn’t get the standing O or the big click counts. It’s all OK as long as you show up as fully YOURSELF.
My friends, I am here to midwife a more authentic world. #whateverittakes
For me, this TEDx talk and this back story is less about a speech or a message and more about waking up to bigger truths as to what life is all about. About what my real job is. Like Ruthie, my job here is to love people.
I hope yours is too.