One of my least favorite things: recording my voice.
What do I do when my favorite things require me to face my least favorite thing? Run away? Stand up to my fears and grow? Run away?
Margaret and I both love the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Led by two humanist chaplains, the podcast asks readers to think about secular books through the lens of sacred practices. They blend their own personal stories, a thematic discussion of each chapter and a structured textual approach, usually reserved for scripture, to delve more meaning from the narrative. Each week the podcast features a “voice message.” The hosts invite listeners to email their own recorded questions and thoughts. They select from those submitted to share online and comment. Margaret suggested that while together for our yearly Exponent planning meeting, we should record a message and send it in.
She responded with encouragement to my dead silence on the phone. She offered to write some notes to get us started. She assured me that we had a great chance of being chosen! I haltingly agreed that it was indeed a good idea. But in my head one word blocked all dreams of podcast glory. No.
Nope. No way. Not doing it. Not even for Margaret. Not even for Harry. No.
Such a small, simple request. No one was asking me to do anything seemingly hard or unusual. I am an adult, professional woman who has spoken in front of groups for years. But we have all felt it. That moment when a small, simple request drudges up some distant baggage. When the grown up becomes the seven year old and a memory comes crashing back, drenching us with emotion.
For me it was being singled out in my second grade class. The teacher would announce to everyone, “Pandy, time for speech therapy.” Slinking out of my chair, walking between the desks of my classmates, following the aide down some endless hall, to a room with a tape recorder on the table. And then having to listen to an alien person, who could not possibly be me, echo repetitions and blocks for the longest half hour in the universe. Not surprisingly, the sessions did not improve my stuttering. But they did leave a lasting impression that to record one’s voice equaled humiliation and failure.
Fast forward over forty years. Nope. No way. Not doing it.
Ken Blanchard, author of Situational Leadership, refers to this response as an “assumed constraint.” He defines an assumed constraint as “a belief, based on past experience, that limits current and future experiences.” He illustrates this definition by telling the story of how elephants were trained in old time circuses. A thick rope was tied on the ankle of a baby elephant. When the baby elephant tried to walk, the rope prevented it from moving too far from the post. The memory of this restraint was so powerful that over time, circus handlers only had to attach a thin chain around the grown elephant’s leg to keep it under control. Although the enormous animals could easily break these chains, they never did. As long as they felt the slightest tug on their ankle, they wouldn’t move beyond the post. Blanchard uses this example to help students examine whether their initial reaction to refuse an opportunity is based on real considerations or like the adult elephant, an assumed constraint rooted in a memory no longer relevant to the student’s present capacity.
I could feel the tug. I recognized a response as old as a tape recorder and sounding just as scratchy. I needed to move beyond my second grade self. To an iPhone voice app. To a more courageous me.
I would like to say that I was super fun partner in recording our message for the podcast. I wasn’t. I obsessively edited one sentence of my part, griped that the stopwatch was inaccurate, and made us record several “demos” before the final version. Margaret was patient and we eventually pressed send on the email.
It was small and simple, but I tend to grow more in incremental steps than in big bangs of accomplishment. I also realize that in these moments there is always a loving person nudging me. Giving me the idea to move and the motivation to try. On my own, I might just stand by my post, content in the silence of no.