Like a lot of sensible citizens of the Similkameen Valley, I long ago ceased tormenting myself with New Years resolutions that really didn’t stir my imagination or my will to persevere. Looking back over my lifetime, I see that generally when significant inner change has come, it has not been the result of a New Years resolution. Although it required time, eventually I grasped the silliness of resolving to not eat chocolates or donuts.
In retrospect, I understand now that significant change for me has at times been born of necessity, as when I visited the Toastmasters club in the offices of Langley Township. Walking into that room I was much like a fearful, whimpering cur, tail tucked tightly between its trembling legs. Although I was conscious of what I was doing, it was nevertheless a reckless plunging into territory considerably outside my comfort zone.
I had long considered myself inept in front of a crowd of any size. Exposing my lack of training and inexperience before this group of pretty accomplished public speakers brought on a disquieting weakness in my knees. Gathering up my scant courage and paying the membership fee that day, I embarked on an arduous journey that has taught me some lessons about how to introduce positive change into my life.
The impetus for joining Toastmasters was a fervent desire to participate more effectively in the issues bedeviling our community. I was willing to take this initial step into unknown and dangerous terrain because I believed it was important. Not eating chocolates or donuts might be desirable but seemingly not important enough to make a firm, irrevocable decision.
Possibly bringing about change requires an element of adventure and even danger. Certainly for me becoming a Toastmaster, while not physically hazardous, did introduce a serious threat to my ego. Evaluators of my speeches began making me aware of habits that were distracting for the audience. One said, “Art played the accordian today,” a reference to my repetitive hand gestures. Another observed that “Art did a lot of pacing.” To become a more effective communicator I would have to listen to what these members were telling me. And I needed to apply their suggestions for improvement.
The Toastmasters program provides plenty of encouragement, but after 6 months I felt demoralized, my sensitive ego battered by a growing awareness of my seemingly myriad deficiencies. Much of the battering was coming, not from evaluations by fellow members, but from my own overly critical self-evaluations.
After much soul searching I began to understand that my negative thoughts were dragging me down. I asked myself a question that changed my focus. Was I willing to accept ignominious defeat, or would I dig deep and make a more serious commitment to my purpose in doing this?
I began altering my focus, reminding myself of my desire to make a constructive contribution to my community. This made it easier for me to hear the encouraging comments of evaluators, and to be aware of the progress I was making. In time I was able to turn the experience into an adventure. I set a goal of writing and delivering one speech each month, in addition to serving regularly in other roles. I attended meetings faithfully and made a firm decision to always follow through on my commitments to the club. Some of my distracting habits, like erratic, repetitive hand gestures began falling away.
In time it became easier, even enjoyable. I began speaking outside the club, a couple of times addressing the mayor and council of Abbotsford on environmental issues.
In my years as a Toastmaster, I saw some members grow phenomenally. Others though, became discouraged and drifted away. One member with good potential joined because she dreamed of becoming a professional public speaker. When she didn’t place well in her first speech contest she left, apparently forgetting her reason for joining.
The Toastmasters experience has helped me understand that to attain positive growth, it’s important to have a powerful reason. Affirming the purpose regularly is useful. In my case this provided the resolve to commit more deeply in the midst of perceived failure. Maybe the time will yet come when I’ll decide to dump the chocolates and donuts habit, but not this year. New Years Resolutions can be productive if they have the power to stir our imagination and our will to persevere.