I was asked to give a talk at a nearby university and something went wrong.

Not during the talk, but afterwards.

As for the talk itself, I love giving talks. This one had been an entry on my calendar months in advance, a thing I would have to do, a task I would have to complete, but I expected it would go well. That’s because I enjoy speaking, and I enjoy helping people on their journey to understanding things that I’ve come to know about.

Leading up to the talk, there had been some uncertainty about what specific material I’d include, and when I’d actually find the time to prepare my slides, but all that got resolved.

As I was planning the talk, I took a moment to ask, “What’s my personal intention in doing this?” 

To be clear, the company I work for had offered to sponsor this talk, so I’d be doing this as part of my day job, but it was an optional thing. I could have said no. Why had I agreed to do it? 

I thought I could be helpful to the audience, that’s why. My intention was to be useful. I wanted to get the audience excited about the topic I’d be presenting. I wanted to share as much of my understanding as it was possible to share in an hour and half. If I could save some folks months of learning the subject the hard way, giving them a quicker path to understanding what I’ve come to know – if I could make it much easier for them than it had been for me, I wanted to do that. Would it be “unfair” that they’d get to know something in a short time that had taken me years to figure out? Well, I wanted to see just how “unfair” I could make it, just how much time and effort I could save them.

There were other reasons to give the talk – it would be a change from my normal routine, and good practice in public speaking – but the main reason was I wanted to be useful and I thought that I could be. What would I get from it? I’d get the good feeling of knowing I’d helped others on their path to knowledge.

So guess what? I gave the talk and everything went beautifully. A few people came up to me afterwards with big smiles to tell me how much they’d enjoyed it and how much they’d learned. One person said they hadn’t known they were interested in this topic until now! I got compliments on my presentation style, organization, energy, and informativeness. Mission accomplished.

As I was heading home, having shaken the last hand and smiled the last smile, now making my way through the city alone, feeling exhilarated and happy, that’s when something “went wrong.” 

I started having second thoughts about whether the whole thing had been worthwhile. My mind started reevaluating what had happened from a status perspective.

Whereas I had been thinking of this talk as a chance to share my knowledge, now I was starting to look at it as a measure of my career position. 

Whereas I had been thinking of the talk as a moment in time when I had succeeded in being helpful to others, now I was thinking of it a representative of the kind of talk I’m being asked to give at this stage of my career and life – a measure of the prestige or lack thereof that I hold.

The talk had been at a university, but it wasn’t for a class or an academic conference – it was for a student club, an extracurricular group. 

There were no industry experts – no academic authorities – no professors or even grad students in attendance – and there wouldn’t have been, because this was an introductory talk for undergrads.

As the presenter, I had been billed as an experienced professional, but this was not a talk that I was “uniquely” qualified to give. I wasn’t presenting anything original that I had done or contributed. I wasn’t sharing a personal story or a research breakthrough. No one was coming to see “me” in particular.

To get to the room where I’d be giving the talk, I had to go to the computer science department at this university and walk past rows of offices of professors and grad students. Since I had been a grad student once and had planned to become a professor, this reminded me of unfinished business in my distant past, failure.

The club was full of aspiring entrepreneurs. Since I had once ventured into entrepreneurship and had launched a startup of my own – and then went through the pain of seeing it fail without any satisfying sense of “closure” – this reminded me of further unfinished business. Being in front of these aspiring young folks who were working on their own startups reminded me of dreams that hadn’t panned out for me.

I had been told that thirty or forty people had signed up to attend the talk. But only eight showed up. So I was talking to a largely empty room. There was way too much pizza in the room for the amount of people who actually came.

As I got started with the talk, there were two people in the front row who seemed particularly engaged, asking lots of good questions. But twenty minutes into the talk, those two folks just spontaneously got up and left. So now the room was even emptier. There were maybe six people left out of the forty I had been promised.

It occurred to me that big companies would pay thousands of dollars to receive training on the material I was sharing, but these folks who left, or never showed up, had no idea how much value they would have been getting for free, no idea how much it would have cost to “buy” this talk if the setting had been different.

So I had done all that preparation – months of looking toward this talk and getting ready and working on it – all to deliver it to a really small crowd, in a setting that had very little cachet.

This was not a coveted speaking engagement, not the kind of opportunity that someone really driven and ambitious and busy and “successful” would have probably taken up, unless they were doing it as a kind of community service within a schedule full of higher-profile engagements. But for me, well, this was the only talk I had been asked to give at a university since I had been a student at one. So it got me thinking about what I “should” have achieved in my life by now, according to what my ambitions had been back then in my student days.

What would have actually satisfied me, in this status-oriented line of thinking? If I had been invited to give a keynote presentation in front of a crowd of five-hundred high-profile experts at a prestigious conference, with them all eagerly listening to my every word, and cheering me on afterwards? Is that what would have satisfied the status-seeking part of myself?

I reminded myself that status is not what I value most. I haven’t built my life around the pursuit of status, quite the opposite. I’ve wanted to follow my own calling. And to do that freely. I’ve wanted to pursue my creative and intellectual interests in a way that’s independent from other people’s judgements about what’s worthy or important. 

Along with my solitary pursuits, I value connecting, sharing, and being helpful to others. Along with creating my own stuff, I value helping others create. Along with understanding things deeply on my own, I value helping others understand. And in this talk, I had done that beautifully.  

But a nagging inner voice said, “Maybe I’m lying to myself that I don’t care about status?” Thirty years ago, why had I done all that work to get into a high-status college and get from there into a high-status graduate program? Why do I dress how I dress and talk how I talk? My demeanor is who I naturally am, yes, but it’s also because I want to be perceived in a particular way. I want to be respected. I want to be taken seriously. So maybe my dissatisfaction is telling me something – that I’ve gone off course, haven’t tried hard enough, that I’m not driving myself to achieve the “success” that I could have had?

This kind of debate has played out in my mind many times over the years, and the mental chaos often takes a while to settle down.

But this time it faded after a minute at most. I’ve dedicated much more space in writing about it here than it actually occupied at the time. The brevity of this debate was new for me. To feel an existential crisis coming on and then get through it so quickly – that was a pleasant surprise. What had made a speedy resolution possible this time?

I had been clear about my intention from the very beginning – that’s what made the difference here.

I had set out to “be useful.” And I had established that intention months in advance, when I said yes to doing this, well before my slides were ready and before I knew much about the requirements for the talk or even where it would be taking place and how many people had signed up to attend.

Returning to that original intention, I could see that I had fulfilled it. I had succeeded in being useful. To the six people who stayed for the talk. But even if one person had remained in the audience, if I had informed or inspired that one person, my intention would have been fulfilled.

This wasn’t just a pretty picture I was trying to put on the outcome after the fact. No, it was clear as day: I had set out with a specific goal, far ahead of time, and that goal had been achieved by me. 

And thinking about it, the ability to form an intention like this, then manifest the intention, then be overcome with doubt but find a way to remember my intention to get past the doubt and regain a sense of wholeness – all this tells me that I’m more “successful” in life than even I as a young dreamer expected I’d be.

When I returned to my original intention, the doubt faded away and I could reconnect with the exhilaration and satisfaction I had been feeling after a successful event.

The lesson I take away is that we can find fulfillment in our endeavors by setting an intention as early as possible and reconnecting with it continuously.

But not “any” intention.

If my intention had been “To be useful to 100 people,” then the small crowd size would have made it impossible to fulfill that.

If my intention had been “To be useful to every single person who showed up,” then the folks who left would have taken away my ability to realize this all-or-nothing intention.

If my intention had been “To cement my professional status and prestige” then I couldn’t have realized it in this setting. But if I had pursued it elsewhere, I would have been helping myself alone, and I’d never be sure if I had succeeded, and I’d probably never feel like my success had been big enough or had mattered enough.

It helps to have an intention that’s simple, universal, timeless, intrinsically valuable, and scale-independent, meaning we can realize it in a big way or a small way and it still matters. A unbounded intention opposed to an intention that’s highly specific and dependent on factors outside one’s control.

What’s a goal where if you achieve it, you’re going to feel good and others are going to feel good, no matter the details of how it manifests? You’re going to feel fulfilled and others are going to feel fulfilled? That’s the kind of intention I mean.

There are always going to be lots of reasons to launch a project, lots of arguments why the effort is worthwhile, lots of different benefits we could seek from doing it. But if we focus on one PRIMARY intention that’s timeless and universal, we have a better chance of feeling satisfied in the end.

Just as a timeless intention can guide our work as we’re doing it, it can guide our review of the work when we’re done, it can help us take stock. We can let the intention shape the “story” that we create in our mind about what happened. We can let the intention guide our framing, our perspective on what we achieved. And we can let the intention point us to our next steps.

In my case, I want to be useful. I want to give more talks, whether it’s to one person or a thousand. I want to write more essays that help people on their journey to insight. And in my life overall, I want to be ever more strongly guided by intention in all the things that I do. ■

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