Nerves are nerves

I am recently returned from the Geological Society of America annual meeting, in Denver, CO.  This is a meeting where tens of thousands of geologists from the globe converge and nerd out for a week, catching up on the latest in geologic research while attending talks, poster sessions, short courses, networking and catching up with friends and colleagues scattered to various universities, industries and countries.

This year, I was presenting two talks and taking a short course on methods in apatite (U-Th)/He thermochronology.  One of the talks was on my dissertation research about the uplift history of the Rocky Mountains, and another one was on a brainchild project my computer-programming wizard of a husband and I are working on, creating an augmented reality geologic field trip smartphone app called Field Play.  As both he and I were authors on the Field Play app, we decided that we should both attend the conference, which meant that the babe would be coming with us.

Never having attended a conference with a child (or husband!), I was nervous.  Nervous about giving a talk, freaked out about the unanswerable questions I imagined being asked, anxious about meshing “momming” and being a scientist participating in the meeting, worried about how our daughter would handle 6 days of travel and nights in a strange place and thus, how much sleep I would (or not) get, and how she would handle the random conference-sponsored daycare.

The conference started auspiciously: MariaElena threw up all over the both of us as we were getting in the car to go to my short course. Barely on time as it was, the double outfit changes resulted in my barely arriving on time, flustered, breathless and scattered (but yogurt-free). Ten hours later, my mind was reeling from information overload. I stumbled through dinner and collapsed into exhausted sleep.

Fall colors and family
Fall colors and family

We spent Sunday we reveling in the colorful, crunching leaves and crisp, brisk scents of autumn having brunch with family and trick-or-treating at the Denver Zoo.  Monday rolled around, and I spent the day attending talks, posters and visiting with friends while John took charge of MariaElena.  Tuesday morning, John and I dropped our daughter off at the conference day care and headed to our morning cyberinformatics session where John gave an excellent talk on Field Play. Our talk was extremely well received, and we had a lot of interest in our project and discussions of future research/collaboration. It was awesome.  Returning to day care, I found a napping baby who had spent most of her morning pedaling around on a toy train before falling sound asleep.

My research talk loomed ahead, late that same Tuesday afternoon. I nibbled my lunch, hands cold, shaky and mouth dry.  As I sat through the three hours of talks in the session leading to my talk, I realized the nerves I was feeling were uncannily similar to those I feel before a big race.  Upon this realization, I was not surprised that as I got up to give my talk, my heart rate slowed, stomach stopped fluttering, and my hands no longer shook. I felt prepared and calm for my talk, which went smoothly. Success!

The High Plains of NM-CO
The High Plains of NM-CO

On the drive home the next day, I was energized by having attended the conference, and more confident having cleared my first big family-academics combination event.  I learned a lot: about my and others’ research, about time management, how my brain focuses (or not) with/without family around, how to adjust my goals or expectations while attending a conference with baby in tow, and how much fun it can be to incorporate my entire family in my job. I also realized that my natural response to facing a big performance – be it a race or a professional talk – leads me through nerves, self-doubt and finally to calm readiness.

Just as with athletics, I think that public speaking is largely about preparation and the successful management of nerves in the “pre-game” moments.  In times of stress, such as the week leading up to and attending the conference, it becomes especially hard for me to balance my activities and commitments while remaining sane.  During these times, my mantra becomes: Stay calm and keep things in perspective! I am constantly giving myself pep-talks reminding myself to be confident academically, athletically and as a mother and wife, working to turn that nervous energy into a positive race, talk, or supermom experience.

Goofing off with baby after my talk. Yes, we're playing under a table.
Goofing off  after my talk. Yes, we’re playing under a table. Note the very serious geologists at the table behind us.

The takeaways from this conference? 1) Nerves are nerves. Pre-race or pre-talk, I get nervous, and while I have a pre-race routine down for nerve-management, I need to hone my pre-talk routine.  2) Persistence and perspective: I can always give another talk or run another race if this one flops, returning more prepared and more confident in my abilities, one step closer to success.

How do you approach stressful activities such as talks or big races? What’s your pre-event nerve-management scheme?

One thought on “Nerves are nerves

  1. Leo

    I wish I could say I had a magic pill…but actually the best thing is what you can AFTER the stressful moment. Exercise always helps, of course – but my fave is just playing with the kids. Something about playing, it is the best therapy! If I have a really stressful day going for a playful run and then just goofing around somehow gets me back on track (as it were)!

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