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Learning What Not to Do

Sometimes the toughest mentors are the ones we remember the most.

Take my professor of political studies for my freshman college seminar. I don’t recall his name so I’ll call him Professor X. He was a visiting professor from South America, blonde, blue eyes, with a tanned, leathery face. He was intelligent, opinionated, and gave mesmerizing lectures with a certain boundless energy. I was often riveted by what he had to say—and respected his opinions. He also respected us, even if he could be a little tough on us.

In this class we studied the structures and histories of revolutions around the world, reading books like Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions. One of our earliest assignments was to give a persuasive speech on what characterized an event as a revolution. Always interested by American history, I chose the American Revolution, knowing that it would not only be fascinating but of course would easily “qualify” as a revolution.

That afternoon at class, I volunteered to go first. I gathered my cards in front of me. I nervously rushed through my ten-minute “persuasive” speech and sat down. The students smiled. Professor X breathed a heavy sigh.

“No! No, no, no!” he practically shouted.

I gulped.

He then proceeded to rip apart my paper, my argument, and my entire thesis. The other students started to slide under their seats in fear. At the end of class he took me aside and said he would allow me to re-do the paper in two days. Two days! At that moment I decided I’d rather get a horrible grade than go through that again. But I had little choice.

I returned to my dorm room and sobbed. I’m smart! Who the hell is he to tell me it was not a persuasive argument? I shook with anger and humiliation. Why did I come to this horrid place anyway? I blamed it on Southern California: the unending sunshine, smog, and eternal fakery. This odd place just did not agree with me, so I was not performing. That was it.

But something clicked in me. Deep down I knew he was right. I hadn’t done my best. I was not prepared, my argument was not cohesive, and it showed. Nor did I truly prove that the American Revolution was in fact a revolution. I had made too many assumptions—and had not yet used the theories we’d been taught. I dried my tears and headed out to the library. That bastard! I’m going to prove him wrong!

I worked steadily and rewrote the paper. My arguments were stronger and better organized. I also rehearsed the speech many times. Then I pictured myself with big claws. AARrrrrggghhh! Let me at him! (My self-confidence booster, however bizarre, worked for me.)

This time the speech went well. The critical but honest assessment by my professor coupled with my desire to be better worked.

After class the professor did admit that he was a little too harsh and apologized. He needed to set an example for the rest of the class and used me as a “guinea pig.” You see, it was an opportunity to explain to the class what not to do, he said (though much more eloquently than this). Oh, thanks for that!

To be fair, I was a very young first-year student, fascinated by ideas, but not yet focused on the task at hand. My performance was probably not uncommon.

But the experience became a dress rehearsal—one of many tests to prepare me for my career after college. It readied me for future job interviews, jobs, and strengthening relationships with employers. I learned that backing up what you say, doing research, being organized, making a cohesive argument, and coming prepared counts. Sometimes it means rehearsing it again and again, until you get it right. At other moments there is no time for rehearsals, so thinking on one’s feet becomes crucial, too. (Usually I find there is plenty of time to prepare though.)

Persuading an audience of something takes immense effort. In the working world, whether it be a boss, a colleague, or a potential client, this often holds true.

This mishap forced me to see myself more clearly, despite how painful it might have been. I’m still working on making persuasive arguments today. But now I have the tools to do it. Of course, volunteering to go first is something I’m still working on. Can you blame me?