Friday, January 6, 2023

My failure of the month (and why everyone telling you how great you are at something may not be the best thing)

This isn’t a post about my side hustle of sports public address (PA) announcing, but I’m going to use announcing as an example of something I’ve found to be true both personally and professionally.

By way of context, I do a lot of sports PA work in the Cleveland area. And by “sports PA work,” I mean the voice you hear in high school, college or professional gyms, arenas and stadiums that tells you the starting lineups, who scored, who committed fouls, etc.

In other words, it’s the man/woman speaking over the public address system and not, for example, the person doing play-by-play online or over the radio, though I have done some of that.

I have full-time announcing gigs at three different high schools and regularly sub in at two colleges and a handful of other institutions. I’ve announced almost every sport you can, from football, soccer, hockey and volleyball to baseball, softball, basketball and lacrosse. It’s a lot of fun, and a chunk of the money I earn funds an annual scholarship given to a graduating senior from Wickliffe High School.

Altogether, I probably do about 100 events each year.

Until a decade ago, I had no idea I possessed any talent at all for this. But – and I say this with genuine humility, because I am far from the very best person you’ll ever hear on the mic – it turns out I’m pretty good at it. Through the accidents of physiology and general brain chemistry, I have a decent PA voice, and my natural rhythm and phrasing are such that I sound somewhat professional.

Again, I’m far from being a true pro, but at the local high school level, I’m likely one of the better PA guys you’re going to run across. This is not bragging, it’s just a general observation.

So here’s where the problem lies.

My philosophy has always been that the announcer should be much like an offensive lineman in football: If he/she does their job well, you hardly know they’re there. It can be thrilling, but obviously the athletes on the field or court are why everyone comes. Absolutely no one buys a ticket to hear you talk.

Still, people in general tend to be very nice, so I get a lot of compliments on my PA work. (NOTE: I suspect you don’t necessarily have to be a great announcer to get people to say good things about you, by the way. Often, it’s more about the fact that they hear you over and over at every game or match, and in their mind your voice becomes associated with happy memories of watching their child, grandchild, niece/nephew, friend, etc. play a sport, no matter how good you actually are.)

Anyway, having done this for a number of years, I’ve received a pretty long list of compliments, all of which are very gratefully received. I personally think I’m probably average to a bit above average at the PA thing and no more, but as I said, the people I come across in the course of this work can be effusive in their praise.

The result is that, no matter how humble you try to be, hearing how great you are at something can leave you less motivated to get better at it. There’s a part of your brain that says you can put it in cruise control because, hey, you’re a star, baby!

Sometimes I find myself doing less pregame preparation than I used to because, really, who needs prep when you’re already a pro?

This is both silly and dangerous. If I give myself credit for anything when it comes to PA work, it’s commitment to detail and preparation. I get confirmation on the pronunciation of every name on the roster, including the seemingly obvious ones like “John Smith.” I try and memorize names and uniform numbers so I can quickly deliver the right information. I write down all player substitutions before announcing them because I want them to be 100% accurate. The athletes deserve at least that much from the PA guy.

Once you start believing your own hype – even if it’s just a string of nice words from well-meaning friends and acquaintances – you stop getting better. And in most cases, you regress.

The parallels to almost anything else in your life, at work or at home, are probably obvious. We should be our own worst critics, though I don’t mean that in an unhealthy way. I’m not talking about putting yourself down, but rather continually asking how you can be a better spouse, parent, friend, professional, hobbyist, etc.

It's what business professionals often refer to as "continuous improvement."

No matter what compliments you're paid or which honors or awards you receive, don’t ever fall into the trap of reading your own press clippings (so to speak).

Want to know the best thing that has happened to me recently? Something that, at first, I didn’t think was all that great? It was auditioning for and not getting the PA role for a local lower-level professional sports team. I gave it my best shot, but it wasn’t good enough.

I won’t lie, at first it stung. But it made me go back and reevaluate not just how I did in the actual audition, but in general where I am in terms of my delivery, prep and general approach to PA work. I found some areas where I’ve been slacking off, so I’m working to correct them such that my overall performance continues to improve, even if slowly and incrementally.

We all love getting a “great job” every once in a while, but in the long run, we probably benefit a little more from “thanks but no thanks” and “hey, let’s work on this.”

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