The Life Lesson in Forgiveness: A Matter of Timing

When your goal is to ascend to the highest honor of your organization, you don’t look much farther beyond the present moment. As a member of Toastmasters, the holy grail is the International Speaking Competition. Often a blend of motivation and humor, sharing a life lesson learned, it is a 5 to 7-minute foray into the capturing of hearts and minds of attendees (or, at least, the judges).

A couple years ago, I had what I felt was a speech which could take me through the 4 levels of competition necessary to reach the finals at the annual conference. As the speech opened, I was lying across a table, shouting the instructions which had been drilled into my memory by my skydiving instructor prior to my first solo jump.

“Horizon check! Altimeter! Check right! Check left! Position!”

As I dismounted the table, I described the importance of each step in a successful skydive…and how each step also relates to life.

As mentioned, I had 5 to 7 minutes. Here are the timing rules: a green light comes on at 5 minutes, letting me know I have spoken long enough to qualify. A yellow light beams at 6 minutes, and a red light is engaged at 7 minutes, reminding me that I have 30 seconds to wrap it up.

True confession time: I don’t practice my speeches. I will loosely rehearse a few key points in my head, but I rely on being ‘in the moment’ when I compete. It has helped me succeed with flying colors numerous times, and has also caused me to crash and burn in ugly fashion a few others.

On this occasion, the 2nd level of competition, I made my way through the speech, working to engage eye contact, use vocal variety, allow my body to speak loudly when it needed to, etc. As I moved to make my closing comments, my eyes fluttered to the timing clock: no light was on. As I paused and scanned the room to make a positive connection with as many people as possible (okay, truth: to panic and wonder if I’d forgotten part of the speech), I decided to add an impromptu 30 seconds to see if I’d undershot the runway. Nope…no lights.

I closed the speech, shook the hand of the contest chair and went back to my seat.

“That was weird” I thought. Then I noticed another contestant making a beeline to the chief judge.

Hmmmm….

An hour later, as the winners were being announced, the Area Governor somberly announced: “There was one contestant disqualified.” The top-3 award recipients were then announced, and I was not among them. I’m not saying I had to be (they were all great), but I needed to know if I had been DQ’d.

I motioned for the AG to meet me in the hallway and asked her if I had been the one disqualified.

“Yes.”

“Did I go over time?

“Yes.”

“My lights never came on. The timers (TWO of them) did not do their jobs.”

“We know, but you even went over the grace period of 30 additional seconds. There’s nothing we can do.”

My mother reads this blog, so I cannot accurately share the words which dominated the next 5 minutes of my ranting in the hallway. Let’s just say that if we lived on Sesame Street, that rant would have been ‘brought to you by the letter F’.

Let’s also say that the two timers had wisely made their exit from the room before I returned, or were at least hiding under a table filling out their Witness Relocation Program applications.

As weeks became months, the venom faded to an asterisk of ‘life lesson learned’ and I shared the story as a punchline.

Until this past weekend…

During the contestant briefing, I asked if the timers were using lights or colored cards. A couple people snickered, knowing my history. “Did you ever find out who those two were, Steve?”

“Nope…they probably didn’t want to be coming up to me that night” I replied.

As we exited the room, one of my fellow contestants pulled me aside.

“I have to tell you something. (pause, deep breath) I was the timer that day.”

“Wow….no way!”

I held my hand out to shake his.

“We’re cool”, I said. “I can’t believe you just admitted that to me, and we’re 5 minutes from competing against each other…and you’re going on right before me!!”

“It’s bothered me since then, and I wanted to apologize.”

Funny part, I’d been mentoring him a bit, filming his speech and sharing the video so that he could improve. I hope hadn’t been agonizing over that event all this time.

He’s a good guy who made a bad mistake.

I give him credit for actually admitting it. I’m not sure if I would have, at the risk of opening old wounds.

It taught me a lot about forgiveness: asking for it and granting it.

As a big believer in ‘things happen for a reason’, I’ll look to it for the lessons, and use them to write that speech which will get me to the big stage.

“Horizon check! Altimeter! Check right! Check left! Position!”

Steve to ground crew: “Safe and happy landing…engaged!”

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