Last week I flew to Australia for the first time to give a 20-minute keynote speech for 9,000 people at the MDRT Global Conference.
It’s the biggest audience I’ve ever stood in front of, but it definitely wasn’t my first keynote — I’ve given hundreds in the past 4 years.
I absolutely love being able to share my journey — as a refugee, leader, entrepreneur, mom, and more — and lessons learned with awesome humans in my audiences and offer practical skills they can use to help them be their best.
Every talk is an honor and speaking feels less like a job and more like this incredible opportunity to fulfill my life purpose each and every time (although I get paid very healthy speaking fees). If this sounds grandiose, I mean it that way. My bigger why and true calling is resolute and doubt-free.
But for most of my career, I denied that calling with the same passion with which I now embrace it.
After college I joined McKinsey, the über-prestigious consulting firm, as an analyst. After several successful years there, I took a huge leap and joined a small startup and thus began my life as an entrepreneur. Over the next 20 years I started and was part of 6 different startups (including Happier, which is the company I still run.) Somewhere in there I also spent 5 years as a venture capitalist and a few as a product manager in Microsoft’s innovation lab.
My story of myself was one of a serial entrepreneur and leader, sometimes executive, and always a creator. I never thought of myself as a speaker or teacher.
Until I had the courage to realize that’s what my true life purpose actually was.
It didn’t happen overnight. The universe had to chip away at my refusal to let go of my story of what my career path was supposed to be, slowly and consistently. I am so damn stubborn.
My dad was actually the first person I remember who told me that I had a gift of teaching and connecting with people when I spoke.
My dad is my hero and most trusted confidant. Still, I dismissed his continual suggestions that I consider public speaking before he finished a sentence. I thought of it as “fluffy motivational stuff” that someone as smart and serious as me would never do. I was absolutely ignorant about what speaking really was, but that didn’t prevent me from having strong opinions about it.
So the universe had to try another way.
When I was a managing director at a venture capital firm in New York City, I also wrote a book for women encouraging them to be more daring and gutsy. I wrote it under my Russian first name of Natasha so that the partners at my venture firm didn’t think of it as a distraction from my job. (When it was reviewed in The New York Post, one of the partners showed me the article and said the author’s story of coming to the US as a refugee sounded oddly familiar. I loved that moment!)
To get some exposure for the book, the publisher signed me up to speak to a group of entrepreneurial students visiting New York City from Syracuse University. After my 45-minute talk, the dean came up to me and said something I thought was absurd:
“You have a gift for connecting with people and inspiring them. I want you to speak at the big conference for women entrepreneurs we’re hosting at Syracuse in a few weeks. All the speaking slots are already taken, but I am going to give you mine.”
I wanted to promote my book, so a few weeks later I found myself delivering a talk to about 1,000 women sitting in a large auditorium. I did my best to share my journey and lessons learned as an entrepreneur and offer them inspiration rooted in reality. My talk went well and the entire time I had this odd feeling that I just couldn’t place.
In retrospect, it was a feeling of flow. I was completely absorbed in what I was doing and it felt like second-nature, like I’d done it a hundred times before.
It felt spectacular.
An hour later, as I walked towards the room where my breakout session was scheduled to be held, I saw a huge crowd. More than 300 people had shown up to fit into a room meant for 100. As I tried to squeeze inside, a woman said to me that she wasn’t leaving the building until she heard me speak again.
The whole experience was amazing and surreal.
But if you think that I paused to consider how I might speak or teach more, you’re wrong. Instead, I flew back to New York the next day to my job and my life as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.
Except something had and I just refused to see it. It didn’t fit the story of how I’d decided my life should be.
The universe took a break for a bit, until several years later, when we had launched Happier in 2013 and were looking for ways to spread the word.
One of my colleagues had submitted an application for me to speak at TEDx Boston. We were way past the deadline for applying, but we got a call anyway. After I met with the organizers, they told me they were thrilled to add me to the lineup and wanted me to do the closing talk at what is one of the largest TEDx events in the country.
I worked my butt off for 6 months to prepare my 17-minute talk. I watched tons of TED talks to see what resonated. I went through many, many drafts and ran my outline by my team, friends, and people whose advice I trusted. I refined words, thoughts, and ideas. I truly poured every ounce of effort I had into it.
When the big day came and I stood there in front of 600 people, it felt amazing to share the story of how I went from a Russian refugee to the US to having a successful career, burning out, and finding research about happiness and emotional health that would lead me to found Happier. My parents, family, and team were there, and it felt like a true honor to get to share the mission of Happier with the world.
I had that same feeling as when I spoke at Syracuse University—of being in total flow. I felt so connected to the audience and able to sense when I needed to speed up or linger, and witness their emotional openness which grew and grew as the talk went on.
I felt at home on that stage in a way that was both surprising and completely familiar.
I spent two hours after my talk shaking hands with everyone in the seemingly never-ending line of people who waited to come up and tell me how my talk touched them. My mom was crying on the inside, my dad was crying on the outside, and it was one of my proudest, most cherished life moments.
So many people said they thought I was a really great speaker or asked if I’d done a lot of talks before. I thought they were just being nice—and to be blunt, I thought they were being extra nice because I’d just shared my story of being a refugee.
Yet I still didn’t take pause and consider that speaking was something that I might want to do more often. I put my TEDx Talk into the category of “PR for Happier” and moved on. Speaking still didn’t fit with my story of my life.
But the universe refused to give up and decided to hit me over the head with a 2x4, so to speak. (I love what my spiritual teacher says: the universe tries to gently guide us to our true selves. But if we fail to notice, it gets louder—it got louder!)
In 2014, an email came into the press inbox at Happier with a request for me to deliver a keynote at a conference in Florida. It said that the President of the association hosting the conference had seen my TED talk and told the selection committee that he wanted me to speak — even though I had no serious speaking credentials and all the other speakers they were considering were famous and represented by speaking agents. (And they were offering me a six-figure fee for a 45-minute talk!)
I genuinely thought it was a mistake or a joke, but it wasn’t. A year later, I was standing on the huge stage in one of the ballrooms at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida, tears flooding my eyes as the standing ovation wouldn’t end after my talk. (Would you believe it if I told you that this conference was hosted by the same organization that held the global conference I just spoke at in Sydney? The universe has a sense of humor and I love it that MDRT has been a part of a few remarkable firsts.)
I wasn’t crying because of the standing ovation, as magical as it was. I was crying because something really huge happened on that stage, something even my staunch inner voice of denial could no longer dismiss: this was my path.
I was meant to serve by speaking and teaching — this was my truth and I knew that I would change my life and career dramatically from that day forward. I didn’t know how, or when, but I knew I was embarking on a new journey.
Here’s the crazy thing: this was happening as I was at one of the lowest points in my life.
I had become completely burned out emotionally and physically from the intensity of running a startup and even more so from a lifelong pattern of stuffing difficult emotions deep inside and being harsh towards myself. I was enveloped by so much darkness and fear and I was uncertain whether anything, including my company or marriage would make it out of this darkness.
But despite—or perhaps because of—feeling like I had no idea where I was heading or how I’d ever get out of this scary place inside myself, I felt absolutely certain that the deep sense of meaning and purpose that I’d found on stage that day wasn’t a fluke. And it became a little thread of hope I clung to over the next few years as I dedicated myself to healing—myself, my family, and then, my company.
I’ve been speaking professionally since that day for four years now, giving keynotes and workshops to help people and teams learn skills to cultivate their emotional health and thrive. I am grateful to work with one of the leading speaking agencies, the Harry Walker Agency, and to have their partnership on this path as a speaker. This past year I had to say no to dozens of speaking engagement invitations because I was already booked, which was a surreal experience.
I spend about 50% of my professional time speaking and giving workshops and it’s my favorite part of my work. Not a single talk feels routine or just something to get done and I still pour my all into every talk and consistently work to improve. I consider speaking and teaching my craft and I dedicate time every week to getting better in some way.
I love speaking, I love sharing life-changing lessons with so many amazing humans and I love being their teacher, and seeing them open up to a different way of thinking about happiness, emotional health, culture, leadership and sustainable success as I speak. The greatest gift in my life, next to seeing my daughter grow and thrive, is hearing from people who heard me speak about how what they heard resonated or helped them — or their team, family, and friends — in a meaningful way.
Every single talk before I get on stage, I do two things:
I think about my Bigger Why, my purpose for giving this talk and I say thank you to the universe for being patient and persistent while I found the awareness and courage to let go of what I thought I should be to become who I was.
And that’s the big, huge, amazing lesson I’ve learned on my journey to becoming a speaker and a teacher, the lesson I want to share with you:
If you do something and it makes you feel spectacular, don’t ignore that feeling.
It’s the universe trying to tell you: This thing you did? Do it more often.
It might lead to something bigger or it might simply lead to having more moments of meaning and joy in your life and work, which is amazing!
But have the courage to listen to that feeling deep inside, that feeling of being in flow, of doing something that makes you feel spectacular and at home, and to pause long enough to consider whether it’s a thread you want to pull on.
Have the courage to do it again, more, in the same or different ways.
Have the courage to venture off the path you are on and allow for a little crack in the story you’re telling yourself about who you are and what life or work should be.
Allow yourself to explore a bit, and at the least to not reject the opportunities for exploration that come your way.
Unlike what you may have been taught or heard in graduation speeches, you don’t need to have a passion and follow it. Speaking wasn’t my passion. Teaching from the stage wasn’t my passion. I don’t really know if I even had a passion because I was so caught up in creating a life I thought I should be living.
Instead, follow the feeling of what is meaningful, spectacular, or in flow. Follow that feeling long enough to see where it might lead and couple it with action—do more of the stuff that gives that feeling to you.
This is the advice I would give to my younger self and hope I might have listened.
But I don’t regret that it took until I was almost 40 for me to find the courage to live my purpose as a speaker and a teacher.
My journey, with all of the challenges and triumphs and more challenges, is what brought me to this point, the moment when I can stand in front of an audience of 9,000 people and know without any doubt that speaking to them is the truest way I can serve my purpose.
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