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What I Learned About Myself From Doing a Ted Talk (UMBC-Style)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lori L. Hardesty
July 28, 2023

One of the most transformative experiences of my life happened two months ago when I presented my Retriever Talk, “You Deserve Your Own Care: Strategies to Get to the Other Side,” at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

What is a “Retriever Talk?” The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is UMBC’s mascot. TED Talks originated with topics of technology, education and development built upon curiosity and open-mindedness. Last fall, I was one of eight UMBC staff and faculty selected for the third cohort of Retriever Talks, facilitated by UMBC’s Human Resources Staff. The theme was Revealing Our Common Unity in CommUNITY. Talks highlighted UMBC’s four core values: Reach Together, Extend Beyond, Claim Your Future and Explore Every Angle.

Frankly, TED Talks intimidate me. The story that I have told myself is that speakers are famous people with amazing expertise and public speaking talent for days. Tech titan Steve Jobs, researcher and storyteller Brené Brown and social psychologist Amy Cuddy. The UMBC program was different. 

Not only were we going to develop our talks over the spring semester, we would grow together as a community through vulnerability and courage. Every Friday morning, February through mid-May, our Human Resources colleagues cultivated our development with care and compassion. I fully immersed myself.

My topic was mental health and recovery. On Valentine’s Day 2021, I declared to my husband that I was ready to quit, just quit it all. My heart hurt and my well was dry. In Spring 2021, I took a four-month self-care sabbatical to focus on me using FMLA. At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt a deep sense of purpose to support my people. I was proud of the pivot my team made to create virtual community spaces. However, anxiety and depression overcame me, to the point where I could not function. My two daughters had a front row seat to my unraveling. With therapy, I recognized that the strategies I used to get through a challenging childhood no longer served me. I had to focus on myself, learn new coping strategies and find my own joy. In this time where mental health and wellness is of utmost importance, people needed to hear my story; I was ready to share it.

Weaving our talks together in a tapestry of tenderness and courage made them something more. Facilitators built our trust, guided our ideas and stretched us beyond our comfort levels. Together, we tested ideas, identified what could be put in the parking lot of the “next talk” and solidified our “through lines.”

In the final weeks, we created powerpoints that punctuated our messages, finalized the flow and cadence and practiced in dress rehearsal. Originally, I envisioned coming out on stage to my theme song, “Brick House” by The Commodores, busting through a tall wall of cardboard bricks, the kind you find in kindergarten classrooms. Reality reminded me that my own human error could land me face down.

On May 17th, the event was held in-person, before one hundred colleagues and guests, and also livestreamed. UMBC President Valerie Sheares Ashby welcomed attendees, excited for the line up that promoted inclusive excellence. I was backstage, preparing as the second speaker. My heart pounded. One of the facilitators recognized the potential trainwreck, and led me in a calming breathing exercise. 

My confidence notes loomed in large font on the screen below, I leaned into my performance, the pictures I had chosen and even made space to engage with the audience. As I exited, I think I motioned as if I was making the game-winning shot. It was magical.

My takeaways mirror the three themes in my talk:

  1. Foster caring relationships – I thrive on creating a sense of “we are in this, together.” Many of us struggled with the 8-minute limit to our talks, mourning discarded sections that we initially envisioned. As we approached May 17th, our group chat was increasingly active late at night, when some found the space and quiet to do the work…or simmer in self-doubt. We lifted each other through the lows and celebrated milestones (especially the “8 minute realm.”)
  2. Manage expectations – In my talk, I shared that I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. The truth is that all along, I have been feeling sorry for myself. Treading water in my own personalized pool of self doubt, thinking it was oceans deep, when in fact, I really could stand. Preparation, planning and platform mechanics built my confidence. I had to believe in myself.
  3. Create meaningful opportunities. Keep the momentum going. I must leverage this experience to go bigger than I ever thought possible. Remember your “why,” slow down and listen to the lessons. I love seeing others reach their potential. Why shouldn’t I love seeing myself do the same?

The beautiful evolution of our Retriever Talks still amazes me. Being human is the most authentic way to connect with others. When we work together towards a common goal, truly, anything is possible. How do these themes show up for you?

Author: Lori L. Hardesty, MPA, is the Associate Director of Applied Learning & Community Engagement at The Shriver Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). She enjoys strengths-based leadership, partnership-building, youth development, and coaching. Lori earned her B.A. in Psychology from Johns Hopkins University and MPA from the University of Baltimore. Email [email protected].

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