Dealing with Disappointment and Learning from Failures

I have written posts in the past about how to deal with technical failures as a speaker: Be prepared. Have backups of your files. Take screenshots or videos of your demos. Rehearse presenting your session with and without your slide deck. I have made plenty of I-wasn’t-prepared-for-that mistakes in the past, and I learned from them.

Last weekend was different. I was supposed to do a precon and a session at SQLSaturday Nashville. I didn’t experience any technical failures. I experienced what felt very much like personal failures.

On Friday, our precon got canceled due to weather.

On Saturday, no one showed up to my session.

I had not prepared for either of those things to happen, and I definitely had not prepared for both of those things to happen on the same weekend. I went through a whole range of emotions in a short amount of time, from embarrassment to disappointment to amusement.

Since then, I have debated with myself about whether or not to write this blog post. I have written and re-written it several times. I did not want to write a blog post full of whining and complaining, but I did want to share my experience as a reminder to both myself and others that:

  • These things happen. It’s ok to feel disappointed, but don’t let it stop you from trying again.
  • There is always something positive to take away from a negative experience.
  • Life is full of ups and downs. Social media (especially my own) often focus on the ups, but life is not amazing all the time.

If you only needed a few reminders, feel free to stop reading here :) The rest of the post is quite long and a little more like a journal entry, really.

Dealing with Disappointment and All The Feels

I know cancellations and empty rooms happen. I knew they would happen to me at some point. I never expect to fill a room when I’m scheduled to speak, and I’m always grateful for every single person who shows up in hopes of learning something from me. I like to say that if just one person learns something useful, it’s worth all the time and effort I’ve put into it.

But what if not even a single person learns anything? The whole reason I speak is to help others. It was difficult feeling like the entire trip was a complete waste of time and money since I wasn’t able to help anyone. I was simply not prepared for how I would react to both of these things happening for the first time on the same weekend.

I went through a whole range of feelings in a couple of days. Most of these can be put in the “whining and complaining” category, and I know that I certainly did not handle everything as well as I wish I would have. I tend to react very emotionally at first before my logical side kicks in. Sometimes it happens simultaneously, other times it takes a few days.

Disbelief
Emotions: “Really? Really? The whole venue is closed? The whole day? There’s not even any freezing rain or snow yet!”

Logic: “Cathrine, take your Norwegian glasses off. This is Tennessee. Icy roads here are way different than snowy roads back home. Better safe than sorry! We don’t want anyone to get hurt trying to drive on deceptive roads.”

Confusion
Emotions: “Wait, am I in the right room? Is this the right time? I better double-check the schedule. Am I sure? But the room is empty? No one has even opened the door. I must have messed up. But the room monitor was just here. What…?”

Logic: “Cathrine, I’ve triple checked. It’s the right room and the right time. No one is here because there are so many other great sessions going on right now. Hey, maybe you should go catch the rest of one of them instead?”

Anger
Emotions: “I spent all this time and money traveling… for nothing? I prioritized working on slides and demos instead of spending time with my family… for nothing? I took time off work… for nothing? We sat inside the hotel for two days, skipping sightseeing and workouts and sleep to prepare and rehearse… for nothing?”

Logic: “Cathrine, it was not for nothing. What would you have said if you didn’t do all of those things and you delivered a poor precon? You’d be angry at yourself for not prioritizing the precon! You’ll deliver it at some point. Chill.”

Embarrassment
Emotions: “Oh no. Oh no no no. This is awkward. So many failures. Here I am, all ready to go, with all this Norwegian chocolate that no one is going to eat… Oh no. I hope no one walks in now. I’ll just pack up and leave.”

Logic: “Cathrine… Shit happens. You shouldn’t be embarrassed for being prepared and ready to go and no one showing up. You should be embarrassed if you didn’t prepare and a room full of people showed up and you delivered your worst session ever. Get over it.”

Guilt
Emotions: “The organizers should never have picked me. I’ve failed them. What if they picked me over someone else? What if I took away someone else’s chance to speak for the first time! I shouldn’t have come. I should have let someone else get the chance instead.”

Logic: “Cathrine, stop taking responsibility for something you didn’t do. The organizers chose the sessions they thought would create a good and balanced schedule for their attendees. If no one showed up to your session, it only meant the organizers selected a bunch of other great sessions! It doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t have been picked in the first place.”

Disappointment
Emotions: “I was so ready to do this. I’ve been nervous and excited for days. I was so ready to get up there, present, answer questions, help others improve their work day… And now? Nothing. All those nerves… and they all just faded out into nothing. This is not what I expected. This sucks.”

Logic: “It sucks. You’re allowed to feel disappointed. It’s ok. Just don’t let it overwhelm you. Don’t let it stop you. Take a moment to feel disappointed, and then get back up. Keep going. This is not the end of the world.”

Amusement
Emotions: “HAHAHA! Can you believe it? Precon canceled and now no one shows up to my session! HAHAHA! This is the worst and funniest weekend ever. I wish we had snow days back home, that would be something! Man, at some point I’m going to look back at this weekend and laugh!”

Logic: “…yeah, what emotions said. All you can do right now is to laugh. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Things happen. So laugh! :)”

Learning from Failures

After going through that whole emotional roller coaster, I decided to take a step back. What could I learn from this? What could I share with others to help them? Maybe not much. This is quite different from mistakes like forgetting to keep a backup of your slide deck. You can’t really make a checklist of things to remember if your precon gets canceled due to weather. You can’t really provide tips on how to prepare for no one showing up to your session. You just have to deal with it and move on.

To deal with my disappointment and stop feeling like the trip was a waste of time and money, I decided to focus on the other things I found valuable that weekend: I got to attend some great sessions and learn from others. I was able to provide a little bit of support for a friend who spoke for the first time and felt a tremendous amount of happiness for her. I got to catch up with friends and give them big hugs. Heck, my friends gave me big hugs to comfort me when I told them about what had happened. I got to see Nashville, for crying out loud! I’m one of the luckiest people in the world who get to do these things while surrounded by wonderful people :)

To sum it all up:

These things happen. It’s ok to feel disappointed and to feel all the other feels. Take a moment to reflect on it, but don’t let it stop you from trying again.

There is always something positive to take away from a negative experience. Find the positive. Focus on that. Ask a friend for a hug. Actually, give a friend a hug. It will make you feel good as well.

And finally, life is full of ups and downs. I choose to mainly focus on the good things in life when blogging and posting on social media because focusing on the good helps me deal with all the bad days. But I also know that it can cause a skewed perspective of me. When I think of the people I look up to and respect, I see all their achievements, but not the countless hours of hard work underneath. It can contribute to impostor syndrome, a feeling of everyone else knowing more and doing better than you. I hope that by sharing this, I can show people that it’s not all happy fun awesome fantastic days. Some days really do suck.

You just have to deal with the disappointment, learn from failures, work hard and keep going :)

Who is Cathrine Wilhelmsen?

Cathrine is a Microsoft Data Platform MVP, BimlHero, author, speaker, blogger and chronic volunteer who loves teaching and sharing knowledge. She works as a consultant, technical architect and developer, focusing on Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence projects. She loves sci-fi, chocolate, craft beers, ciders, cat gifs and smilies :)

20 thoughts on “Dealing with Disappointment and Learning from Failures”

I’ve got similar stories, most of which I wouldn’t write down, but I’d talk about in person. I will say though that a few yrs ago I taught at SQLSAT NYC and I had 4 show up to my session. And 2 were in my family. So here I’m supposed to be this big MVP/MCM and I can’t get anyone to come hear me talk. So yeah, I get it. I think I’ve grown a lot as a speaker since then cause it doesn’t bother me anymore. Sure, it’s nice to pack a room (so I hear), but I’ve come to realize that I speak on less popular topics so I’ll never be the most popular speaker.

For what it’s worth, no one attended my session at Nashville SQL Sat 2017. :) So I did the logical thing and presented to an empty room. Well, I imagined a few folks there who thought it was useful.

In any case, you fed the speakers Norwegian chocolate and gummy whales, for which we are forever grateful! And addicted! And now you have a sideline business of smuggling Norwegian candies into the U.S.

#VerySmart

At a private company’s conference, I got scheduled for an 8AM slot on the morning after an insane company party where they have legendary after-parties and after-after parties.

One person showed up. I was all excited at first, thought I’d give her a great personalized session experience, and she said, “No, I’m just in any classroom with wifi because I can’t be in my hotel room right now. My roommate is…busy.”

Okay.

I don’t share your SQL credentials nor those of the above posters but failures both personally and professionally have been opportunities for my greatest improvements in life. I can (almost) guarantee these ‘lessons’ will never be fun and only in hindsight can I see why they were important to learn. I appreciated your honest and vulnerable post and it appears you have a healthy perspective on the whole experience. Though you didn’t feel valued on the day you wrote about, certainly there’s plenty of us who find value in what you do.

At SQLSatDC I started one of my sessions with 5 people, one of them a fellow speaker. By the end of the session I was down to 3 people, the fellow speaker, another speaker who came in near the end, and one attendee.

It was hard, but I had to remind myself that folks are here for the value they get out of it and I’d rather they attend a kickass session that has value for them than to sit through my session if it has no value to them.

Of course the irony was, that particular topic was on How to Present.

And like Sean, I have a few other stories I might tell in private.

And too, yeah, I’d love to attract 100-200 people like some folks, but you know what, I enjoy presenting on the topics I present on, and if it’s just a few folks that want to know why planes crash and what IT can learn from them, I’m good with that.

That said, I do guarantee you’ll have a number of us for your remote presentation for the Capital Area SQL Server User Group in a couple of months. Shame we can’t share the pizza with you though!

And I did see a call for speakers for Oslo, but unfortunately, after checking the loose change in my couch, it’s a no go for me.

Catherine, I give you a ton of credit for writing this post. It would have been easy to not do it. I also admire your honesty. And I am sorry that all these things happened…ON THE SAME WEEKEND. But if this is the worst thing that ever happens when speaking, well, you have that behind you. Huge hugs to you.

A brave and honest post, I would have loved to have been there and bore you to death with all my BIML questions, don’t read to much into it, I think the low attendance was down to other factors, weather, hangovers etc, as a SQL DBA with a strong SSIS focus and keen interest in developing my BIML skills. your blogs are the most useful out there, never stop believing or blogging.

Also if Erin is checking comments, I thought your Pluralsight course on QDS was really good, just the right pace and content 10 out of 10.

Thanks Rob :)

Girl, I love you so much right now. You found yourself in a waking nightmare in that empty room after your cancelled precon, having travelled across an ocean. You are my hero for navigating all that mess and finding a way to tell the story of getting through it, to help others. You are awesome and I wish I could have been in that room for you.

You rock. Your transparency rocks. When I grow up I want to be more like you. I love this post. I’m so sorry the weather tanked yall’s precon, especially since you flew so far. I’m sorry (and stunned) no one showed up for your session.

It’s no consolation, but I didn’t get selected to present at Nashville this year. :( Disappointed, yes. But happy that others did get selected (plus, I’m over-recognized / -selected anyway…) .

You have an awesome attitude and are one of the smartest people I know, ma’am. Keep rockin’ with your bad self.

:{>

Cathrine,
What an honest, brave, and self-aware post. I was thinking about you traveling so far when I heard all precons were cancelled. I did not know that you had no attendees in your session. What a rough weekend, ugh!!! That had to have been immensely disappointing. The post above is so self-aware, and that in itself is so admirable. You are one strong woman to recognize your emotions for what they are, and to admit it, see it, write about it – how it works, what you’re going through, what you hear in your mind. So impressive. You are something else. My hat’s off to you tonight. Andy’s right, rock on with your bad self. You are amazing.

Excellent post! I know the feelings too well… I had 2 once for a session at SQL Sat. It was weird, discouraging, and worst of all, I then had the pressure of giving a presentation to two people, staring at me and being generally quiet :). It is not my only shallow attendee pool in 60 or so events, and it will only be my guaranteed last if I quit today.

Luckily you have knowledge that you are really good at this (as others have noted, and you don’t get picked to do a precon for nothing) and even more, that we Tennesseans are frightened of snowy weather. Most of your potential attendees may have left to get to the grocery store in time to get French Toast fixings. When it snows, you can’t find egg, milk, or, bread at any store. I myself left during the last session so I could make it home 2 hrs away with less concern (and I was in your potential attendees, as I am still trying to get myself to learn BIML.)

Wow! Thanks for being so open and transparent about about your feelings. I think you handled it awesomely (not sure if that is a word). It happens and now your probably had the worse disappointment of your speaking career behind you. I once had a session with just three people in and it was a bit weird they weren’t very interactive and it was in the end of they day. Just remember the rest of speakers had fun spending time with you.

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Cathrine, you’re great. Not only as a fantastic speaker but also because you admit and share whole this ever-worst history happened to you. Every single speaker would feel terrible and hugely disappointed in that situation which hit you. No one, absolutely no one is not prepared for that. And no one deserves for that. I have never even imagined that case.
So, don’t give up, don’t stop your efforts. We all love you and we know how awesome you are.
Big hugs!

Cathrine, Thanks for sharing this. Really appreciate you taking the time and effort to convey your thoughts and feelings in an honest way.

Cathrine, you are a rock star! SQL Saturday Nashville got clobbered by the weather, and a bit less than half the people I expected attended the event. Your sessions took a hit because of that… You were on top of your game in every respect and did a world class job of representing the SQL community (and #SQLFamily) while you were there.

If you control the weather, then I want to talk to you in a LOT more detail about last weekend… I want to talk about controlling the weather too, but that’s not part of this discussion! You come from Oslo so you don’t get excited about freezing weather and possible snow, but Nashville is a completely different story! The hotel was debating whether or not to put their breakfast staff up in a room Thursday night to ensure that they had someone to serve breakfast on Friday… They clearly see weather differently than you and I see it.

The University was CLOSED on Friday… It wasn’t one class or even one building, they basically rolled up the sidewalks and went home! No one had classes there on the day of your pre-con session. That just wasn’t happening. There was literally nothing that you could have done about that closure.

There is a certain amount of strategy to scheduling the presentations at a SQL Saturday. Tammy is a master at scheduling but in this case, the scheduling worked against you. I remember being annoyed when I built my schedule because I would have been in your session if I wasn’t presenting my own session in the same time slot! I was presenting my session, but if I could have been in your session I would have been there.

You are a great presenter, and I’m looking forward to seeing you the next time I get a chance!

Thank you for the chocolates! For what it’s worth you held it together very professionally.

I have just landed on your blog discovering Notepad++ macros and your title inmmediately got my eye. Your courage and your honesty in this post are outstanding! Nonetheless, I wouldn’t call this a “failure” since I don’t really think that nobody showing up at your conference should be considered your fault (in case it is, it’s definitely not only yours and at least, before blaming yourself, I think you should consider giving yourself the proper margin to ask around, get some feedback and learn more in-depth info about what might have gone wrong) but It definitely is a masterclass on dealing with disappointment. Congrats for all!

Now, if you ask me, when I finished the Notepad++ macro post I was “grateful”, but that’s it. We all see thousands of tutorials everyday and it’s not even practical to leave a comment on everyone just as it wouldn’t be reasonable to say hello to every person you come across for example in Tokyo. On the other hand, when I finished reading this one I felt “inspired” and It really makes it impossible for me not to comment or consider following you for your definitely very interesting view (which translated for me means “if she handles human situations like this I might like a lot how she approaches technical problems”).

I’ve have had a look around and I guess your blog is far too techie for me but I thought it totally worth it leaving at least just this comment to give you an external point of view and somehow thank you for the great content you provided us today.

Definitely congrats on your content and having taken the risk of posting about it :D !

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