A Hard and Painful Lesson

I’ve told this story many times, and each time I share it, someone points something out, another insight or takeaway that I’ve missed over the years, and it literally takes my breath away.

I was asked to return to the AAA baseball park to perform the National Anthem, and even though I was uncomfortable and nervous, I said yes.

A wildfire started nearby that afternoon, not so unusual across Montana, and the smoke started filtering into the valley, making its way toward the ballpark. 7:05 came around, and with my kneecaps shaking inside my legs, I walked up to the microphone at home plate.

I started strong:

“Oh oh say can you see?

By the dawn’s early light…”

The smoke rolled in, and I really hadn’t considered how that might affect my voice.

“O’er the land of the free!”

Oy. That high note. I hit it, wasn’t flat, but I didn’t hit it well. It sounded scratchy, faint, and not well sustained. You’ve heard people struggle with that note, right? It sucks.

I ended STRONG.

“And the home of the BRAVE.”

A handful of clapping could be heard from the stands of a few hundred spectators. A trickle of applause. I walked past the dugout, where the home team usually would be standing up to compliment me and give me high fives, not a single player moved from the bench.

I walked through the gate, welcomed by our 6-year-old son and my husband.

Mom, you did great.

And he hugged me.

I said: “Thanks, Max. I know that high note didn’t quite come out the way it should have.”

“Yeah.” As he dug his sneakered toe into the dirt, “I heard some ladies laughing.”

I blushed. And then I thought about it and got angry.

“Max, if you ever hear someone laughing like that – no matter who is singing – you can say something to them, maybe something like ‘wow, that’s rude. I’ll bet you couldn’t get out there and sing by yourself in front of this many people.’ If it came from a kid, it might have a big impact.”

He beamed at me and agreed that he would do that next time for sure.

The beauty of that smile continues to shine in my memory, partly because I so desperately needed it at that moment, to know my humiliation would serve a purpose, and partly because I know that as an adult, he stands up for people exactly in that way. He always has.

As I shared the story recently, when Joey Held, podcast host extraordinaire (Good People, Cool Stuff) asked about a failure during a live performance, I realized I had missed the most important lessons of that day.

I blushed even more deeply than I had as I left the baseball field 12 years before as I said to Joey: “The worst part about the humiliation? I realized I had been that woman before. There were times when I would snicker while listening to someone else perform or speak. I was a person who made what I thought were subtle faces with my friends. I made the subconscious decision to never be that woman again.”

I said subconscious because it wasn’t until having this conversation with Joey, 12 years later, that the moment was so pivotal in my life. There were moments that I could have slipped into being “that woman” again, many times, and I consciously, intentionally stopped myself to offer a genuinely supportive smile, or gentle touch on an arm, shoulder, or back.

Joey mentioned a video showing a woman singing the National Anthem, clearly on the verge of passing out, she was so nervous, and a famous guy went over to stand next to her to sing along. He had a terrible voice and he knew it, and his action, his support completely changed the dynamic on stage. Her voice grew in strength and confidence, and she finished STRONG.

Here’s the application, friends, in case you missed it like I did so many years ago.

Would you rather be the person smirking and making faces with your friends at the expense of someone putting their heart out there to be stepped on?

Or would you rather be the person who smiles genuinely in support, and encourages the person to take that risk, grow, and avoid regret?

Which of those roles makes you feel good about yourself?

Which of those roles make you a better model for the people around you?

And which of those roles brings more happiness and love to our communities?

The best part of this experience is that I know I changed. I know that even if my internal dialog gets in my way sometimes, I can short-circuit the bias and cruelty before it can escape me in words and actions. It takes practice. I fail sometimes. But every moment is another opportunity to improve.

Sarah’s Book. Your Stories Don’t Define You, How You Tell Them Will is available on (supporting independent booksellers) and on Amazon. The audiobook will be available in fall 2020.


Sarah Elkins
Sarah Elkins
Sarah is a communication coach, Gallup certified Strengths coach, keynote speaker, writer, and professional musician. Sarah uses storytelling as the foundation of her work with management teams and individual clients to improve communication and relationships. Her podcast, Your Stories Don’t Define You, How You Tell Them Will focuses on storytelling themes, the primary concept being that the stories you choose to tell - and how you choose to tell them - impact your internal messages and the perception of those around you. Her podcast was named in the top 50 in the category of emotional intelligence on Her passion for connecting people and helping them learn to better connect with others is embodied in the events she hosts, No Longer Virtual, which are small, interactive conferences based on the theme of connecting beyond the keyboard, recognized twice by Forbes as “Can’t Miss Events for Entrepreneurs” in 2017 & 2018.

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  1. Ah! This was beautiful, Sarah! This story gets richer and richer with every telling and every insight. I think, for me, that’s the fascinating thing about this piece. Our stories are like onions! Who knew? Now I want to go back to my own and revisit my learnings…. But that was the point of this, wasn’t it, oh-story-master-you? Sneaky! What amazing and complex creatures we are that within our own stories lie the lessons we most need to learn.

    • Thank you, Kimberly, it’s kind of funny to think about how our stories change, the more we tell them and the more we process our experiences in the context of those stories. And yes, we are so complex, which is why it’s important to consider that complexity when we fall into our judging minds!

  2. I look back at the moments I’ve internally cruelly judged someone-and am awash with shame-for I often had no idea the larger context or what the person had actually lived through to get to that moment-whether it was on-stage or off. I usually knew not to make fun of brave performers-no matter how well they “performed” because I knew how absolutely terrifying it is to get up in front of many people or even 10 people and speak, act, sing, dance… Thank you for the reminder to be aware of how our thoughts, words, actions impact others-to find compassion and empathy inside of ourselves for another person’s flubs or falterings knowing how brave they are for stepping into the arena in the first place (or on the stage, or stadium). Important message and reminder, Sarah. Grateful.

    As a PS thought- I’m reminded of the Special Olympics moment during a running race in which one of the competitors tripped and fell. One by one all the other competitors went back to help their fellow athlete up to his feet. Then they all grasped hands and ran to the finish line together. People in the stands clapped and cheered wildly.

    • Yes, Laura, I cringe when I think about those moments.

      I loved feeling like I’ve made up for them in some way when I stand up for others. I wrote this on my comment on Jeff’s thoughtful addition:

      The best part was just last year when Max was graduating from high school. With hundreds of people in the audience, the Valedictorian rose to speak. Her voice had serious vibrato, we could hear her nerves amplified across the football field. I heard someone say something critical near me. My face blushed, and I said loudly: “Mom, I’m so impressed with that young woman. She’s so nervous and she’s still saying what she intended to say. I’m a public speaker, and this crowd would make ME nervous. She is so brave.”

  3. Sarah —
    Your retelling of this story reminded me of this:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” — Teddy Roosevelt

    We all have those smoke-choked moments in our life. The important thing is not what we do then, but what we do after. Your real triumph is that you shook off that moment and stepped up to the microphone again and again – and proudly in those high boots of yours. You didn’t let that story define you.

    Brava, Sarah, Brava!

    • Thanks, Jeff!
      I guess I should have added some things that happened afterward…

      The manager of the ballpark invited me back the following night because they had a cancelation. I swallowed hard, hesitated, and said yes. I felt like I had to redeem myself. And guess what? I nailed it.

      The best part was just last year when Max was graduating from high school. With hundreds of people in the audience, the Valedictorian rose to speak. Her voice had serious vibrato, we could hear her nerves amplified across the football field. I heard someone say something critical near me. My face blushed, and I said loudly: “Mom, I’m so impressed with that young woman. She’s so nervous and she’s still saying what she intended to say. I’m a public speaker, and this crowd would make ME nervous. She is so brave.”

  4. It is the easiest thing in the world to toss out a comment, even raise an eyebrow, snicker a little… anything at all to say to anyone within earshot or beyond “Aren’t we all better than she is?” Because we all have been there in that moment, when we don’t take into account how much work someone has put in to sound their best, how much mental effort or intestinal fortitude it has taken to move them to that moment… we can be so dismissive of all of those things. The die hard sports fans who are just enduring this because they can’t wait for the game to start… there are so many reasons, and the flip side is, to be kind, to be supportive, to be encouraging only takes a tiny bit more thought, more energy, more mental bandwidth than being the cool, funny, cynical critic. As soon as the last note dies away, we can all jump to our feet and yell “Nice job, way to go…” and that might nip the critics in the bud, because they usually wither when someone shows any amount of passion or positive mojo… Snark is fashionable, and usually not too imaginative. Because we’re all better, right? Thanks for the reminder, Sarah, there is so much to be gleaned from these every day occurrences. Look how long this one stayed with you…

    • Thank you, Tom. In recent years I’ve been shedding people I used to spend time with because they thought the snark was funny, humor at the expense of others. I realize I would much prefer to spend time with people like you, people who see the best in others and want success for others. Louisa Garrett said to me: I’d rather be kind than funny” in the context of sarcasm and snark as humor. You can be both, just not at the expense of others!

    • Carol, thank you. A few years ago I had the opportunity to say something in a crowd, as I heard people snickering about a nervous performance. With my mother and son on either side of me at our younger son’s high school graduation last year, I heard people chuckling about the obviously nervous young woman making her speech. I said loudly: “Mom, I’m so impressed with that young woman. She’s obviously nervous, and yet she’s standing there in front of hundreds of people and saying what she needs to say. That’s HARD. I’m a public speaker and this crowd would make ME nervous!” Needless to say, the people nearby (who most certainly overheard me) were very quiet after that.