Blog, Social Justice

Luvvie Ajayi Jones Wants You to Soar


Renee recently interviewed Luvvie Ajayi-Jones to discuss her new book Professional Troublemaker: The Fear Fighter Manual. We watched the book launch and become a New. York. Times. Bestseller (#blessed) and are so excited to have this amazing opportunity to feature an edited excerpt of Professional Troublemaker for our readers. Read it. Internalize it. Question the systems that keep you down and soar my little stingrays. Enjoy!

Why are we so afraid of what could be that we never give ourselves a chance to soar?

My grandmother didn’t finish high school, because when she was eighteen, her parents died and she had to make a way for herself and her little sister. She never got any major degrees, but you couldn’t tell that woman she didn’t belong in any room she found herself in, whether it was a room where the president of a country was or a room full of taxi drivers. She didn’t waste time questioning herself.

Back in July 2017, I was invited to speak at TEDWomen by cura­tor Pat Mitchell, the legendary journalist and correspondent. That TED Talk changed my life, but it almost didn’t happen.

Here’s the thing: TED is really picky about speakers and prepa­ration. People get coaches, talks are vetted, and when you take that stage, you have been prepped extensively for it. Those talks don’t soar for no reason. There is a lot of work behind them!

I’d already declined once due to a diary clash but two weeks before TEDWomen, I got the schedule for the other conference, and it turned out that the only thing happening the first day was an optional VIP party. I was like, “Wait. Maybe I can drop by TEDWomen in New Orleans for a day to cheer on my friends and then head to New York.” So I hit them up and let them know I’d like to have a day pass to the conference. Upon which they were like, “Why don’t you come speak?” And I was like “WAIT WHAT?!?” Pat Mitchell wanted me to take the stage while I was there.

It was only two weeks until the event, so I decided that I was gonna decline (again). I wrote out a three- paragraph email expressing my regret about how I wished I could make it work, but I could not. I was tired after a really full fall of city-hopping for the Together Live tour, and I did not want to bring less than 100 percent to their stage. I was afraid I would fail with drowning colors. Right before I hit Send on the email, I decided to call my girl Eunique Jones Gibson.

Me: Sis. They asked me to do a TED Talk and it’s in, like, a week and a half and I think I’ll decline because I’m not ready. Everyone else has had months to practice and coaches and here I am sliding in at the eleventh hour.

Eunique: Well, you ain’t everybody. You’ve been on a stage twice a week for the last six weeks. You’ve been speaking professionally for almost a decade. Everything you’ve done up until now has been your coach. Everything has prepared you for this. You’re ready.

Me: Whoa.

Eunique: And if they didn’t think you could do it, they wouldn’t have asked you. You are doing it.

Me: Gahtdamb. Drag me, then! My edges. Here, take them.

Eunique: Aight, get off my phone and go prepare for your TED Talk. Kill it. *Hangs up.*

Bruh, she got me SO TOGETHER. I went in my email and de­leted the draft I was going to send Pat. But a part of me was still shook.

The next day, I wrote my talk. I wrote it early in the morning, in a taxi on the way to the airport for one of my work trips, because I wanted them to reject it so I wouldn’t have to do it. That’s how afraid I was of it. That is how afraid I was of what could happen—not if I failed but if I was really good at it. But they loved this talk!

The night before, I was at home rehearsing to an audi­ence of one: my husband, Carnell. He was like, “This is pretty good, but I think it’s missing something.” So I sat down at my computer and read it over and over again, and started changing things. Before I knew it, I’d changed half of the talk, because I wanted it to be the best it possibly could.

When I arrived, I kept reading my talk script, and going through it over and over in my head, because I wasn’t using any prompts be­sides the slides that would run behind me. There was no confidence monitor or teleprompter that would help me. I was spooked because this wasn’t a talk I had given before.

I don’t get too nervous when I’m about to give talks, but for this? I WAS NERVOUS AF. And I was going to be the first speaker! The one thing I wanted to guarantee was that, at least, I’d look good. My yellow blazer, with black blouse, and black jeans, paired with hand- beaded Italian slippers, were my version of a security blanket. Even if I sucked, I wanted folks to be like, “Her speech was trash, but she looked GOODER DINNAMUG.” I had my signature red lip, and some drippage in the form of diamond jewelry on. Let’s do it!

And then I started my talk. In ten minutes, I dropped more than seventeen hundred words, challenging people to be truth-tellers committed to doing and saying what was difficult because that is necessary for us to move forward. I used myself as the example, how my life changed when I decided to stop being led by fear. I used the idea of being a domino, because the first one to fall causes others to do the same.

Ten minutes and fifty- four seconds straight through. No stops. The TED Talk I gave is the one you can see now. There is no editing magic. I never paused because I forgot a line. I didn’t run backstage to go check my script because I lost my way. My voice did not shake. It poured out of me like I had been doing that very talk for years. I said my last sentences: “It is our job, it is our obligation, it is our duty to speak truth to power. To be the domino, not just when it’s difficult— especially when it’s difficult. Thank you.”

And surely, when that day came, “Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable” was front and center on the TED home page. Within a month, the talk had received one million views. And now, millions have watched it and the number is still growing. Most im­portant, the messages I’ve been getting from people all over the world who let me know how my talk spurred them to take an action they might not otherwise have taken, have stuck with me.

A week later, I got an email saying they would like to feature my talk on TED’s home page on December 1. I coulda fallen off my chair, because TED doesn’t guarantee when talks go up. Some don’t see the light of day for six months after they happen, and mine was picked to go up in less than a month.

This talk. This thing I did. In it, I talked about being more con­scious of not letting fear lead my decisions, but sometimes I need my own reminder. I let fear of not being ready almost keep me from doing this very thing. Doing the talk was being my own domino, because I thought I wasn’t ready. I was proving my own point, even in the process of getting to that stage. It wasn’t that I wasn’t fearless, it’s that I did it anyway. And when we are honoring our gifts, we have to stand in them.

Natalia Santana is a compliance professional by day, and an activist, student and parent...also by day. Interested in the intersection of activism and education, her joy in life is taking complicated concepts and distilling them into easy to understand Twitter rants. Favorite genres: science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction books.

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