Business Lessons Learned From a Speaking Gig Gone Bad

June 14th, 2013 | Shonali Burke | 13 Comments

Pyramid and Date PalmsNine days from today, I won’t be getting dropped off at Dulles Airport, waiting in line to get through security, or boarding an airplane to fly to Egypt.

Walk like an Egyptian… not

It’s not of my own volition that I won’t be doing any of these things. Rather, it’s because a speaking engagement that came my way several months ago disappeared rather abruptly. And as far as I can tell, it disappeared when the organizers were having so much trouble with the many moving parts of the conference, that they decided to remove said moving parts that weren’t important enough.

Image: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Of course, I was extremely irritated when it happened. I’d blocked off my calendar for the six-to-seven days I thought I’d be abroad, I chose not to attend this year’s PRSA Counselors Academy Spring Conference, I was trying to juggle my work and deadlines around those dates… and then, poof, it went sailing off into the sky, much like a magic carpet would.

I’m not irritated any more, and I’m not asking you to join me in a pity party. Stuff happens. People get dumped all the time. Even me (!).

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone

What I realized, just the other day, was what a blessing in disguise this unceremonious dumping had been.

There was all this excitement around visiting Egypt – my first visit to an Arab country, to speak at an international conference, no less, what bragging rights I’d have! But along with all that, there was a fair amount of anxiety. Over visas, over how I should dress while traveling and while there, over how I should plan my work, and so many other things.

With the evaporation of the gig, so too did the nerves and irritation at the organizers (who number as some of the most uncommunicative, borderline rude, people I’ve come across so far). The last couple of weeks have been stressful for a variety of reasons; had the trip still been on, my entire approach to dealing with everything would have been to look at it through the Egyptian lens.

“How can I go to Egypt if all this is happening?”

“This better be fixed by the time I leave for Egypt.”

“How could ________ when I have the Egypt trip coming up in a few weeks?!”

Instead, I’ve been able to deal with those issues head-on, without adding an unnecessary layer of stress to what were already stressful situations. I didn’t have to worry about getting X, Y or Z fixed by the time I left for Egypt; I just had to focus on what I needed to do to get X, Y and Z back on the road to normalcy, as it were. I was able to simplify my life in a way that was critical to my mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.

Business lessons learned

As in life, this happens quite often in business, doesn’t it? We decide what our business objectives are, we have a roadmap and start to use it, we start getting smart about business development… and then, suddenly, something so big, so exciting, so mouthwatering comes along unexpectedly and takes over the entire picture. It occupies our thoughts from sun-up till sundown, and everything starts being adjusted so that This Big Thing can have pride of place.

And in all that, the plans we’d put in place are forgotten. The sometimes dreary, often mundane tasks that we know, if implemented well, should lead to growing the right way, are pushed to the background, and This Big Thing takes center stage.

Now, if This Big Thing turns out well… then that’s great. But what if it doesn’t? What if it disappears as quickly as it shows up… what then? Can you imagine what a pain in the butt it’s going to be to have to go back to Plan A, and pick up the pieces? Jeez, it’s like we’re forever chasing the tail.

This is not to say we shouldn’t welcome new and unexpected opportunities – we absolutely should. But there is a difference in being open to opportunities and letting Shiny New take over. The latter was where I made my mistake.

Part of the plan

Much of my work has come to me in unexpected ways because I’ve been open to new ideas and spontaneous thoughts. But when I take a few steps back and look at my body of work, it becomes clear that all the pieces are complementary to the range of services my business offers. So even though they may seem as if they come somewhat out of nowhere, they actually come about organically because of things I’ve done, perhaps a year, or two, or three, ago, but that have been consistent with who I am as a person, and with the services my business offers.

Had Egypt worked out, would it have been a waste of time? Of course not. It would have been great visibility, it could potentially have led to several new connections, it could have been the precursor to several things.

But so might a lot of other opportunities, and as the owner of my business, it’s my job to keep them all in context. That’s a powerful lesson to learn, or relearn, as the case may be, and it took a doomed trip to Egypt for me to realize that.

Have you had blessings in disguise that you failed to recognize at first? Did they leave you with lessons learned? Do share!

Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
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I do believe in seeing the "blessing in disguise" with every fork or turn or bump in the road. Don't get me wrong: it's not always immediately evident. But I do sit outside myself to observe myself and the situation, to see the proverbial lemonade in the lemons. I'd like to think that it comes with experience (cough, age) that we're able to accept with grace the unexpected, the painful and the difficult in our lives. Perhaps it's because I've seen the passing of too many young people in my life lately. Whatever the reason, when we see that things do happen for a reason (although I know many people hate that phrase, "all things happen for a reason"), we're able to shake off the disappointment, anger or hurt more readily than if we hold onto the injustice, disappointment or anger. Come to Canada my friend: let's make an event happen here! Cheers! Kaarina

Shonali moderator

@KDillabough You do, I have seen that about you. I think it does come with experience, and maybe the realization that not everything is about us? It's still not that easy for me to do, because I tend to obsess over things I get really excited about... and then the let-down, if they don't work out, is much greater. 

I would love to come to Canada - thanks to @dbreakenridge @marketwired I visited Toronto earlier this year, and was thrilled to come back to one of my favorite cities. I got to meet up with @martinwaxman too (I think you were out of town, maybe? Or maybe it was just too short a trip). Let's make it happen!


@Shonali @KDillabough @martinwaxman Great post, Shonali and it's all a learning experience. I'm sure you'll be moving on to even more exciting opportunities. They say when one door closes (unfortunately, this one quite unexpectedly) another door opens.  You did such a wonderful job in Canada and I thoroughly enjoyed working with you. I would recommend you to any conference organization in any part of the world!  Looking forward to our PRSA International session in October.


@Shonali @KDillabough @dbreakenridge @marketwired @martinwaxman Yes - another visit to Toronto would be great!

Re the post, Shonali - it's a very good lesson that we need to be open to possibilites - because you never know what's around the next corner, but not, as they say, bet the farm on them.  I had a situation a few years back when a Florida agency found my firm out of the blue and had a huge project they wanted to pitch with us. We flew down, on our dime, were wined and dined and there were a lot of good intentions that made us believe we'd more than double in size in a short period of time. However, the best laid plans and all that. Circumstances beyond their and our control conspired against us (i.e. client changed timing and what it wanted). So it was business as usual again.'s always great to dream!

We'll have to get you back to Counselors again in 2014!

Shonali moderator

@dbreakenridge Thank you for the kind words, and I hope so! It really did end up working out for the best, but it sure didn't feel like it at the time. But now, I have time (at least a little bit) to focus on some really important things, both personal and professional, and that wouldn't have been the case if Cairo had worked out this year. So it's an ill wind, etc...

I can't wait to see you at PRSA IC, and I'm really looking forward to our session too, thank you for having me! 

Shonali moderator

@martinwaxman OMG. At least if you'd flown down on their dime, you wouldn't have been out. What a bummer! It's kinda the same though when we respond to RFPs, right? All that time we put in, and then suddenly the Board has a change of heart (for example), or something else. 

I would love to come back to Counselors next year. Can we start talking about that now, please, because you know how time flies! @KDillabough @dbreakenridge @marketwired @martinwaxman 


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