On a cold Sunday morning in Niagara Falls, I waited in a room nervously with the other contestants. The Toastmasters Table Topics Championships was about to begin.
As I anxiously stared out the window I tried to distract my nerves by admiring the Falls. Staring at the steady flow of water as it hurled itself over the edge, I smiled at the irony of the parallel between the water and the events that had brought me here.
A group of friends and I had launched a non-profit, student-led organization called GROW that runs events in the Jewish community. Since most of us were deathly afraid of public speaking, we started a Toastmasters club. When I volunteered to represent our club at the next competition, little did I know this would be in the dreaded “Table Topics” category.
Table Topics is designed to test impromptu speaking abilities. You are given a topic, typically a single word like success or happiness, and on the spot have to give a one- to two-and-a-half-minute speech that builds upon that theme. You are judged based on content, speech development, and stage presence.
Most people find table topics extremely challenging, as everyone is afraid their mind may go blank and they will have nothing to say.
The Power of Definitions and Clarity
As a Jew, I think we were born to compete in table topics. We have opinions on everything! We also are very curious and like to ask lots of questions. Questions that force us to delve deep into any and every topic we can think of, usually starting with definitions.
In my very first class on Judaism, I was taught the importance of definitions. For example:
Am I a good person? Of course I am! Well, at least I think I am. But how do I know I’m a good person?
The only way to know if you’re a good person is to create a definition. Define the word “good” and then see if you fit that definition. Without the proper definition, it's impossible to answer the question. (See here for the answer.)
Beyond preparing myself for life, I was mastering the art of Table Topics.
The more I learned about Judaism, the more I delved into the proper definitions for Love, Happiness, Success, and many other important life goals. And it turns out that I wasn't just preparing myself for life, I was really mastering the art of Table Topics.
To Learn is to Teach
Beyond this is a concept in Judaism that whenever you learn an important idea, in order to ensure that you remember it, you should teach it to at least five people right away. When you explain the idea to someone else, you are sealing it in your memory. You're also developing the skill of clearly explaining your thoughts in an orderly fashion. And since everyone learns a little differently, you are forced to develop lots of analogies to get your point across.
So while I may have only been a rookie when it came to Toastmasters, my Jewish journey had given me the necessary tools for success.
At Toastmasters, the competition begins at the club level, and then the winner moves up to the area, division, and finally the district championships. At the first three levels of competition, I was given the words "wealth," "recovery" and "integrity." Following my formula of defining the term and then explaining with an analogy of how the world would be a better place if we lived with proper values, to my surprise I kept winning. And with each competition, my confidence grew.
"Max Kalles – you’re next," the sergeant at arms called. Snapping back to reality, it was my turn for the stage.
I slowly walked across the hall and into the packed auditorium.
"Max Kalles," the contest chair announced, "the phrase is: ‘Life is a journey.’" The crowd clapped as I slowly walked up the stage stairs formulating my words while trying my best not to trip. I quickly looked at my wife who had a smile across her face.
I looked out at the crowd, gave a big smile, and began:
Mr. Contest Chair, fellow Toastmasters, and welcomed guests:
Life is a journey.
The problem is that when we first begin that journey, we are too young and inexperienced to make our own decisions. So we look up to people who are wiser than us and ask them what to do. They tell us that life is like a ladder, and the goal, of course, is to get to the top.
So we start at the bottom rung and begin to climb. What should we do? Go to school of course, that's what everyone else does. You need an education to get to the top of the ladder.
You graduate school and ask: What next? Well, everyone needs a higher education. So enroll in university – climb your ladder.
You finish university in a degree that you weren't interested in, but that's not what's important; finishing is all that matters. Climb the ladder.
After graduation you have to get a job. It's not really in the industry you wanted, but you have student debts to pay off – just climb a little higher.
What now? Get married, of course. So you find a spouse to climb the ladder with.
Now that you have a spouse, you need a house, but to pay for the house you need to stay in that job that you didn't really like. Don't worry, just keep climbing the ladder.
You're thinking of making a change, but now's not a good time because your wife is pregnant with your second and you need a bigger house to fill with stuff you don't really need. But that's not important as long as you’re climbing the ladder.
Retirement is near; there's no use quitting now. Besides, you were promoted again and you have to pay for your children's school. Don't worry, just keep climbing the ladder.
Each time you put your head down and continue to climb – inching toward the top – that's when things will be better (you convince yourself).
You finally reach the top of the ladder and pull yourself onto the roof of the building. Reaching the top, you stand up in triumph. You made it! You look out at the amazing sights… but as you turn around, you are shocked to realize that your ladder was leaning on the wrong building!
We can go our whole lives trying to achieve greatness, trying to get to the top. But before we start life's journey, it is worthwhile to look up and make sure that our ladder is leaning on the right wall.
The Judges’ Decision
I sat down and watched the rest of the competitors give their speech on the same topic. They were all very good, and it was difficult to tell who would win. When they announced my name as the winner I was in a state of shock.
Winning a Toastmasters competition is a great feeling. But the best part was taking the ideas I've learned while studying Judaism and sharing them with the world, to help bring meaning and happiness into the lives of others. I’ll drink to that.