I was looking at my calendar deep in thoughts. Then I said, “Hmmmm…”

My husband is a geek, so to attract his attention and make him look up from his computer, I had to make a bigger sound: “HMMMMMM…”

“What is it?” said my husband. (Yes, the bigger voice worked!)
“Hmm… I wonder… Should I compete this time?”
“Compete? What for? Look at your mantelpiece! Don’t you have enough trophies already? Give someone else a chance!’
This was not a response I expected.

If you ever competed in Toastmasters speaking competitions, you know that there are two distinctive feelings that you may experience. One of them is this warm and fuzzy glow, when you stand in front of a smiling and applauding audience, holding your trophy proudly like a new baby. And then there is  the other one… We don’t like talking about it. We pretend it doesn’t exist.

First time I experienced the other feeling was, quite understandably, the first time I ever competed.

I thought I was prepared to take the blow. I kept telling myself, “You probably won’t win. It’s your first time. It is OK.” And yet, here I was, feeling defeated, deflated with my self-esteem curled into a whimpering ball of self-pity. And of course I tried to act nonchalantly, “Oh, I knew I won’t win. You know, competitions are not about winning.” (Who was I kidding? Of course they are. They are competitions!)

It took a bit of willpower to enter the contest again. “Remember, it is not about winning!” I kept telling myself.

And, yes! This time I did it! I won the club contest. Oh, it felt so good. My self-esteem was dancing on the rooftops and singing happy tunes. My heart felt warm and fuzzy. I entered the next level and won it again. Yes! Oh, it felt even better! I was floating on air.

And then I lost the division contest. And my heart was sinking again.

Anna-District-winIt was in 2012, when I experienced my biggest moment of glory. Oh, I worked so hard for this. I won the club, I won the area, I won the division… I couldn’t believe this. I was going to compete on the district stage. And finally, here I was, holding a huge trophy with both hands, smiling down into a big room full of applauding people, feeling so warm and fuzzy inside. Oh, it felt so good to be appreciated, validated, admired, noticed!

In just a few months I entered another contest – the International speech contest. And lost at the area level.

I would probably continue running through this endless marathon – winning, losing, feeling good, feeling defeated, if not for a dream I had this week.

In this dream I was walking in the forest with a close friend. I was not surprised that he appeared in my special dream, because of a deep bond of trust that developed between us. If you are blessed to have someone who accepts you completely the way you are, so you feel comfortable expressing even the goofiest, weirdest sides of you deepest self, you know what I am talking about. Yes, this dream would not be complete without him and I was happy he was in it.

At some point I noticed that I was carrying a heavy bag. I took it off my shoulder, put it on the ground, opened it and peered inside. To my surprise, it was full of small dull pebbles. As I was looking at these pebbles in bewilderment, my friend took a handful of them, examined them closer and said, “Oh, look, they are your external validations – praises, approvals, compliments. Oh, and there are all the trophies that you got for your speeches. Look, how many there are! You rock, girl!”

Now I could see it too. Only I thought they would look differently. Shinier. More precious. Like golden nuggets or diamonds. But they were just dull pebbles! All that effort and I ended up with a bag full of pebbles.

And my friend said, “Just think, if you keep it up, how much more you will get in 10 years!”

I sat on the ground and started crying. Yes I was still in my dream. “Pebbles! Pebbles! I don’t want more pebbles.”

My friend sat down besides me and said: “OK, you don’t want pebbles. I get it. What do you want?”
This was not an easy question. I knew I didn’t want more of dull pebbles, but what did I want?

“Wait… I don’t know… I need to think.”

“Well, you know what to do, don’t you? Close your eyes and open your heart. It will come to you.”

I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths and slowly allowed my heart to open to the richness of the moment. The gentle whispering of wind in the grasses, the warm kisses of sunshine on my eyelids, fresh smell of leaves. And this special feeling of being with someone who understands. Who is there for you. Feeling connected. Sharing the moment.

I opened my eyes and said, “This. I want more moments like this one. This is perfect.”

And my friend said,“Here you go. You have them. And guess what, there are everywhere. You can have as many as you want. Just keep your heart open.”

I opened my eyes and awakened from my dream. And I thought that when I arrive at the end of my life’s journey, I don’t want to open my bag and find it full of pebbles. I want my bag full of magic golden moments. Moments of connection. Moments of appreciation. Moments of love. Moments of friendship.

The problem with golden moments is that they cannot be hoarded. You cannot put them on the mantelpiece. They can only be experienced moment by moment. And I remembered how often I would give a speech and notice someone’s eyes softening, as if letting me in, opening the door. And then as if a barrier between me and another human being would dissolve, allowing my words flow freely from my heart to another heart.

I made a decision to not compete again. I suddenly realized I never wanted trophies. I wanted something that was passed to me with the trophies, yet couldn’t be put on my mantelpiece with the trophies. I wanted my golden moments of connection. I wanted to touch other people’s hearts. And my friend was right. These golden moments are everywhere. I don’t have to compete for them. They are waiting for me. As long as I keep my heart open.