The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on July 21, 2011.

“Discover the Diamond Within.” That was the theme of the TELI – the Toastmasters Education & Leadership Institute – that took place last Saturday. Because the theme was so closely aligned with my passion for helping people find their buried treasure, I had applied – and was accepted – to be one of the presenters.

The program I did wasn’t my usual message about finding the gifts, skills, talents and traits that we often don’t recognize in ourselves. Instead it was about taking a lump of coal – as Superman used to do back in the 1950s TV series – and turning THAT into a diamond. I use “lump of coal” as a term for the awful experiences we all go through from time to time. Loss of a job, or loss of a loved one. Accident, illness, injury.

Any number of occurrences can come out of the blue and knock us out, in levels ranging from disappointing to devastating, and many of them are powerful enough to paralyze or destroy us. But even though we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control our reaction to it. Because of this, we have more power than we realize. As another presenter at the TELI said in a related program, “When I can make a choice, I have the power.”

The dire circumstances we sometimes face are not always obstacles we have to overcome. Sometimes they’re actually building blocks. They give us – or they become – our mission, our strength, and even our identity. Many organizations, such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and the Susan G. Komen Foundation, grew out of someone’s loss. And I’ve read many interviews in which people in powerful and influential roles revealed that they never could have imagined themselves as an advocate, activist, or crusader until a personal tragedy turned them into one.

When I first started giving speeches and presentations, both in and outside of Toastmasters, my biggest fears and concerns were about stumbling over my words and messing up what I was trying to say, or going totally blank and forgetting everything I wanted to get across, or getting so flustered or embarrassed about something that went wrong that I would be in tears all the way home – all of which have really happened, by the way, though not all at the same time.

I don’t worry too much about things like that anymore, because experience has taught me that they’re not too likely to occur, that I can handle them if they do, and that they’re not fatal. My main concerns now are whether I’m making a difference to the people in the audience, and whether my message and my experiences are relevant and helpful to them.

After my presentation on Saturday, a number of people stayed to talk. Some had questions they wanted to ask me, and many had stories they wanted to tell me – stories about some of the “lumps of coal” in their lives. I always find it humbling and inspiring to hear about the struggles people have gone through and to see how thoughtful and powerful they have become as a result. I love seeing the brilliance and resilience they’ve developed in the process. Like diamonds.

We really do have diamonds within us. But we don’t always recognize them because they don’t look like the shiny, sparkly, perfectly-shaped stones in jewelry store ads and commercials. More often they seem dull, flawed, damaged or blemished. But when we change our attitude and our actions, we become like Michelangelo, who once said, “I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free.”

Like Michelangelo, we’ve got our work cut out for us. And when we take control of the choices we make and the power they give us, we really can take the lumps of coal that come into our lives and turn them into diamonds.

© Betty Liedtke, 2011