The Most Important Thing I Did During High School
Most peoples’ primary focus during high school is on academics, getting good marks to get into a good university. Some people’s focus is on a sport, like soccer, running or athletics with the hopes of pursuing the sport professionally or to obtain a scholarship. For me, my primary focus was on Debating, and it was the most instrumental activity I did during school, which has largely shaped who I am today.
What is debating?
The debating I did at school was WSDC debating (World School Debating Championship). There is a motion like This house supports the death penalty, or This house would decriminalise prostitution, and there are two teams proposition and opposition, consisting of 5 members. 95% of the time you do not know what the topic is until 1 hour before the debate actually starts, for that 1 hour your team prepares for the upcoming debate, planning your arguments and rebuttals and practising speeches.
I found the process of rapidly thinking through a motion, writing a speech and then engaging on a deep intellectual level in front of a large audience nothing short of a complete adrenaline rush. However, a couple of key facets made debating as instrumental of an activity as it was.
How to Confidently Speak and Improvise Infront of A Large Audience
In debating you have no idea what the other team will argue until you hear their speech, meaning if you are the first opposing speaker, you have only 8 minutes to prepare your counter-arguments while still finishing your own speech!
I’ve lost count of the number of times I would stand up for my speech having only written three words summarising the other side’s complex argument and needing to come up with a rebuttal on the spot. This is absolutely terrifying at first, but after enough practice, it becomes second nature. You slowly but surely train your brain to operate with minimal information and make it up as you go. Improvising through a complex argument on the spot is a hard thing to do in itself, throw in most people’s biggest fear: public speaking and you’re in for one hell of a rollercoaster.
Many debaters have had the experience of being absolutely humbled by a POI (point of information). A point of information is when the opposing side can offer a point in the middle of your speech. Sometimes these points are mute or silly, and other times an opponent can dismantle your entire argument in 10 seconds. There have been times when I’ve received a POI and panicked because the rest of my speech was meaningless in light of the new information. I was incredibly embarrassed at moments like these; sometimes, it would happen in front of a crowd of 100s. However, having gone through these experiences and come out the other side with all four limbs still attached very little can embarrass me now.
Debating equipped me with the ability to confidently and succinctly communicate my ideas in front of a large audience even if those ideas are not clearly formed. I attribute all the startup pitches I have won exclusively to my debating training.
Argue For A Side You Disagree With
Very few people take the saying: “imagine what it is like in their shoes” as seriously as debaters. Sure people may watch a YouTube video of someone they disagree with or give some thought to the opposing arguments, but in debating, you spend two hours where your entire world is consumed with this entirely different perspective.
You spend an hour comprehensively thinking through the arguments and then spend another hour passionately arguing against the side you personally believe in. This experience is quite challenging and intellectually jarring. However, it is incredibly valuable. Firstly you get a much broader perspective on the world, and you would be surprised how often you change your most fundamental beliefs about a topic when you truly consider the other side.
I remember when I started debating, I was vehemently opposed to the legalisation of drugs and passionately argued against affirmative action. However, when my team needed to argue in support of these topics, my perspective flipped on its head. At first, I hated it; I would say: “how on earth is this even a fair topic, the other side is just objectively right”. However, debating does a magical thing here; it removes your ego and identity from the situation. All that is judged is your argument’s quality; no one cares what you have said or identified with before; no one cares if your argument is socially unpopular. All that matters is the content of the argument and how well you can convey it.
It felt like my brain was 20kg lighter, which permitted me to explore a previously taboo topic with a sense of freedom and curiosity instead of fear or disdain. Once I overcame my own biases, it was like a light switch in my brain was turned on in a room I did not even know existed. I would have countless ahaaa moments thinking back to things I have heard about this topic before.
The feeling of so strongly identifying with one side only to flip to the other in a matter of minutes had a profound effect on me. In general, I find myself far less on the extremes of any argument because I know how easy it is to hear a perspective that changes that. Instead, I tend to be quite central to many views.
Even for topics that did not change my mind, arguing the other side gave me a far more nuanced perspective and enabled me to empathise with the other side in a far more humane manner than just thinking people who think this way are just stupid.
Debating not only shaped my perspective on the modern world but gave me the toolbox to critically and fairly consider new ideas.
Some Thank Yous
The lessons I’ve learned and the achievements I obtained during my debating career would not have been possible without some of the most incredible coaches and mentors I had the privilege of working with. Namely; Luke Churchyard, Rowan Lange and Saul Musker. I am so grateful to you for the countless hours; you dedicated to helping me during my debating career.
This post is part of a 30-day writing challenge I am doing. Every day for 30 days, I am posting an article of at least 500 words. If you notice that I miss a day, I will buy you lunch.