4 lessons from my 20-year-old cat

Today, 15 May 2019, is a big day in our family. Our cat Pico is now 20 years old. A significant milestone. According to generally agreed conversion rates, if Pico were human, she would be 96. Most cats don’t make it this far.

In some ways, Pico is showing her age. She is about 90% deaf; her hips and spine are bony; and she occasionally yowls a plaintiff moan at nothing in particular. Nevertheless, overall she is in great shape. She eats well; her eyesight is excellent; she still goes outside in the backyard; she can still dart up and down the stairs when she wants; and she is still incredibly social. 

We got Pico as a kitten from a former colleague. I had never had a cat before and I did not consider myself to be a cat person. Twenty years later, that has changed.

I still love dogs, but cats will always have a special place in my heart. That’s why I get a kick out of this scene from Meet the Parents in which Robert De Niro sets Ben Stiller straight on the issue of cats and dogs.

Pico has given us a lot of joy over the years. In many ways, she has also been a great example. If you observe cats long enough, you can learn a lot from them. Here are four lessons from Pico that will benefit any public speaker.

Focus

cat

When she was younger, Pico was a champion hunter. Over the years she has caught countless bugs, dozens of mice, five or six birds, and two bats. (She caught the bats while prowling along the rooftop at night and brought them back — alive — into the house through the skylight. This meant that I got to catch the bats in the house and then release them outside.)

Whenever Pico spotted prey, she would focus 100% on it as she slowly stalked it. She doesn’t hunt much these days, but her focus is as keen as ever. When she sees a bird or another cat or even a human, she is completely focused on them. She will look out the same window she has looked out for 20 years and still find something to focus on.

As speakers, we need to bring the same intensity of focus every time we step on stage. We need to forget about ourselves and focus 100% on the audience. When we do that, we become engaged, we become much more natural on stage and we have a better chance to make an impact.

Curiosity

Put anything new where Pico can reach it and she will be all over it. She’ll walk around, sniff it, scratch it, bat at it. Pull open dresser drawer or closet door and in she goes. Her curiosity is extraordinary. She is always interested in new things.

I admire her curiosity. It’s good to be curious. Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talent; I am only passionately curious.” Well, if it’s good enough for Pico (and Einstein), it’s good enough for me.

Whenever I have the time, I try new things, read from a wide range of sources on an eclectic range of subjects, watch different documentaries and try to meet new people. That’s how you learn. And learning new things makes you a more interesting speaker.

I have been able to incorporate ideas in this blog from sources as diverse as fashion, rock climbing, furniture, technology and now, my cat.

If you want to be a better speaker, stay curious. Read trade magazines; keep abreast of the news; learn a new skill; visit a new country if you can; and have meaningful conversations. Every bit of knowledge is something that you can draw on for your speeches and presentations.

Persistence

We have an alarm clock at home but we don’t need it. We have Pico.

When it’s 5:15, you can be sure that she will be scratching on your door or, if the door is open, jumping on the bed and meowing a storm. Because she’s hungry and damn it, she wants to eat.

She’ll meow non-stop for five minutes and if you refuse to move, she’ll leave for a minute or two, lull you into a false sense of security and then come back and meow non-stop for another five minutes. Let’s just say that I have become an early riser out of habit.

Pico the cat

Public speakers need to be persistent as well. We need to work constantly to perfect our craft. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

It might be speaking about a new subject or to a new audience. It could be mastering a new technology such as slide presentation software or interactive polls. Or it might be overcoming a bad habit such as speaking too fast. There is always room for improvement and we have to work for that improvement. But it requires persistence.

Sleep

On average, cats sleep 15 or 16 hours a day. Some sleep even more. Pico is every inch a cat. Sometimes she just has a light “cat nap” and can be easily awakened; sometimes she is in such a deep sleep that you can pet her a long time and she won’t budge. But she does get her sleep.

Sleeping catSleeping cat Sleeping cat Sleeping cat

For years, I thought it was a sign of weakness to have to sleep. I could not have been more wrong. Numerous studies and articles show that getting sufficient sleep — 7 to 8 hours a night — is critical for good performance. 

I don’t always get 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night, but in general I do. I also take a 20- to 25-minute nap in the afternoon if my schedule permits. It’s just enough sleep to recharge for the afternoon and evening.

Getting sufficient sleep before a speaking engagement is important. You will be sharper and more present if you are rested. My advice for the night before a big speech or presentation is to get 30 minutes more sleep than usual in order to be well rested. And if your speech is in the evening, try to take a nap in the afternoon if you can.

If you are nervous about the speech and are having trouble falling asleep, here are some tips that can help:

    • Have a light supper.
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    • Avoid the computer or your smartphone or the television for at least one hour before you go to bed.
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    • Take a warm bath or shower.
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    • Drink herbal tea.
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    • Read fiction.
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    • Meditate.
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    • Have warm blankets but cool air in the room.

There’s much more that I could tell you about Pico, but these four characteristics: focus; curiosity; persistence; and sleep will stand any speaker in good stead.

Happy Birthday, little cat. May you have many more!

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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4 Responses to 4 lessons from my 20-year-old cat

  1. Saba Imru Mathieu says:

    What a lovely, inspiring and instructive post! Happy Birthday Pico and Hello John!

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