On Confidence I

Somehow, I can’t believe that there are any heights that cannot be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four Cs. They are curiosity, confidence, courage, and constancy, and the greatest of all is confidence. When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable.

Walt Disney

Every morning (even weekends), I open my work email and check messages.  Usually, I do this as soon as I wake, as I have colleagues all around the world.  I try to be up early enough (before 6 am), so that I can respond to them before they end their day, while I am starting mine.  My stateside, same-time zone, core remote team is also up early, and we tend to message each other when it is “quiet,” before the 9 am bell signals it is the start of the work day and chaos ensues. This morning, only a few stray messages (hey, we submitted a paper!) and the usual IT notification of snafus being worked out, were in my inbox. However, there was one message that I received from my direct report that seemed off. I read it twice (I’m cutting down on coffee, so I wanted to make sure I read it correctly), and sure enough, it was a bit snippy. This was highly unusual. We are a tight knit group, more of a family, and we are pretty informal; this message was formal and discussing an incident that happened a few weeks ago. I responded equally formally, and went to get my second (and last, gasp!) cup of coffee for the day. When I returned to my desk, a second email message was waiting, on another topic, equally snippy. Now I was puzzled. I thought about it for a bit, and while I was thinking, another message came in on the same topic. Caffeine-deprived brain thought about this for a few minutes, and admittedly, responded a bit tersely. (Hey, withdrawals, you know.). As you can guess, this only escalated the tension, and an ensuing string of messages danced across my screen.

I have been doing what I do for so long, in such a demanding environment, that sometimes I forget. Not often these days, but at times, I lose awareness of my team and focus only on the goal. I forget that where I am is not where others may be, and my team, though stellar, is young and inexperienced in some ways. Part of my role on the team, being in many cases the one looked at to set an example and lead, is to be the keel. We work in a high paced environment, and one of my jobs is to make sure we all maintain the intricate balance of keeping afloat and on course (and hopefully on schedule) as we encounter storms on our journey. Many times this involves leveraging experience to anticipate and predict where those storms may develop, so we can circumvent them. But keeping balance and forward momentum is not only a function of the boat you’re sailing and knowing where you’re going, but the crew you have with you. I always like to say: “Put people in positions to succeed.” I find the way to do this is to evaluate individual potential, talent and skills, understand individual goals, determine what is needed to continue growing to reach these goals, and give the tools to do so. This morning, I was a bit late to the table, but I realized fear, most likely spawned by a lack of confidence and inexperience, was a major factor in what was playing out as a passive-aggressive email volley. Being the somewhat dimwitted manager that morning, I organized a meeting invite to lay a framework for the new activity that was going to tax already strapped resources, to allay any fears and instill confidence in the team that yeah, it was a tough challenge, but we have the experience and talent among us to meet it.

When I finished college as an undergraduate, I had a semester off before I started graduate school. I moved home to be with my mother, and was fortunate to find employment in the elementary school I went to as a child down the street. I was hired to tutor second and third graders who were struggling in math by the man who was the principal at the school when I attended as a child. I wasn’t given a strict curriculum, but instead was given the freedom to assess each student and decide on a strategy to boost their skills. Having always wanted to be a teacher, this gave me an opportunity to satisfy my desire to share knowledge, and perhaps make a difference. After meeting the handful of students, I realized that for most of them, it wasn’t the lack of ability, but lack of confidence in their ability, that was the root cause of their troubles. Because these students lacked confidence, many of them didn’t even try to learn, let alone master, new skills. I heard from many of them that they had been told “math is hard,” and, having not done well the first time, they did not even continue at it. Now, these days, math and other subjects are taught in public schools using “common core” methodology. I won’t go into details here as I have strong opinions on its strengths and weaknesses, but suffice to say that this philosophy was gaining traction during my brief tenure as a tutor, and I was shocked to see that the students were supposed to rely on thought exercises to do simple tasks like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Gone were the multiplication tables that were memorized in my day. Now, granted, I agree with the ethos of understanding how math works, but when you have a finite time to get to a solution, any reduction in activity to get you to the finish line is critical. So every session, part of my time was spent working with the students using flash cards to help them memorize answers, instead of counting on their fingers. I followed up with daily quizzes to track their progress, so that they could see themselves mastering tasks and gain confidence that yes, they could do it! Amazingly, the students rapidly gained ground in not only their math acumen, but also in their eagerness to learn more. As their confidence blossomed, they became unafraid to tackle new problems. It was truly a gift to me to see how giving someone the confidence to tackle a problem, based on repeated experience and continual support, was all that was needed in most cases for these students to not only master rudimentary facts, but be able to apply that knowledge to more complex thought problems in math.

Both these issues, small and large, are just a few of the tales that I have told to others about the importance of confidence, and how if we just believe we can do it, that is half the battle. Confidence is not an easy thing to acquire in some cases, and it is often a hard earned prize. And there are times when we face a situation that is fraught with anxiety and fear that can immobilize us such that a task seems insurmountable. But, as Carrie Fisher (my favorite Disney Princess) said, “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” And the best thing about confidence, is that once you acquire it, it tends to snowball, and what seemed to be impossible is now possible in all areas of your life.

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