On Confidence

Thoughts

Preface: This summer, I’ve been participating in Education Pioneers workshops as a Visiting Fellow. We were asked to share our leadership stories with our teams, so I cleaned mine up a bit and am sharing in this blog post. 

The very first time I remember feeling confident was as an emcee. I’d planned the entire program, from the exciting opening speech to the closing cake-cutting ceremony. My “captivated” audience – which consisted of my parents and my sister – laughed and clapped and participated at all the appropriate moments, filling my six-year-old self with pride at my success. My confidence extended to the classroom, where I won a sky-blue ribbon as the 1st grade calligraphy champion. I remember dashing along the streets near my home in Yokohama, excitedly showing the neighbors my proudest accomplishment to date. Then, my world changed.

For the next three years, my confidence waned as I struggled to learn English first in Canada, then in the United States. I failed to understand the directions for my ESL homework. I asked my 3rd grade teacher what “f***” meant in front of the class, who found it hysterical (I thought it was a bird, because it rhymed with duck). It wasn’t until I wrote an essay about flamingoes that things started to change.

My 5th grade teacher was the one who gave us the assignment to write an expository essay. When I received my flamingo paper back to see a “105% A+” on it, I was ecstatic. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I’d done something not only right but well – and in an English writing assignment at that. In fact, that entire year, my teacher made me feel like I could do anything; that I was smart; that I was skilled: a seed was planted because he had confidence in me. For that, to Mr. Gowler (who has since passed away), I will be forever grateful.

As I continued on through junior high and high school, I continued to receive external validation. I was now on the accelerated learning paths, which showed that my teachers thought I was smart (or at least good at testing).  I held leadership positions in different school clubs, which showed that my coaches thought I was somehow leadership-worthy. I was even voted Homecoming Queen my senior year (the ultimate “validation” for my 17-year-old self), which showed that my schoolmates thought I was kind of cool (let’s just assume that they counted the votes correctly).

By the time I graduated high school, I knew that I had a strong community that had confidence in me. I joke about high school being my glory days, and I hope that I didn’t peak in high school. However, it’s worth noting that those years will be the only time in my life where such a strong support system – my parents, my friends, my teachers, and other peers – were there for me daily in such close proximity (literally in a one-mile radius, because that’s how close I lived to school).

But talk about a big fish in a small pond: everything changed when I got to college. On the first day, freshmen were gathered in an auditorium and asked to raise our hands if we had been valedictorians at our high schools. Uncomfortable laughter bubbled through the room as we looked at one-another and realized that over half the audience had hands raised. And so at college, I found myself a mere B-average student; I got rejected from club tryouts and didn’t even bother running for leadership positions. Many other kids had that “it factor” that I once thought I had; seeing theirs only caused me to doubt myself. Moreover, there was the added social factor: what group did I fit in with, and who was my core community? I continued to sift through these questions as I graduated and moved to New York; in my two years there, I found that the city only made me feel smaller.

I appreciate how those years humbled me, serving to socialize me with the ‘real world,’ so to speak. But I can’t say I was too bummed to move past them when I found myself in Shanghai and having the absolute time of my life. I won’t get into it too much since I’ve already written about it, but that year in China helped me rediscover the essence of me – and be proud of it. I was in totally my element for many different reasons: culturally, socially, professionally, I felt so confident. And looking back, it was my time in Asia that helped me to put together the final piece of the confidence puzzle: in order for it to be complete, I had to believe in myself. I had to have confidence in me. 

My 5th grade teacher first gave me confidence, and my community helped to confirm it. But similar to motivation, confidence isn’t sustainable unless it comes from within. Luckily, I was given the incredible opportunity to be in a place that encouraged me to be the best me that I could be, which bestowed on me a sense of confidence that was not only deep but also sustainable. I work in education because everyone should have access to the three pieces of this puzzle:

  • Every child should have access to a teacher, a mentor, a someone – just one at the very least – who plants that seed of confidence, who believes in that student more than the student himself.
  • Every child should have access to a community, whether it be comprised of parents, teachers, friends, mentors. And despite the gaps – absent parents, lack of friends – the community will rally together to give a student confidence, stronger together.
  • Every child should have access to opportunities that helps him develop confidence in himself, so that even when the world knocks him down, he believes in himself enough to get right back up again.

In my day-to-day, it’s easy to forget the reason I work where I do as I get bogged down by Powerpoints and spreadsheets. But in taking the time to reflect on my why, I remember my personal North Star: it’s not enough to blab on about how blessed I am because blessings are nothing if not shared with others. I have the confidence now to pursue what I believe matters – to set our students up in systems where they can find their own confidence, so that one day they can pursue what they believe matter.

On Doing Stuff Alone

Thoughts

A while ago, I got it into my mind that it might be fun to do an activity by myself. Being a natural extrovert, I’m one of those people who dislikes going places alone. But ever since I graduated college and started working, I’ve started really appreciating the little moments I have for myself – and so I wanted to take it a step further. I subsequently decided to sign up for a whitewater rafting trip.

I’ve always wanted to try whitewater rafting, but never thought I’d sign up for it alone. Since each boat usually has 4-6 people, it definitely seemed like one of those activities that you would sign up for with a group of friends. So as the date approached, I found myself feeling wary about going alone and trying to find other people who would go with me. As fate would have it, nobody could/wanted to go – and so I ended up going by myself.

I got to the bus stop and realized, with a sinking feeling, that nobody else was there alone. When I showed my ticket to the guide, he said, “You and her?” pointing to a random girl behind me. I shook my head no: “Nope, just me.” I sat through the bus ride by myself and started wondering if I had been crazy to go on this trip alone!

Once at the rafting site, we milled around waiting for yet another set of buses to take us closer to the river. I wandered by myself for a bit, trying to look – and feel – nonchalant about the fact that I was there by myself. I was relieved to finally board the second set of buses and sat next to a stranger who was part of a group of 5. I wondered if my seatmate’s group thought it was weird that I had just come on alone, but quickly brushed it off.

I ended up on a boat with three other couples – two of the couples were friends, and the other one was separate. And you know what? I had so much fun. Once on the boat, it wasn’t a huge deal if you went with someone or not because conversation was light and easy. The most difficult part for me was probably lunchtime, because the group of four and the other couple separated from each other – and, feeling bad that I had already tagged along for the boat ride, I didn’t want to attach myself to either party. So I stood alone, in the vicinity of my boatmates but not with them – and just ate by myself. In retrospect, it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal to stand with the group and make conversation.

The day overall was such a blast. The weather was absolutely perfect. Our boat ended up working together well enough that one of the guides told us to hang back after lunch so he could show us some more “advanced” routes. And I learned so much about myself.

If I had to describe the day in one word, I would probably use the word “empowering.” I felt empowered that I could go on this activity by myself and feel okay doing it – I even went out to dinner alone afterwards to continue my “alone day.” The biggest takeaway I have from the experience is an old adage: it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Any time I worried if I looked weird or awkward, I realized that even if someone was judging me, 1) I would probably never see them again, and 2) I actually felt internally confident so I didn’t really care. I learned to feel rooted in myself, knowing that I had CHOSEN to do the trip alone (well, if you ignore the part where I panicked/backtracked and tried to find friends). I realized that I was secure (and lucky) in knowing that I have family and friends whom I love dearly and that being alone at this one event meant nothing about me.

I really recommend doing an “alone day” – it’s so much fun and it’s nice to enjoy your own company. I wish I’d brought a book to read during dinner (and my phone ran out of battery) but even at dinner, it was so empowering to be confident that I had chosen to be there, alone, eating dinner – and I was happy to be doing so.