How to build your confidence — and spark it in others | Brittany Packnett
So when I was a little girl,a book sat on the coffee tablein our living room,just steps from our front door. And the living room is a first impression. Ours had white carpetand a curio of my mother’smost treasured collectibles. That room represented the sacrificesof generations gone bywho, by poverty or by policy,couldn’t afford a curio of collectibleslet alone a middle class houseto put them in. That room had to stay perfect. But I would risk messing upthat perfect room every dayjust to see that book. On the cover sat a womannamed Septima Clark. She sat in perfect profilewith her face raised to the sky. She had perfect salt-and-pepper cornrowsplatted down the sides of her head,and pride and wisdomjust emanated from her dark skin. Septima Clark was an activistand an educator,a woman after whom I’d eventuallymodel my own career. But more than all the wordsshe ever spoke,that single portrait of Septima Clark,it defined confidence for mebefore I ever even knew the word. It may sound simple,but confidence is somethingthat we underestimate the importance of. We treat it like a nice-to-haveinstead of a must-have. We place value on knowledge and resourcesabove what we deem to bethe soft skill of confidence. But by most measures,we have more knowledgeand more resources nowthan at any other point in history,and still injustice aboundsand challenges persist. If knowledge and resourceswere all that we needed,we wouldn’t still be here. And I believe that confidenceis one of the main thingsmissing from the equation. I’m completely obsessed with confidence. It’s been the most importantjourney of my life,a journey that,to be honest, I’m still on. Confidence is the necessary sparkbefore everything that follows. Confidence is the differencebetween being inspiredand actually getting started,between trying and doing until it’s done. Confidence helps us keep goingeven when we failed. The name of the book on that coffee tablewas “I Dream A World,”and today I dream a worldwhere revolutionary confidencehelps bring about ourmost ambitious dreams into reality. That’s exactly the kind of worldthat I wanted to create in my classroomwhen I was a teacher,like a Willy Wonka worldof pure imagination,but make it scholarly. All of my students were black or brown. All of them were growing upin a low-income circumstance. Some of them were immigrants,some of them were disabled,but all of them were the very last peoplethis world invites to be confident. That’s why it was so importantthat my classroom be a placewhere my students could buildthe muscle of confidence,where they could learn to face each daywith the confidence you needto redesign the worldin the image of your own dreams. After all, what are academic skillswithout the confidence to use those skillsto go out and change the world. Now is when I should tell you abouttwo of my students, Jamal and Regina. Now, I’ve changed their names,but their stories remain the same. Jamal was brilliant, but unfocused. He would squirm in his chairduring independent work,and he would never stay stillfor more than three or four minutes. Students like Jamalcan perplex brand new teachersbecause they’re not quite surehow to support young people like him. I took a direct approach. I negotiated with Jamal. If he could give me focused work,then he could do itfrom anywhere in the classroom,from our classroom rug,from behind my desk,from inside his classroom locker,which turned out to be his favorite place. Jamal’s least favoritesubject was writing,and he never wanted to readwhat he had written out loud in class,but we were still making progress. One day, I decided to hosta mock 2008 presidential electionin my classroom. My third graders had to researchand write a stump speechfor their chosen candidate:Barack Obama, Hillary Clintonor John McCain. The heavy favorites were obvious,but one student chose John McCain. It was Jamal. Jamal finally decided to read somethingthat he had written out loud in class,and sure enough, Jamal stunnedall of us with his brilliance. Just like Jamal’s dad,John McCain was a veteran,and just like Jamal’s dad protected him,Jamal believed that John McCainwould protect the entire country. And he wasn’t my candidate of choice,but it didn’t matter,because the entire classerupted into applause,a standing ovationfor our brave friend Jamalwho finally showed upas his most confident selffor the first time that year. And then there was Regina. Regina was equallyas brilliant, but active. She’d inevitably finish her work early,and then she’d get on about the businessof distracting other students. Walking, talking,passing those notesthat teachers hate but kids love. You look like you passed a lot of them. Despite my high ideals for our classroom,I would too often defaultto my baser instincts,and I would choosecompliance over confidence. Regina was a glitch in my intended system. A good teacher can correct misbehaviorbut still remain a student’s champion. But on one day in particular,I just plain old chose control. I snapped,and my approachdidn’t communicate to Reginathat she was being a distraction. My approach communicated to Reginathat she herself was a distraction. I watched the light go out from her eyes,and that light sparked joyin our classroom. I had just extinguished it. The entire class became irritable,and we didn’t recoverfor the rest of the day. I think about the day often,and I have literally prayedthat I did not do irreparable harm,because as a woman who used to bea little girl just like Regina,I know that I could have startedthe process of killing her confidenceforever. A lack of confidencepulls us down from the bottomand weighs us down from the top,crushing us between a flurryof can’ts, won’ts and impossibles. Without confidence, we get stuck,and when we get stuck,we can’t even get started. Instead of getting miredin what can get in our way,confidence invites usto perform with certainty. We all operate a little differentlywhen we’re sure we can winversus if we just hope we will. Now, this can be a helpful check. If you don’t have enough confidence,it could be because you needto readjust your goal. If you have too much confidence,it could be becauseyou’re not rooted in something real. Not everyone lacks confidence. We make it easier in this societyfor some people to gain confidencebecause they fit our preferredarchetype of leadership. We reward confidence in some peopleand we punish confidence in others,and all the while far too many peopleare walking aroundevery single day without it. For some of us,confidence is a revolutionary choice,and it would be our greatest shameto see our best ideas go unrealizedand our brightest dreams go unreachedall because we lackedthe engine of confidence. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take. So how do we crack the code on confidence?In my estimation,it takes at least three things:permission, community and curiosity. Permission births confidence,community nurtures itand curiosity affirms it. In education, we’ve got a saying,that you can’t be what you can’t see. When I was a little girl,I couldn’t show confidenceuntil someone showed me. My family used to do everything together,including the mundane things,like buying a new car,and every time we did this,I’d watch my parentsput on the exact same performance. We’d enter the dealership,and my dad would sitwhile my mom shopped. When my mom found a car that she liked,they’d go in and meet with the dealer,and inevitably, every timethe dealer would turn his attentionand his body to my dad,assuming that hecontrolled the purse stringsand therefore this negotiation. “Rev. Packnett,” they’d say,“how do we get you into this car today?”My dad would inevitablyrespond the same way. He’d slowly and silentlygesture toward my motherand then put his handsright back in his lap. It might have been the complete shockof negotiating financeswith a black woman in the ’80s,but whatever it was,I’d watch my motherwork these car dealers overuntil they were basicallygiving the car away for free. She would never crack a smile. She would never be afraid to walk away. I know my mom just thoughtshe was getting a good deal on a minivan,but what she was actually doingwas giving me permissionto defy expectationsand to show up confidently in my skillno matter who doubts me. Confidence needs permission to existand community is the safest placeto try confidence on. I traveled to Kenya this yearto learn about women’s empowermentamong Maasai women. There I met a group of young womencalled Team Lioness,among Kenya’s first all-femalecommunity ranger groups. These eight brave young womenwere making historyin just their teenage years,and I asked Purity, the most verboseyoung ranger among them,”Do you ever get scared?”I swear to you, I want to tattooher response all over my entire body. She said, “Of course I do,but I call on my sisters. They remind me that wewill be better than these menand that we will not fail. “Purity’s confidence to chase downlions and catch poachers,it didn’t come from her athletic abilityor even just her faith. Her confidence waspropped up by sisterhood,by community. What she was basically sayingwas that if I am ever in doubt,I need you to be thereto restore my hopeand to rebuild my certainty. In community, I can find my confidenceand your curiosity can affirm it. Early in my career,I led a large-scale eventthat did not go exactly as planned. I’m lying to you. It was terrible. And when I debriefed the eventwith my manager,I just knew that shewas going to run down the listof every mistake I had ever made,probably from birth. But instead, she opened with a question:What was your intention?I was surprised but relieved. She knew that I was alreadybeating myself up,and that question invited meto learn from my own mistakesinstead of damagemy already fragile confidence. Curiosity invites peopleto be in charge of their own learning. That exchange, it helped meapproach my next projectwith the expectation of success. Permission, community, curiosity:all of these are the things that wewill need to breed the confidencethat we’ll absolutely needto solve our greatest challengesand to build the world we dream,a world where inequity is endedand where justice is real,a world where we can be freeon the outside and free on the insidebecause we know that none of us are freeuntil all of us are free. A world that isn’tintimidated by confidencewhen it shows up as a womanor in black skinor in anything other thanour preferred archetypes of leadership. A world that knowsthat that kind of confidenceis exactly the key we needto unlock the future that we want. I have enough confidenceto believe that that worldwill indeed come to pass,and that we are the ones to make it so. Thank you so much.