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 table
in 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’s
most treasured collectibles. That room represented the sacrifices
of generations gone bywho, by poverty or by policy,couldn’t afford a curio of collectibleslet alone a middle class house
to put them in. That room had to stay perfect. But I would risk messing up
that perfect room every dayjust to see that book. On the cover sat a woman
named Septima Clark. She sat in perfect profile
with her face raised to the sky. She had perfect salt-and-pepper cornrowsplatted down the sides of her head,and pride and wisdom
just emanated from her dark skin. Septima Clark was an activist
and an educator,a woman after whom I’d eventually
model my own career. But more than all the words
she 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 something
that we underestimate the importance of. We treat it like a nice-to-have
instead of a must-have. We place value on knowledge and resourcesabove what we deem to be
the soft skill of confidence. But by most measures,
we have more knowledgeand more resources now
than at any other point in history,and still injustice abounds
and challenges persist. If knowledge and resources
were all that we needed,we wouldn’t still be here. And I believe that confidence
is one of the main thingsmissing from the equation. I’m completely obsessed with confidence. It’s been the most important
journey of my life,a journey that,
to be honest, I’m still on. Confidence is the necessary spark
before everything that follows. Confidence is the difference
between being inspiredand actually getting started,between trying and doing until it’s done. Confidence helps us keep going
even when we failed. The name of the book on that coffee table
was “I Dream A World,”and today I dream a world
where revolutionary confidencehelps bring about our
most ambitious dreams into reality. That’s exactly the kind of world
that I wanted to create in my classroomwhen I was a teacher,like a Willy Wonka world
of pure imagination,but make it scholarly. All of my students were black or brown. All of them were growing up
in 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 important
that my classroom be a placewhere my students could build
the muscle of confidence,where they could learn to face each day
with the confidence you needto redesign the world
in the image of your own dreams. After all, what are academic skills
without the confidence to use those skillsto go out and change the world. Now is when I should tell you about
two 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 chair
during independent work,and he would never stay still
for more than three or four minutes. Students like Jamal
can perplex brand new teachersbecause they’re not quite sure
how 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 it
from 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 favorite
subject was writing,and he never wanted to read
what he had written out loud in class,but we were still making progress. One day, I decided to host
a mock 2008 presidential electionin my classroom. My third graders had to research
and write a stump speechfor their chosen candidate:Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton
or John McCain. The heavy favorites were obvious,but one student chose John McCain. It was Jamal. Jamal finally decided to read something
that he had written out loud in class,and sure enough, Jamal stunned
all 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 McCain
would protect the entire country. And he wasn’t my candidate of choice,
but it didn’t matter,because the entire class
erupted into applause,a standing ovation
for our brave friend Jamalwho finally showed up
as his most confident selffor the first time that year. And then there was Regina. Regina was equally
as brilliant, but active. She’d inevitably finish her work early,and then she’d get on about the business
of distracting other students. Walking, talking,passing those notes
that 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 default
to my baser instincts,and I would choose
compliance 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 approach
didn’t communicate to Reginathat she was being a distraction. My approach communicated to Regina
that she herself was a distraction. I watched the light go out from her eyes,and that light sparked joy
in our classroom. I had just extinguished it. The entire class became irritable,and we didn’t recover
for the rest of the day. I think about the day often,and I have literally prayed
that I did not do irreparable harm,because as a woman who used to be
a little girl just like Regina,I know that I could have started
the process of killing her confidenceforever. A lack of confidence
pulls us down from the bottomand weighs us down from the top,crushing us between a flurry
of 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 mired
in what can get in our way,confidence invites us
to perform with certainty. We all operate a little differently
when 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 need
to readjust your goal. If you have too much confidence,it could be because
you’re not rooted in something real. Not everyone lacks confidence. We make it easier in this society
for some people to gain confidencebecause they fit our preferred
archetype of leadership. We reward confidence in some peopleand we punish confidence in others,and all the while far too many peopleare walking around
every 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 lacked
the 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 parents
put 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 time
the dealer would turn his attentionand his body to my dad,assuming that he
controlled the purse stringsand therefore this negotiation. “Rev. Packnett,” they’d say,
“how do we get you into this car today?”My dad would inevitably
respond the same way. He’d slowly and silently
gesture toward my motherand then put his hands
right back in his lap. It might have been the complete shockof negotiating finances
with a black woman in the ’80s,but whatever it was,I’d watch my mother
work these car dealers overuntil they were basically
giving the car away for free. She would never crack a smile. She would never be afraid to walk away. I know my mom just thought
she was getting a good deal on a minivan,but what she was actually doingwas giving me permission
to defy expectationsand to show up confidently in my skill
no matter who doubts me. Confidence needs permission to existand community is the safest place
to try confidence on. I traveled to Kenya this year
to learn about women’s empowermentamong Maasai women. There I met a group of young womencalled Team Lioness,among Kenya’s first all-female
community ranger groups. These eight brave young women
were making historyin just their teenage years,and I asked Purity, the most verbose
young ranger among them,”Do you ever get scared?”I swear to you, I want to tattoo
her response all over my entire body. She said, “Of course I do,but I call on my sisters. They remind me that we
will be better than these menand that we will not fail. “Purity’s confidence to chase down
lions and catch poachers,it didn’t come from her athletic ability
or even just her faith. Her confidence was
propped up by sisterhood,by community. What she was basically saying
was 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 event
with my manager,I just knew that she
was 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 already
beating myself up,and that question invited me
to learn from my own mistakesinstead of damage
my already fragile confidence. Curiosity invites people
to be in charge of their own learning. That exchange, it helped me
approach my next projectwith the expectation of success. Permission, community, curiosity:all of these are the things that we
will need to breed the confidencethat we’ll absolutely need
to solve our greatest challengesand to build the world we dream,a world where inequity is ended
and where justice is real,a world where we can be free
on the outside and free on the insidebecause we know that none of us are free
until all of us are free. A world that isn’t
intimidated by confidencewhen it shows up as a womanor in black skinor in anything other than
our preferred archetypes of leadership. A world that knows
that that kind of confidenceis exactly the key we need
to unlock the future that we want. I have enough confidence
to believe that that worldwill indeed come to pass,and that we are the ones to make it so. Thank you so much.

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