To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are – Muhammad Ali
I was a 17-year-old who was lacking in a lot of self-belief and had just been selected to take part in an International Leadership Programme hosted at Drexel University in Philadelphia over the summer.
As a British student, the whole experience was extremely exciting and somewhat scary but it taught me one of the most important lessons that I still remind myself of today.
We were scheduled to volunteer one day a week for a few hours at a daycare centre in what seemed like a struggling area of Philadelphia.
A lot of times you can just tell that an area is ‘struggling’ by the attitudes you encounter by the people from said area.
The daycare centre felt like the central of such attitudes as everyone constantly seemed to be in a bad mood and it took a lot of patience working with the staff there; who felt very strongly that we were getting in their way instead of helping.
On my first day, all of my classmates spread out and got busy with the children who were aged between 5- 7 years old and I was left standing on the corner still deciding how best I could help.
It was then that I noticed a little boy, no older than five, crying in the corner by himself. I walked over and tried to talk to him but my attempts failed at trying to calm him down.
I asked one of the daycare staff what was up with him and was told to ignore him, as he is always holding a book and crying. This kind of behaviour from the day staff kind of surprised me; it felt that they had given up on him and started to just ignore him hoping he would just stop crying one day.
I tried to speak to him a few times after but got no luck so decided to take a break and speak with some of the other children there. A little while later, the boy approached me and introduced himself by saying his name was Jamal.
He then asked ”Do you want to know why I was crying?’‘
I responded with a very enthusiastic ”Of course”
”Because… I cant read” said Jamal looking down and feeling embarrassed.
I couldn’t have been more surprised by this. It was then that I decided that I would spend all of my remaining volunteering hours with the little boy and see how far we could get with his reading.
However, Jamal surprised me with his reading skills. Going through one of the children’s books I noticed that although he was struggling with some of the longer words, he was reading just fine.
It got me asking the question why did he feel like he couldn’t read? I realised then that this poor kid was seriously lacking in self-belief, and decided then that I would spend the rest of my time there making sure he got the attention and support he needed.
Weeks went by and the daycare staff began to notice that Jamal no longer cried, but would happily pick up a new book each day to try and read. He would be even seen occasionally giggling to himself whilst turning the pages.
The staff would go on then to see Jamal spendinglittle time alone and more time making an effort to talk to the other children. By the end of the month, Jamal would have 1-2 new friends with who he would sit, read or play.
So what was it that Jamal was missing all this time?
Is a Gift a Gift, If You Don’t Know It’s a Gift?
This particular experience stuck with me for a long time. I spoke about it to friends, I spoke about it to family, I spoke about it with the organizers from the Fulbright Association who had selected me for the program and even presented the story to the US Department of State who had kindly funded the trip.
I have met a lot of people in my life and many from all different backgrounds, races, religions, and cultures seem to have one thing in common and that was a lack of self-belief.
It is not entirely our fault because a lot of the time we are born with a good healthy amount of self-belief (or carefreeness at the very least) but as life goes on, this belief slowly disappears through the many challenges we face as children and adults.
Sometimes it’s from bullying at a very young age, a hard project we take on during our teenage years that fails or we get told by someone we look up to, that we are useless and worthless; this forever has a negative impact on us.
A healthy amount of self-belief is needed if we want to reach the highest level of our human potential. Can you imagine what the world would look like if Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla had all the tools and resources at their disposal but did not believe they could achieve creating the modern world we have today?
How many times have you thought about embarking on something new but then were crippled by the thought of ”I cant pull this off, who do I think I am?”
This seems to be the modern-day plague as almost every person that dreams of doing something amazing in their life is crippled by low self-belief usually forgetting the fact that they are fully capable of figuring it out.
We live in a very critical society that often programmes our minds to not only constantly criticise other people but also criticise ourselves on a regular basis.
Most of our day is spent telling ourselves how useless we are and wishing we were better.
Then we go into work only to be told by our bosses that we aren’t performing as well and then go home to our partners who tell us we really need to work on a few things right before we fall asleep.
By the time we hit REM sleep, we’ve been programmed to drop all the positive self-belief we have and accept the new programming that has been installed by ourselves and others.
Constructive criticism is healthy for the soul but taking that criticism and making it define us is where we begin our self-destruction.
Can you imagine what this does to the quality of our lives?
In the same way, our negative internal and external dialogue can programme us to have low self-belief; we can programme ourselves again to rebuild that self-belief through a handful of conscious actions.
There are some things I frequently inform my clients and friends to do, who have all reported back with great improvements in their lives from just a few things each day.
Many times, we believe that we need to make some big changes to have huge results when in reality it is the small, simple shifts in our thinking and behaviour that yield the largest results over a period of time.
Face the Unknown and be Scared
Just before my trip to the United States at the age of 17, I was selected to become the President of the National Union of Students and a student governor for the college that I was studying at.
I spent a lot of time improving the current policies for students and listening to the concerns of my peers which then I got the opportunity to present to the college board.
Many more opportunities came my way including the opportunity to visit UNESCO in Paris, France, as well as the chance to be involved in other European projects. All of this started with just one thought I had in my mind and that was, no matter what happens, I’m now going to face all of my fears.
Growing up I was a shy timid kid who rarely socialised or went out but I had a strong desire to reinvent myself. I made a firm resolution that I would start to face all of my fears and at the time I was deathly afraid of getting up in front of people to speak, let alone asking them to cast their votes in my direction for the student union elections.
I had little to no self-belief but I knew that by facing my fears, falling over, making mistakes and then learning from my lessons I would develop that belief over time.
Now in my 30s, looking back at those experiences, I can say with full confidence that those bold steps I took pushed my life in a whole new direction. Not because of any particular achievement or experience, but mostly because of the kind of person I have become as a result of facing those fears.
When you face a fear (whether you overcome the obstacle or not) it teaches your mind that not only is anything possible but also that if it does not go your way you are still here and no real harm has come to you.
You build the muscle of trying and failing until you reach your goal and you become the type of person you want to be in the process.
Our brains under fear of the unknown also become more resilient to stress & anxiety, and the more we face these emotions the less power they have over us in the long run.
A question to ask yourself daily would be; what things have I been putting off lately? What could I do right now that will help me move forward? What fears are there in my life right now that is stopping me from taking meaningful action towards my goals?
Talk to Yourself Like a Child
One of the most effective actions I have been prescribing to friends and clients is to talk to yourself and talk to yourself often.
By human nature we regularly self-talk anyway but it is not in the way that we would speak to a child, well at least not a child that we like anyway.
Positive self-talk can be extremely effective and recent research backs this notion that self-talk is super effective in not just changing our beliefs but also facing our fears, especially when done consistently over a significant period of time.
A friend of mine consistently doubted her abilities and would often complain about how incompetent she felt at work where she was always surrounded by extremely smart people.
I immediately grabbed her phone, opened her calendar, and placed three reminders each day for the next month.
Each reminder just said one thing at 9 am, 1 pm, and 4 pm and that was ”I can achieve anything I work hard for”.
This was strategic because I didn’t want her to just have the belief that she could get anything she wanted and should therefore be entitled, but that if she worked hard enough she could see her dreams come true.
I spent the next few weeks just monitoring her behaviour and I came to notice a few things that had changed.
a) She became less stressed when the topic of work came up
b) Started to spend more time on work-related projects (this is a positive if you don’t speak to her husband about it)
c) Begun celebrating small wins and these encouraged her to speak up about her ideas more in meetings
d) Built up the courage to present an idea for a project and was given the go-ahead to assemble a team
All of this from just some reminders on her phone? The mind can be a programmable computer and most people are often programmed to be the opposite of who they want to be.
Regular reminders work as regular programming with sufficient repetition, you can install new beliefs and change any negative self-beliefs within you.
Everything is an Experiment Even if it Blows up in Your Face
I often try to get into a different mindset whenever I embark on something new.
What I realised was that when I treated everything as an experiment I stopped trying to force a certain outcome and took a step back to just observe.
Not all experiments were successes but each failed experiment took me one step closer to my goal.
Growing up I was extremely afraid of getting out of my comfort zone and often avoided going to new places or trying new things, until a friend of mine would say ”hey let’s just see what happens, it could become the best night of your life”.
This became a bit of a mantra in my mind so much so that it began to stoke a desire in me to search for the unknown just to see what would happen.
I even went as far as imagining myself in a lab coat walking around observing those around me as silly as it sounds.
When I would want to start a conversation with someone new in an unknown place or network with a potential business or VIP, I would constantly just say to myself ”let’s just see what happens” and it would become a fun scientific game.
Even if the conversation or my action blew up, it would become a funny topic to discuss with friends after but I would feel great about the fact that I took action and I took the risk.
What surprised me most was that I got the intended outcome more than the number of times I had crashed and failed.
Who would have known? Next time you embark onto the unknown and feel like you are getting hot & sweaty, just say to yourself ”let’s just see what happens” then just observe the outcome in a scientific way.
Pretend you’re a scientist with your clipboard and pen if that helps you but know in your heart that no matter what happens, you will be okay on the other side and at the very least you would have a fun story to talk to your friends about.
Once everything becomes an experiment, over time you will start to notice an improvement in your self-belief and how you see yourself.
Small Steps Still Burn Calories
I have to reiterate that it is the small things that we change in our lives that often yield the largest results.
If you look back at your life, you will realise that it was the small things over time that knocked down our self-belief and confidence.
Ironically, it will be the small things over time that will once again build up our self-belief as long as we are consistent in our practices and mindset.
Children are a great example of this because they are usually neutral when it comes to confidence until they start middle school.
As they grow older and the number of positive experiences they accumulate the more confident they became and the opposite is true if they experience a large number of negative ones.
The thing to remember here is that we don’t need to rely on the external situation to start to believe in ourselves and with just a small handful of activities & mindset shifts we could train ourselves to have the confidence and self-belief we’ve always wanted.