The Key to Inspiring Self-Confidence

Kids and adults alike need to face their fears, embrace their struggles and learn from the process. As they do, authentic confidence will emerge.
05/17/2012 11:40 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

I remember visiting a local playground when my eldest was about five. A mother put her twins on a couple of rocking horses, and as they started playing she cheered from the park bench, "WAY TO GO, HONEY! GREAT JOB!" Several of us started looking around to figure out what they were doing that was so deserving of praise. Some new gymnastic move? No. Did they help a friend in need? No. They were rocking back and forth. Fast forward five years, and I'm wondering if they've figured out how to blow their nose on their own without Mom's encouragement.

As my children have gotten older and are participating in more sports activities, the parenting landscape is oftentimes more of the same -- parents screaming laud from the sidelines for every move that little Johnny makes. Watching these parents I often wonder, do we really have such a low view of our children's potential to think that they need to be propped up with false praise? And is this vapid encouragement really doing them any favors?

Everyone needs to have a goal, to want, to struggle. It's good for the soul and it's hard to have motivation, much less succeed at life without those three things. Struggle is particularly essential to our success and if someone, parents or otherwise, were to try to remove it for us, or even imply that they should, that could be truly detrimental to our happiness.

Years back, I remember complaining to my then-chairman about several things that were completely falling apart in our company. I was out of answers and patience, and that day he got an earful. A man whose successful Wall Street career made him an insightful advisor only had mm-hmms for me that day. After we hung up I received a fax. On it was a picture of a beautiful butterfly. Beneath the butterfly was the story of a man who found a caterpillar struggling to get out of its cocoon. Unable to watch the caterpillar suffer in his struggle any further, the man took out a small pair of scissors and clipped the caterpillar's cocoon so he could escape his struggle.

Out came a gooey caterpillar with a swollen body and shriveled wings. He thought with time that the wings would grow and it would learn to fly. But it didn't. It could only crawl around with its swollen body and shriveled wings.

The man asked his friend the scientist to help him understand what had gone wrong. He learned that the butterfly was SUPPOSED to struggle. In fact, the butterfly's struggle to push its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon pushes the fluid out of its body and into its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever fly. His good intentions to rescue another being from its suffering left it handicapped for the rest of its life.

Beneath the story my chairman wrote in his own handwriting, "Struggle isn't always a bad thing. You can handle this. Love, Richard"

He had more belief in me than I had had in myself, and when he showed me that my own confidence soared. I kept that fax under the glass on my desk for nearly 10 years, and I've never forgotten the story. Each time I face a struggle, I remember his note to me and I think, "There can be purpose in this."

My parents gave me three things before I went out into the cold world: an education, advice and good shoes. Beyond that I was on my own. I appreciated the freedom to do things my own way, to fall flat on my face and to learn so I could succeed. My parents knew that confidence was something I was meant to develop within myself. It wasn't something they could do for me.

When I was going through school and performing on the field, my parents never screamed like maniacs from the sidelines. If they had, every time I did something well or not so well, I might have felt as though their happiness was riding on my performance. What a horrible burden that would have been.

I relate to the temptation to insulate your children and loved ones from disappointment, but it's impossible to do so. And it's a severe handicap to your kids when you project your own insecurities onto them. In fact, it's shortchanging to anyone that might be treated that way. Spouses, employers, managers, friends, co-workers, all of us need to consciously find the space to see the spark of others' potential. They may not find the courage to completely rise to it, but acknowledging that spark will help them to develop their potential in a way that only they can. Confidence, afterall, doesn't come from avoiding problems and challenges, it comes from facing them and learning from them.

I'm always impressed how good teachers speak to that spark and lure it out with trust, belief and good technique. I remember all of my good teachers who related to my potential, and how it inspired me to develop myself in ways I would not have without them.

As adults, navigating our way through the many extraordinary challenges of life we need to remember that spark within, the essence of 'I can'; and to pass on that light of inspiration whenever we can. But it's important to remember that laud for doing nothing or very little incites laziness and dependency that lasts a lifetime. Kids and adults alike need to face their fears, embrace their struggles and learn from the process. As they do, authentic confidence can emerge naturally, and that confidence will last a lifetime as well.