How to Teach Yourself to Trust Yourself

Last week I went to an evening to honor and advance the vision of the late Dr. Allan Rosenfield, Dean of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health for twenty two years. Allan was a giant in global health, dedicated in particular to women’s reproductive health and rights.

There was a long slate of estimable speakers but as the evening wore on I began to lose attention. Then Jerry Hoosen Coovadia, a Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, stepped up to the lectern.

He looked at the audience, and, without fanfare, put aside his speech. “Most of what I planned to say has already been said,” he told us.

Then, instead of reading his prepared remarks, he spent a few minutes talking, off the cuff, about Allan’s uncommon ability to “see in the dark” — to see injustices that the rest of us overlooked — and take action.

Of the many speeches that night, his talk, unscripted, simple, heartfelt, is the one that affected me the most.

Jerry modeled what Allan lived: he saw in the dark. The evening didn’t need another eloquent, grandiose speech about the state of global health. Jerry let go of all his hard preparation in favor of what he saw was best in the moment. His ability to notice the need, pause, and spin on a dime was remarkable. It showed flexibility, presence, and focus. But there’s something deeper: it showed his trust in himself.

In last week’s post, I shared how I over-worked, over-thought and over-prepared my recent TEDx speech on learning.

Each time I created a new version, I sent it out to trusted friends — smart, generous, insightful people — and asked for their advice and direction. Was it interesting enough? Clear enough? Creative enough? Funny enough?

Yet each time they came back with their valuable, thoughtful feedback, I became a little more lost. A little less sure of my message. My ideas. Myself.

It’s not that I had a hard time hearing criticism. It’s the opposite: I was too quick to incorporate it. Too eager to please. Too willing to change in order to get the right response.

In his poem “The Hero with One Face,” David Wagoner writes:

I chose what I was told to choose:
They told me gently who I was…
I wait, and wonder what to learn…
O here, twice blind at being born.”

Many of us have spent our lives listening to our parents, our teachers, our managers, and our leaders. Choosing what we are told to choose. Being told gently who we are. Molding ourselves to the feedback of others. Seeking approval. Reaching for recognition.

There is good reason to learn from the wisdom of others. But there is also a cost: as we shape ourselves to the desires, preferences, and expectations of others, we risk losing ourselves. We can become frozen without their direction, unable to make our own choices, lacking trust in our own insights. O here, twice blind at being born.

There is a simple remedy to the insecurity of being ourselves: stop asking.

Instead, take the time, and the quiet, to decide what you think. That is how we find the part of ourselves we gave up. That is how we become powerful, clever, creative, and insightful. That is how we gain our sight.

After becoming distracted by the feedback I was getting, after Eleanor suggested I was trying too hard, after I ran out of time to make five more revisions, I finally did what Jerry did: I put the speech aside and made very personal choices about what I wanted to share.

How did I arrive at those choices? I looked through the thousands of words I had written in preparation for the talk to find something I felt added my unique perspective to the conversation about learning. It seems obvious to me now, but how could I have hoped to find my unique perspective by asking others? Instead, I looked into the dark for what others had overlooked.

This trusting of yourself is not just about writing a speech. It’s about speaking in meetings. It’s about choosing projects to pursue. It’s about advocating for budgets. It’s about having the courage to do work that moves you. Can you trust yourself enough to follow your own impulses?

Once I decided to stop asking others what they thought about what I thought, I noticed something interesting: I try harder when I’m not relying on others. I fix things I might otherwise leave for others to fix. I work more diligently to ensure my perspective holds together.

In the past, when I sent someone an article for comments, knowing it needed some work, I was being lazy. And my laziness, enabled by the generosity of others, had the side effect of reducing my faith in my abilities to work through the places I got stuck.

I am not suggesting we ignore feedback. It’s useful to know how others react to our work. After my complete rewrite, I performed the speech several times to different audiences as practice.

But this time, I didn’t ask them to assess my message. I asked them to assess my delivery. What did they get from my talk? Did I convey my message in a way that communicated my passion for it?

And when I finally gave my speech in Flint, MI, it felt clear, focused, and authentic.

It felt mine.