Kwesi Abakah, the six foot seven forward for the Northeastern Huskies men’s basketball team, took center stage at TD Garden with the sort of self-assurance found only in championed athletes. With a microphone in hand, he sang “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone to the hushed crowd of people that had congregated for the university’s 114th graduation convocation.
I watched Kwesi’s performance among the sea of faceless graduates. My eyes followed him on the Jumbotron as I twisted my honor cords over and over, listening to his shaky voice echo throughout the arena. Within seconds, I began to hone in on every imperfection of his performance, from the flat notes to the occasional mumbling. My thoughts became increasingly more fixated on just why this basketball player was being given yet another moment in the limelight, and why on what was supposed to be my proudest day to date I was feeling more unaccomplished and regretful.
At the end of his performance Kwesi took a bow, and as he smiled in a self congratulatory way I felt a wave of envy wash over me. The kind of envy that wanted me to scrutinize and pull apart his performance. The kind that encouraged me to roll my eyes at his sureness and deem it arrogance instead. Judging by Kwesi’s smile, I could tell that his performance had been less for the audience than it had been for him. He didn’t need our applause to believe he had performed greatly, nor did he need any validation from me or anyone else to feel justified in owning his accomplishment. I knew then where my envy stemmed from. It came from my own inability and unwillingness to believe in myself or my successes. Kwesi’s performance rubbed me the wrong way because it reminded me of the self-confidence I lacked myself, and the jealousy I felt toward all the people who believed in themselves more than I ever could. The jealousy that stemmed from feeling like I was being denied successes I deserved as much or more than those around me.
For a long time I have conflated self-confidence with a lack of self-awareness. I have avoid taking creative risks and talking myself up because of my fear of perceiving myself in a way that is untrue or inauthentic to others. My greatest fear has been to say I’m good at something, and then find out that belief is not shared by others. As a child, I often found myself ridiculed for my interests and activities, so I programmed myself to be small and invisible to avoid any sort of negative attention or humiliation. I stopped reaching out of my comfort zone for fear of the embarrassment that stemmed from failure. And instead of believing in myself or taking risks, I began to resent those people who took chances, who believed they could do anything, who had the nerve to believe in themselves when others didn’t.
Kwesi’s performance struck a nerve because it reminded me of my adolescence, of watching people I deemed less talented succeed. He reminded me of the crop of cocky and delusional kids whose confidence entirely outmatched their skill set, and how they succeeded regardless of that.. As a teenager, I often felt overlooked and underestimated. I believed that my lack of success was because I was never given an opportunity to showcase my unique skills and talents, and any opportunity that presented itself I surely self-sabotaged. Watching kids I perceived to be less talented succeed made my failures feel that much greater, and instead of adopting their confident personas I further embraced my pessimistic attitude. I gave up on trying for fear of failure and yet resented those around me who were bold enough to try and determined enough to work hard, and then took every opportunity to bash those people or knock them down a peg. In some twisted way I thought I could raise my own self-esteem by leveling theirs.
What I’ve learned with time, however, is that people will succeed whether or not you want them to. There will be people who are more talented than you, and those who are not, but if you create restrictions on when you can and cannot believe in yourself you will never achieve succeed. And you will certainly never succeed if you refuse to try for fear of failure.
The truth is that self-confidence is not an innate thing. Some people are raised in an environment where it is fostered and encouraged, and others spend a good deal of their life without ever receiving positive reinforcement. I’m trying to accept that how I perceive myself matters more than how others perceive me. Dismissing my accomplishments, and comparing myself to those around me will do me no good. Refusing to work hard because I don’t believe I’ll ever have the ability to succeed will do me no good either. Not all of us are told we have talent. Not all of us are told that we should be proud of who we are and what we’ve done. We’re told to avoid being haughty, or overstepping our boundaries, and to never think we are more than what we truly are. But the reality is that sometimes we need to believe we can do more than what we are capable of, so that we can take risks, and push our personal boundaries. You don’t need to be the best to believe you are capable of doing the best.
Kwesi took center stage at graduation because he believed in himself. Kwesi smiled widely after singing his heart out because he believed in himself. It didn’t matter then or now that I thought his moment in the spotlight was undeserved. All that mattered was that he got up and did a thing he could be proud of. Many times I’ve talked myself out of taking a risk because I was afraid of failure. Many times I’ve given up because I didn’t have the voice in my head to tell me success was possible. I don’t want to be that way anymore. I want to be like Kwesi and own my successes and revel in being me. I want to allow myself to enjoy activities regardless of whether or not I’m the “best” at them, and I want to try and explore rather than give up. And I want to be able to see other people succeed and know that success is attainable for me too as long as I believe in myself.