It might be nice if we were all born with this insane built-in confidence and the ability to believe in ourselves. But the truth of the matter is that life has a way of kicking us around. When underlying genetic predispositions toward anxiety and depression are factored in, or the outcomes of the parental lottery are less than satisfactory, the process of growing from childhood into an actualized result can be quite the labyrinth, a road filled with tarsnakes, or a downright drag.
So the task of believing in yourself quite often means overcoming adverse circumstances to find what motivates you enough to ignore that stuff and become who you want to be.
The run and ride through life
Those of us who run, ride and swim test the ability to believe in ourselves every day. I well recall several moments in running when I began learning to believe in myself. The first came when I ran a 12:00 two-mile in gym class in 7th grade. That was followed by racing track in the 8th grade, going head-to-head with equally determined runners around the unforgiving oval.
Then as a ninth-grader I made the varsity cross country team. As a sophomore I scored the most points for the team on the season and helped win the first ever conference championship for the school. Those leadership opportunities certainly taught me to believe in myself. As a junior I led the team to a district title, and as a senior barely missed qualifying to go downstate in one of the toughest sections in Illinois. Then came college, and running 5th man on a team that placed second in the nation in NCAA Division III cross country.
Yet through all these experiences, I was often still wracked by fear and self-doubt. When I believed in myself, everything was fine. But when that belief eroded, things got very tough at times. That’s a keen allegory for life.
Without coaches to guide us through with encouragement in life, our experience can seem even more complicated and difficult than during our formative years. Many of us run smack into this reality after college, when people who don’t give two f**** about our precious self-confidence are suddenly in control of our day-to-day existence.
Then there’s the raw interface of the real world outside any sort of known relationships or experiences. I clearly remember that first job working in Admissions for Luther College. I drove all over Illinois by myself recruiting kids for that college back in the state of Iowa. People had never heard of the place and it was my job to convince 18-year-old kids and their parents to split up by 5, 6 or 7 hours.
I covered the City of Chicago too, working urban neighborhoods and city schools where the thought of going out to a tiny Lutheran college in the cornfields of Iowa as a cultural immersion was quite the sell. Yet I had the confidence to just be myself in those situations. Be honest as possible. And despite some deep doubts expressed by my boss, I achieved the 70-student quota by year’s end. Because I believed in myself.
Still, going from the relative innocence of college to that raw environment of traveling school-to-school felt crazy some days. Those wan gray days driving on long strips of roadway in Illinois seemed to drain away my dreams. Staying in cheap hotels did not help matters either. But we lived by budget rules, and getting through a night by a trainyard where the cars banged together all night certainly toughened me up.
Believing in yourself can be highly relative. Perhaps it even takes more self-confidence to sit on the edge of a lonely bed in a Motel 6 in Decatur than it does to stand before an audience of 600 people and give a speech. Loneliness can drain away belief faster than almost any other emotion.
But truth be told, dealing with other people can be just as difficult. During college philosophy class we read the book No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre. The plot centered on the idea that “hell is other people.” The book proposed the hell was an eternity in which three people are locked in a room together and at any point in time two of the people get along while the other is subject to their distrust, ridicule and scrutiny.
If that sounds spookily similar to the bad atmosphere of some office environments, then so be it. We all know that office politics can create fear and absolutely gut one’s self-esteem. Add in the pressures of cultural prejudice, harassment and discrimination that is so common in the workplace and it becomes a hell all its own.
Situations like those can totally undermine belief in yourself. I once worked a job for a well-known non-profit organization that lasted two hellish years. Every form of evil on earth took place in that closeted little realm. Everything took place from passive-aggressive manipulation to outright discrimination, graft and lying. Finally and employee took his own life when leadership visited his remote office ‘ranch’ and it was discovered that he was a child molester.
In the face of toxicity
Trying to do a good job in that toxic world came close to undermining belief in myself. But fortunately I’d learned that abiding by principles and truth in the face of such insanity was the real way to survive. People can rip you for many reasons, but hew to the truth. Even if you lose the job, you can live with yourself and look to the next opportunity with a clear conscience.
That type of insight comes from participating in sports where truth is clear and present. For a couple years before taking that job I’d trained and raced with all my might in running and learned that being true to yourself is perhaps the most important function in this entire world.
After college I set out to create self-confidence in all new ways, training diligently through cold winter months to be fit for spring and summer. That produced a wonderful summer of good performances capped the day that I stepped to the line at the Frank Lloyd Wright 10K on a 55-degree day in October. I absolutely believed in myself by then. From the gun I ran away from the field of 3000 other runners to finish in 32:00 on the streets of Oak Park, Illinois.
The honesty of endurance sports is self-affirming because your success is completely ‘up to you.’ Thus it helps to have done the work beforehand, which can also be confidence-building. Or it should be. So give yourself credit. Those moments in endurance sports when you achieve what you thought was not possible are incredible. Tough workouts that make you want to quit, yet don’t, are real character builders. That’s true in every circumstance in life. That’s why running, cycling and swimming can be so valuable in helping you believe in yourself.
Those who participate in triathlons and cycling as well as running know that confidence must also be built across multiple disciplines. That’s not easy. Even elite triathletes struggle with confidence in one or more sports because few people are equally strong at swimming, cycling and running. Perhaps the perfect triathlete has not yet come along, but some have come close.
Recently we attended a talk at North Central College by world-champion Ironman Triathlete Mirinda Carfre (@Mirindacarfrae). In her third world championship victory, she had fallen far behind the leaders on the bike segment. Entering the run, she was 14 minutes behind the lead woman. Carfrae admitted she’d lost some belief in herself at that point. Yet yer coach Siri Lindley was not buying into that line of thinking. She saw Carfrae only a half mile into the race and shouted, “You’re in the perfect position!”
“She must be crazy,” Carfrae thought as she seriously had considered pulling over and out of the race. Yet she gahtered herself for the run leg and ran so well her marathon time was third fastest among both men and women. She came back to win the race for a third time.
Belief pays off
That example shows that it surely can pay to believe in yourself even when things aren’t going the greatest. Trust in your training to pull through at key times. It’s almost a question at that point of telling your brain to get out of the way and let the body do the work. Yet at other times, the brain has to take over and will the body to its destination. Hard training teach you to know the difference.
The same principles hold true in work and personal life. Belief in yourself can be tough when things like a marriage or a relationship crumble. The plain truth is that giving yourself to another person is always a risk. Sometimes, just like training or racing, those risks don’t pay off, or erode over time. The same can hold true with families or even political allegiances. Even an entire nation can let you down. In all these circumstances it pays to take stock of your beliefs and consider why you hold them. Find your core beliefs but be ready to consider new truths as well.
As I wrote in my book The Right Kind of Pride, when people face difficult challenges such as life-threatening disease, even their core character can change. So believing in yourself does not always mean stiff-necked denial. Sometimes people of the greatest character learn to change when it is needed most. Think of St. Paul in the Bible, or Buckminster Fuller coming to the realization, after great personal tragedy, “You do not belong to you, you belong to the universe.” It led them to new revelations about their mission in life. They came to believe in themselves, and other greatness, in all new ways.
The key to believing in yourself is always believing in the importance trying in the face of adversity of all kinds. Because even if you fail in one instance, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed completely. In fact more than one failure has proven to be a success of one kind or another in the long run. A bonked bike ride or hitting the wall in a marathon teach you limits, but that also challenges you to overcome, find the possibilities, and swim through waters you never dared to swim before.
Believe in yourself. You can do it.