61: Tell Them You Can Do It

61: Tell Them You Can Do It

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Tell Them You Can Do It

Confidence is a habit that can be developed by acting as if you already had the confidence you desire to have.

~Brian Tracy

If I had to choose the one piece of motherly advice that has made the biggest difference in my life, it would be “Tell them you can do it.” The funny thing is, Mother didn’t actually give this advice to me. It was meant for someone else entirely. I’m just lucky she happened to repeat the story to me.

My family lived in the same town that was home to the state’s oldest university, the University of Florida. Students from the College of Education frequently sought internships with teachers in the local public schools. Mother took on an intern from time to time, even though it usually meant extra work for her.

Mother’s interns often sought her help with applications, references and the like because they hoped to find full-time teaching jobs when they graduated. A counseling session with one of them prior to a job interview led to the advice that has stuck with me ever since.

I don’t know whether the intern actually asked for Mother’s advice—probably, she just mentioned the upcoming interview. For some reason, Mother told me about it the same day, after she got home from work. “I told her, if they ask you if you can teach math, or geography, or even home economics, you tell them you can do it. Whatever they want you to do, you tell them you can do it.”

Mother wasn’t an overly confident person. Yes, she had two college degrees and yes, she had years of teaching experience, but she never expected any special recognition or praise. She didn’t seek it, and she usually didn’t get it. When I was young, I didn’t fully comprehend all that my mother had accomplished.

The first in her family to graduate from college, Mother told me she had been terrified when she left her small hometown. Headed for Florida State College for Women, she was afraid of having to return home because she couldn’t cut it. But she didn’t fail. She graduated at age nineteen, taught for several years, and then landed a job as administrative assistant to the College of Education dean at the University of Florida.

While Mother was working at the university, she took graduate courses and continued her education, eventually earning a master’s degree. It was there she met her one and only, the man she eventually married. Mother and Daddy were devoted to each other, sharing a lifelong love and mutual respect.

My mother was an accomplished lady in her own right, but she often took a back seat to my father, who, as the primary breadwinner, had a more exciting job as principal of our local high school. Although he was a quiet and humble man, Daddy was recognized for his leadership skills and frequently served in highly visible roles in church and civic organizations. Daddy was in the limelight, and Mother pretty much stayed in the background.

Unlike Mother and her intern, I never applied for a teaching job. I earned a law degree and then went to work for a law firm. For the first five years of my career, I felt woefully ill-equipped to handle just about everything that crossed my desk. I found transaction work painstaking and confusing, courtroom appearances scary and intimidating. But I kept that to myself. I told the big guys I could do it. And I did, even though I was quaking inside.

Later, when I went to work at a corporation, I became an expert in a number of fields I had previously known nothing about. The job demanded it; there was no one else to do it, so I did. Ultimately, I was asked to add management of the company’s internal audit department, including the top audit job, to my responsibilities, despite the fact that I was not an auditor and did not have a financial background. I told them I could do it, and I did.

The biggest rewards in my career, and the most gratifying experiences of my life, have come as a result of stretching beyond my comfort zone. I’ve seen the same principle at work in the lives of younger people I have mentored. No one gets ahead by underestimating what she can do.

Years after Mother advised her intern on how to handle that critical first job interview, I told her how much her wise counsel had inspired me, even though I was not its intended recipient. I asked her why she had given that particular piece of advice to her protégé.

“I knew how much she needed that job,” Mother said.

Mother wasn’t into fakery or boasting or dissimulation. She just knew that deep down beyond the nattering voices that tell us we can’t do the things we’d like to do, there is a boundless well of ability and grit. It will bubble up to the surface if we just let it.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to thank Mother for the advice that has been so helpful to me over the years. Even so, I am not sure she understood the extent of its impact. It is with me still, encouraging me when I’m tired, intimidated or overwhelmed.

“Tell them you can do it.” Mother’s words ring in my ears, firm resolve underscoring each one.

Echoing her voice, I whisper to myself, “I can do it.” And then, I do.

~Mary Wood Bridgman

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