Ask a Prof: Lessons in patience and confidence

Header image for Interrobang article CREDIT: ISTOCK (BRIAN A JACKSON)
Advice: If presentations make you nervous, improve your confidence by setting and accomplishing increasingly challenging goals.

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Hey Prof,

Unlimited transactions, no monthly fees, no worries. Scotiabank.

Why does it always take a million steps to get anything administrative done? It’s such a pain.

Signed: Just get it done already!

Dear JGIDA!

A number of years ago, I was travelling in France and I moved around the country by hitch-hiking (don’t tell my mom). Outside of the money-saving aspect, I enjoyed hitch-hiking because it was one of the rare times I could surrender myself entirely to the mercy of human kindness.

At first, with every car that passed, I felt abandoned. I remember thinking, ‘hey, you totally could’ve stopped for me’. That didn’t leave me feeling very good about humankind (ness) or myself, really. I thought I’d defer to Rational Jim before Emotional Jim gave up and took a bus.

Rational Jim knew that not every driver was inclined to stop for me, so I narrowed the field. I didn’t expect women driving alone to stop for me, and I didn’t expect a couple to stop for me — ‘cuz who really wants an axe-murderer sitting behind them? You want them beside you so you can use the hot-coffee- to-the-face manoeuvre.

I also learned that truck drivers rarely pick you up because their insurance doesn’t cover a passenger — at least that’s what one considerate, insurance-disregarding Polish truck driver told me!

As I narrowed my list of potential lift-providers, I also reckoned that I would definitely get a ride within 100 qualifying vehicles. So, I started counting. There goes a woman in a VW — doesn’t count. An Accord with a single guy — one. Toyota family — nope, Cadillac couple — nay, truck — noopydoo.

Wait, there’s a guy in a BMW — two. Instead of getting frustrated, I found myself more engaged in the process and I knew that with every passing car, the odds that I’d get a ride were improving. That made me smile — literally.

I started smiling at all of the passing cars and I got many smiles in return, which made the process way more enjoyable. I almost always got a ride before I arrived at my arbitrary number of 100 and it was OK when I didn’t. I knew that I wouldn’t have to count another 100 before getting picked up.

JGIDA, frustration often stems from the disappointment of our reality falling short of our expectations. If there are only two variables related to frustration — reality and expectations — it makes sense to examine the one we can change.

My hitch-hiking experience spawned Jim’s rule of 19: I approach every task with the understanding that it will take 19 steps to complete. Changing my cellphone plan? 19 steps. Replacing my passport? 19 steps. Do these things usually take 19 steps? Almost never! But by believing they do, I can celebrate every misstep or redirection as something that’s advancing me towards my goal. And that keeps me smiling.

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Hey Prof,

I feel really panicked when I have to make a presentation in class and I’m terrified of a job interview. Is there anything I can do to improve my confidence?

Signed: Sad and Overwhelmed

Dear S&O

You may gain some comfort knowing that you’re definitely not alone when it comes to feeling anxiety, dread, or even horror at the thought of public speaking or sitting through an interview. You should also be aware that there are resources available at Fanshawe to help you with these specific skills (public speaking and interviewing), but I’d like to respond to your broader question about gaining confidence.

I’m reminded of the saying: Courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of it. A random website attributes this wisdom to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but you know the internet… This statement tells me that everyone feels fear, but some people have created strategies to overcome it. So, the goal isn’t trying to eradicate fear, the goal is finding ways to step past it.

The prescription to improve many of our skills like typing, coding, photography or even applying make-up, is practice. So, why is it that when it comes to improving things like communication, confidence, and compassion, we’re left without any ideas?

With these soft skills, we often default to praying or wishing that things were different — that we were different. Hey, if that approach works for you, stick with it! But if it doesn’t, consider a bit of Morgan Freeman’s wisdom in the film Evan Almighty: “If someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience or does He give them the opportunity to be patient. If they prayed for courage, does God give them courage or does He give them opportunities to be courageous?” Please forgive Morgan’s use of the masculine. I can only imagine that he does so because he plays God in the film.

What is confidence anyhow? I submit that it’s just the belief that we can do something, or the belief that we’ll be OK if we try and fail. I could break out some Nike-esque advice — just do it — but that’s not helpful. Instead, I’ll share that the best way to start affirming that we can do things is by actually doing things!

The smart money is on starting slow, so here’s what I suggest. Start with a five-day challenge. Think of one small thing that you can do every day for the next five days. Yup, I said a small thing. Don’t even consider some life-changing, Mount Everest-climbing kind of goal and please step away from anything that’s been troubling you for years — no dieting, no joining a gym, and no calling anyone from high school. You’ll get to those challenges down the road.

Start by adding something relatively easy, like saying hello to one stranger every day. Just hello. No “how are you”, no “nice weather hmm?”, just “hello”.

If hello is too daunting, start by smiling at a stranger, or choose something completely different like reading two pages of a novel every day before bed. What you choose is less important than the fact that you set a goal and you achieve it. At the end of the five days, put a big tick in the win column and congratulate yourself for getting it done. Now that’s the stuff that builds confidence.

Start with any challenge and when you complete it, you’ll gain the confidence to try another: read a poem, write a poem, do a sudoku, floss, eat dinner by candlelight, sit quietly for 10 minutes, dance to a song on your own, the options are endless.

When you finish a challenge, take a couple of days off to bask in your glory. When you’re ready, try a 10-day challenge. After you have a few of those under your belt, move up to a 15 or 20-day challenge. Before long, you’ll have proven to yourself that when you put your mind to something, you can do it. Hang on…isn’t that the definition of confidence?

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