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There’s a scene in the 2006 Will Smith movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” where Smith’s character, Chris Gardner, is playing basketball with his young son, Christopher Jr. Dribbling around his dad, Chris Jr. shouts, “I’m going pro!” before sinking a basket.
At this point in his life, Gardner is struggling. He’s trying to make ends meet selling bone density scanners while working an unpaid internship at a brokerage firm in hopes of beating mile-high odds of getting selected for a job. In the meantime, though, he’s unable to make his rent, and has a variety of government agencies chasing him down for money he owes. The world is an inhospitable place for big dreams, and Chris Jr.’s declaration that he’s going pro prompts Gardner to temper his son’s expectations: “You’ll excel at a lot of things, but not this,” he says. Dejected, Chris Jr. puts the ball away. Watching him give up, Gardner realizes he was imparting the wrong lesson, and tries again.
“Don’t ever let somebody tell you you can’t do something. Not even me,” Gardner says. “You want something, go get it. Period.”
The movie ends — spoiler alert — with Gardner getting selected for the job, despite all the odds being against him. He’d worked tirelessly, yes, but undergirding that hard work was an unshakeable belief in himself that he could succeed. Whether it was sensible or not, Gardner bet on himself, and it paid off.
It’s scary to enter unchartered territory, and with good reason — failing has consequences. Advice that it will “all work out in the end” smacks of privilege — the ability to make that assumption, after all, implies having a sufficient safety net to catch you if you fall. The smaller your safety net is, the more you stand to lose. So while having self-belief is only one of several ingredients for success, it is a crucial one. Here’s why:
You won’t be crippled by failure
Failure is tough no matter what. But a person with confidence can take failure in stride, and doesn’t take hitting an obstacle as a sign that it’s time to quit. A person without such confidence, on the other hand, is far more likely to give up.
Luckily, confidence is a trait that can be learned. As Mel Robbins wrote in The 5 Second Rule, “Confidence is created by all the small things you do every single day that build trust in yourself.”
Routinely doing things that challenge your abilities is a great way to build confidence. This doesn’t mean quitting your job at the first inkling that you want to start your own business. Take me, for example. When I was in college, I wrote an app similar to Facebook that helped student organizations keep track of member profiles. It took off, and people started paying me to make custom modifications for them.
But when I graduated, I didn’t yet have the confidence to keep going with my own business. Instead, I took a full-time programming job at a NYC-based media company. I did, however, begin building my company, JotForm, on the side, working on it over nights and weekends. It took five years for me to quit my job and pursue JotForm full-time, but in the meantime, I strengthened both my skills, and my belief that I could found a successful business.
Believing in yourself and assuming success will follow is not the right approach. Instead, believe in yourself because you’ve proven over time what you’re capable of.
Related: The Fine Line Between Success and Failure is Positive Mindset
You understand that no one has all the answers at first
Jeff Bezos attributes “wandering” as a key feature in his success in developing Amazon. In his 2018 shareholder letter, Bezos wrote,
“Sometimes (often actually) in business, you do know where you’re going, and when you do, you can be efficient. Put in place a plan and execute. In contrast, wandering in business is not efficient … but it’s also not random. It’s guided — by hunch, gut, intuition, curiosity, and powered by a deep conviction that the prize for customers is big enough that it’s worth being a little messy and tangential to find our way there. Wandering is an essential counterbalance to efficiency. You need to employ both. The outsized discoveries — the “non-linear” ones — are highly likely to require wandering.”
To the untrained eye, wandering can look a lot like floundering. But the reality is that no one doing anything groundbreaking has all the answers at first. You have to experiment, fail, and refine, without knowing for sure whether your efforts will ever pay off. To figure out whether fear is keeping you from moving forward, ask yourself what you would do if you weren’t afraid of failing. Pay attention to the answer that pops into your head. Following that direction is by no means a guarantee that you will succeed. But as John F. Kennedy said, “Nothing worthwhile has ever been accomplished with a guarantee of success.”
Related: How Do You Know If You Have a Good Idea? Try These 3 Tests.
If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?
This is true of anything, but is especially applicable to entrepreneurs. Startups are not launched in a vacuum — you need to hire talented employees, build up a client-base, and secure funding. Doing that means bringing other people on board with your vision, which means believing in the vision in the first place.
This isn’t to say that soliciting advice and outside opinions isn’t valuable — it is. But if you’re waiting for validation from every single person you run your idea across in the hopes that it will guarantee its success, you’re going to be disappointed. Only you can decide if you stand behind your concept.
If you think you’ve got a good idea but aren’t sure, test it out. Conduct some market research, and map out early financials by figuring out how many people could realistically use your product, how you’d price it, and what your expenses will be. Also, get clear on your “why.” Doing some legwork will boost your confidence in yourself, which will come across to others.
It’s naive to pretend that having external support doesn’t make a difference — it does. But no matter how much support you have, or how little, no one else can do the work for you. You have to be willing to go get what you want, with or without anyone else’s permission.
Related: 8 Ways to Boost Your Confidence