The disappointed choir walked off stage to thunderous applause.
They had just performed their rendition of God Bless America for an audience of over 600 people composed of peers, leaders, and invited dignitaries—including Governor Deval Patrick—and sensing a mixture of disappointment in their performance and relief that it was now over, as their director, I took the opportunity to offer some concise words of encouragement.
I had little time to do so, however; the next presenter was already at the podium about to speak, so as they walked off stage I simply looked them in the eyes and, with a gentle whisper, said, “Good work.”
Though these words were meant to lift their spirits, they were instead met with a glare from one of the students who turned to me and said, “Don’t lie.”
My heart became heavy with compassion for the seventeen-year-old who didn’t yet have the contextual awareness to understand what I was saying.
The encouraging words did not refer to their performance; after all, their performance was awful and their knowing eyes betrayed dread for having to face the music. But I was not referring to their performance; I was referring to their decision to boldly step forward and perform.
Growth doesn’t happen by accident; it’s the result of deliberately using what you know to try something you’ve never done.
Choosing to boldly step forward and grow through life rather than to simply go through will reveal both what you’re capable of and what you can improve upon—but without this effort, you become blind to your capacity.
When the students arrive at the intensive week-long youth leadership program, no one knows each other—they can be nobody or they can be anybody—and the choir is just one activity they can choose to participate in. They can choose to step forward into the unknown, get involved, and be somebody, or they can choose to step back into safety, merely observe, and be nobody.
At the start of the week, I encouraged the students to take their time in the program as an opportunity to challenge their understanding of who they are, try new things, and explore who they might be if only they took a chance.
In this spirit, I invited them to join the choir—whether or not they had any prior choir experience. Out of the over 600 students in attendance, only 15 people stepped forward to perform, and most of them had no vocal training. It takes guts to do something you’ve never done before, to risk erring even with the sincerest of effort.
As President Theodore Roosevelt reminds us: “It is not the critic who counts,” but rather the ones who are actually in the arena—the ones who dare valiantly, fail valiantly, and keep valiantly striving again and again, “because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” Glory belongs to those who keep growing until they triumph; and if they fail, they do so while daring greatly, so their “place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
No, my encouraging words “good work” did not refer to their performance; they referred to their courage to boldly step forward, let go of the known, and reach for the not-yet-known: who they might be. For though change can be painful, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you don’t belong.
Just as a caterpillar is not meant to die a caterpillar, you are also made for something more, so long as you stay encouraged to continue betting on yourself.
What are you doing today to encourage the good work that reveals your true capacity
I'm a mirror (and so are you).