Building Confidence Through Vulnerability

Over the past year, I’ve taken my now 5-year-old daughter Alena to a park near where we live. The main attraction is a rope structure for kids to climb on. Normally, Alena is hesitant on the ropes. She would jump on, but never climb to the top.
However, I recently snapped the following picture of my daughter.


She made it to the top! Curious as to what was different that day, I asked her if she was feeling extra brave in her Wonder Woman outfit. 

Alena responded, “I’m brave in any outfit.”

I beamed with pride at her confidence. Just a year ago she was still cautiously trying to find her footing when she climbed, always fretting about whether she would fall. 


Over the last year, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels of her rope climbing to starting my own company: - A scared 4-year old standing next to an intimidating rope structure juxtaposed to her naive entrepreneur dad wondering how to build a business. The fear of falling is always daunting.

Building one’s confidence is a journey. Here's what I’ve learned in helping my Alena find her confidence and in the process finding my own:

lt’s okay to be afraid: A year ago, Alena’s foot shook as she clung to the ropes, fearful of the fall. Starting an ambiguous project can have a similar paralyzing effect. 

To conquer one’s fears, research has found that acting courageously requires an understanding of those fears. As such, I would constantly reassure Alena that it was okay to be afraid. This allowed me to redirect her attention to where she needed to place her hands and feet next. 

Similarly, I had to acknowledge my own fears and insecurities of starting a new company. Would I be successful? Was I focusing on the right things? 

How often do we start an ambiguous project and feel like we’re on a hamster wheel? Or a dense maze? Acknowledging these insecurities liberated me from constantly second-guessing myself and instead focus on the tasks needed to move forward.

Focusing on the climb, not the destination: Rather than focusing on big goals, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy recommends focusing on the “million little things that get us” to that goal. Cuddy’s research found that focusing on “incremental change [and] little bits of improvement” has a profound impact in building confidence.

For Alena, this meant focusing on the closest rungs of the rope ladder. For me and building a startup, it meant taking our ideas and making our goals as “bite-sized and task specific as possible.” In aggregate all of these bite-sized goals - rungs if you will - helped us get our first customers, build a profitable business, and hire our first employees.

We’re not quite at the top of our rope ladder and I’m not sure when we’ll get there, or if there is even really supposed to be a top. Maybe it’s always about the journey, about appreciating the next step in the moment whatever it is. 

As we take each stride at work,  I’m confident that like Alena, we’re better equipped to face any challenge that comes our way. Most importantly, no matter where we end up, I do hope to make her as proud of me as I am of her.

Joe Shao
Chief Talent Officer