A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to help judge drill team try outs at the high school in my hometown. It gave me time to return to something I love – even if only for a little while – and to hang out with my friend Erin, the head coach. I also learned something about success and the people who can help you achieve it.
Judging began at 7:30 on a Saturday night, otherwise known as prime time for teenage girls. Nonetheless, nearly 30 girls between 13 and 17 had been piled into the high school gym for two hours before I arrived, learning and practicing a new routine. They were repeating the same sequence of motions for roughly the hundredth time when I walked in.
A palpable sense of panic slipped in as the heavy metal doors clanged behind me. Laughing turned to nervous twitters, and carefree smiles were replaced with furrowed brows and lips silently moving with the numbered beats. Erin, sensing the change in the room, turned to me and grinned.
“You’re scaring the crap out of them,” she whispered.
That hadn’t been my intention, of course. I was there because I loved being around the music and the movement, because I used to love working with girls at a time in their lives when they’re figuring out who the heck they are. They saw me as the person who could keep them out; I was there because I wanted to enjoy being in for a few hours.
A few minutes later, when the other two judges had arrived, we took our places of honor on the floor at the half-court line. Our judging sheets were set on hardcover children’s books with titles like Walter the Farting Dog. All three of us kicked off our flip flops. We should have intimidated exactly no one.
The girls left the gym en masse and returned in groups of two or three. The music would play and they would perform the routine they’d learned earlier in the day. Most would smile; all would make at least one mistake. When they were finished, they’d march back out of the gym and the five of us – Erin, her new assistant coach, myself, and the two other judges – would go over the notes we’d taken about each girl.
More often than not, we focused on the likelihood of improvement.
We weren’t looking for perfection; we were looking for potential.
We were looking for reasons to put each girl on the team, for reasons to say yes.
For some girls, I admit, I found myself lobbying harder.
The girls that smiled. The girls that wanted it. The girls that slipped up and smiled wider, pushing on instead of stopping to apologize.
The girls that believed in themselves made me want to believe in them, too.
“I really liked her,” I’d say. “I was rooting for her.”
On the drive home, after intimidating and critiquing nearly 30 teenage girls, I thought about what I’d learned from them that night and about how different our perspectives probably were.
I learned that a sincere smile covers a multitude of mistakes.
I learned that faith in oneself is contagious.
But mostly, I learned that the people we often see as gatekeepers stationed to keep us away from our dreams can be the people who most want us to succeed. When we interview for a new job, we’re talking to someone who wants to find someone to hire. The teachers who test us want to see evidence of students learning. And the editors to whom we submit queries want to find new stories to publish.
People want you to succeed.
And they want to see you smile.