The Confidence Villains

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Leaders inspire people to persevere in the face of adversity and ultimately derive energy from the challenge of confronting their villains.

Completing Katty Kay’s and Claire Shipman’s  inspirational book The Confidence Code, left me feeling every good story needs a villain.

“Gore isn’t required for a good story, but adversity is.” – Celeste Ng

Being Your Opponent’s Villain

I once met and played with Stanford’s National Champion Ultimate team captain. He imparted some advice to me. Prior to a game, scout the opposing team for a or the pivotal player and then line up against them. Completely shut them down on defense and consistently escape their efforts at defense while I was on offense. This served to build my confidence while also eroded theirs – hence I played the role of the confidence robbing villain.

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I applied that advice at nationals and then the World Championships, and ever since in sports and business. Shifting confidence away from your opponent and towards yourself became an effective strategy. Though we beat the former national champions, they worked with the tournament organizer to introduce a cross-over game before finals. We found out just after finishing lunch that we had five minutes to be on the field. We managed to win that game but had to play the former champs again in the finals – losing narrowly. Later they adjusted their strategy to switch players covering me to rob me of my confidence. They observed, learned and adjusted. We had to our tactics again to win in a winter nationals later on.

The key takeaways for me being:

  • There’s power in finding ways to instill confidence in yourself.
  • It will help your team win to instill similar confidence in your teammates.
  • It is possible to erode such confidence in your competitors.
  • Hence, the (im)balance of confidence can be shifted.
  • It’s good to be wary of such tactics used against you.

Overcoming Villains as a Team

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The book Confidence Code speaks to confidence as an individual. Confidence also exists at a team level. After breaking my collarbone, the spouses/partners of the players of my Ultimate team asked me to coach them. Three months later we flew to their first tournament and were matched up against last year’s national champs. Our team shouldn’t have completed a single pass, but at half time it was tied. At the end, we lost by one.

I inspired them to play with confidence and earning their trust to try out totally unorthodox defensive and offensive strategies. We switched between zone and person coverage within a point (previously unheard of). We mixed playing zone coverage in the front and person in the back. Our players confidence allowed them to try these things. The effectiveness again the confused champs became a virtuous cycle for their level of confidence. Granted, they were risks coming from a coach informed by  20 years of experience in the sport; nonetheless, the theories were never tried before and certainly risky.

A novice team rattled veterans with tactics no experienced player would consider. Their confidence had been robbed and shifted it to our team – finding myself again as villain here. The balance shifted resulting in a totally unexpected outcome. The veteran team eventually regained their confidence and win the tournament.

Villains in Math Class

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A professor told me within the first week students stack rank each other of “smartest” to “dumbest”. This determines who gets picked on the playground and who gets invited to birthday parties. In my first week in 1st grade, a Portuguese girl struggling to keep up linguistically was viewed last. Meanwhile, the whole class was struggling to grasp fact families: 3 + 4 = 7,     4 + 3 = 7,     7 – 3 = 4,      7 – 4 = 3

I asked her to stay during break and walk through it with yellow and red blocks … until she got it.
Later, I sat with her in the front, while others were doing exercises. We did equations like 21 + 32 = 53, 71 + 12 = 83, 34 + 43 = 77, …

Crying, she managed to apply the same concept and she then started writing double-digit equations. 1st graders only do single-digit math. Noticing her excitement, others came up and were blown away. In 2 hours she went from the dumbest kid in the class to the smartest. Believing she could do anything shifted her mindset and the confidence stuck with her. The confidence eroding impact on the other kids had become their villain. Applying the growth mindset theory helped them appreciate they hadn’t learned it “yet” as they mastered fact families.

The students made a transition from having a fixed mindset to having a growth mindset. It was no longer a question of someone being smart or dump, they could all learn to overcome uncertainty.

In the History Classroom

I opened fifth grade history by asking who could tell me who discovered America. I got a lot of “Columbus” answers. In response to asking how they knew, I got: My teacher told me. I read it in a history book. my dad told me… I asked: How does your teacher know? How does the author of the book know, how does your dad know? Now their curiosity was peaked as to where this new teacher was going. I asked how do we know anything?

Later, I asked them to imagine Igor running in and yelling: “Mr. D. Johnny and Juan are fighting outside!” I bring the boys in and ask Johnny: Who started it? What’s he going to say? How about if I ask Juan? What if I asked Johnny’s best friend, or if I asked Juan’s? Eroding their assumptions opened the doors to teaching them to seek primary sources of difference perspectives. Another example was the uncertainties of what really happened between the Conquistadors, the Aztecs and the Incas… We rebuilt confidence in their knowledge by helping them learn to find things closer to the truth themselves. Opportunities abound letting go of assumptions by asking: How do you know, and how does your source know?
See also my Orange Lesson.

Confidence in the Face of Your Villains

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In her TED talk, Amy Cuddy explains how you can derive confidence from something as simple as a pose.

She suggests faking it until you become it. She speaks of the all-to-common imposter syndrome women in particular can feel when they feel they shouldn’t be in a prestigious college, business or role. Much as I highly recommend the book Confidence Code, I also highly recommend her TED Talk: Your body language may shape who you are.  There’s also a related article about Imposter Syndrome and why going outside your comfort zone may be uncomfortable but also very advantageous: Why Impostor Syndrome Is Good For You.

Note, Cuddy’s research has come under some scrutiny as per the references below; however, in the end, it seems there may be some truth to her premises, and I know people who say it works for them – just believing can also be a source of confidence as we all know, confidence is all about what we believe about ourselves…

Willingness to take risks Mindset

Another thing Katty and Claire speak to in their book is how confidence can help you be willing to take risks – or as I like to think of it, discover a hunger for the challenges of venturing into uncertainty to make new discoveries and build new strengths. If you look into Carol Dweck’s theories of Growth Mindset, you can see how that willingness to take risks is a cornerstone of the Growth Mindset.

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Villains on the Battle Field

I don’t have personal experience on the battle field, but a friend recommended Robert Coram’s Boyd – The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, and it turned out to be a fascinating read applicable in many venues. John Boyd’s OODA Loop and theory behind it. It’s also clear that Boyd derived strength and conviction from those that challenged him, and the greater force they were, the more it inspired him to excel. It was born out of his experience as a fighter pilot combined with reading things like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; however, it’s applicable in a very generic sense as he concluded later in life as it started getting used in business and seemed reflected in the Toyota Production System.

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Confronting Villains across the Board and on the Mat

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Josh Waitzkin won his first National Chess Championship at age nine; later he became World Champion of Tai Chi Chuan. In The Art of Learning, Josh insists he wasn’t a prodigy and that we can all achieve these levels of accomplishment with the right approach. One key aspect is studying opponents and leveraging them more as teachers than villains. He would learn both about the art and his competitor. Viewing videos frame by frame, he would dissect every move. The challenge of a broken hand created another learning opportunity by forcing him to shift to learning to use his non-dominant hand. Converting his opponent’s strengths and his own challenges into opportunities deepened his knowledge and abilities. He discovered the best learning involves the ability to unlearn and relearn with deeper insight. In Talks at Google he says: “Most of my big growth has come from losses’

Tao te Ching

Waitzkin also references Carol Dweck’s notion of a Growth Mindset and learning from his mother’s practice as a horse whisperer in how her being in tune with the animals created a much deeper appreciation of what moves them. He too found deep truths between the seeming contradictions in Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. Josh’s book resonated with me on so many levels that it has become on of my favorites. American author Alvin Toffler said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

The Art of Redirecting Attacks

Redirecting Energy

In various marital arts, one learns to redirect the opponent’s energy. The harder they come at you, the more they’ll be off balance and the more energy you’ll have to work with. This technique is used in various martial arts including Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido, and Ju Jitsu. Using your opponents’ movements, momentum and focus to your advantage need not be limited to the physical realm. Josh Waitzkin, who include the use of this technique to win the Tai Chi Chuan world championships, would also in chess, on his path to winning nationals, find ways to take advantage of his opponents sense that they had made an effective attack to lure them into a false sense of security causing them to let their guard down and overlook his subtle redirection until it was too late.

In a verbal attack, taking the force head on is typically less effective than welcoming the attack. If accused of being unethical, countering with, “thank you for pointing that out, I didn’t realize what I was saying could be heard as unethical” you have begun to disarm them. Following with “I’d love to hear your perspective.” you shift from a head-on confrontation to a shoulder-to-shoulder perspective inspecting what you said. I have found that agreeing with a verbal attack on you, that energy can often be shifted in your favor. What is heard is typically more important than what is said – understanding how others hear your words can help you learn to adapt your language and approach. Agreeing with an “attacker’s” assault, you may convert an adversary into an ally. You can allow your villains to weaken or strengthen you – it all depends on which wolf you feed.

Making our Villains into our Heroes

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Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is to see the villains in our lives as our heroes. They challenge us to be better, stronger, more resilient and confident. We can thank them for making us stronger. Though not easy, when you convert the villains in your story seeking to rob you of confidence into your inspirational heroes, you dis-empower them and shift the balance of power. I discovered the strong adversary on the field or in the office can be a tremendous source of strength and learning. Note, pulling strength from your opponent is one thing, if the villain appears on your own team, it’s good to establish you’re both striving for the same value, but hold different views on how to achieve it. I also share my strategies with my opponents as I prefer out-shining them to making them feel small.

We can choose to let the villains in our stories rob us of our confidence or inspire us to achievement that will build our confidence. I also discovered after reading Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, that “primal cues” can help us in deep learning as we’re building myelin – primal cues are things like fear, competition, hunger, … Perhaps its not so much what we see, but how we see it.

The Villain that Robs Us the Most

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Our biggest villain is the one in the mirror, and yet that can also become our greatest ally. It all depends on our mindset and which wolf we choose to feed.

If you read Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing you may also discover our mind can also be a great villain or ally in our lives, the difference can lie in what movement, sounds and light we nourish it with. Recognizing things we need to overcome in ourselves is the first step. Overcoming our own resistance to change is the bigger challenge. See a great summary of the challenge at Immunity to Change. Robert Keegan describes how only 1 in 7 heart patients follow doctor’s instruction that would save their life. See also his book Immunity to Change – How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.

Ron-Suber

The “Godfather of FinTech,” Ron Suber, speaks about having a Medium IQ, Medium EQ, High AQ (Adversity Quotient). His ability to overcome adversity helped him take on challenges and push beyond his fear and comfort zones. In  The Adversity Advantage Paul G. Stoltz describes how AQ is about how you respond to life. The tuff stuff,helps you respond to everyday hassles and big adversities that life.

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
– Albert Einstein

Further thoughts on villains below the See Also section below for the rest of the story…

See Also

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Continuing from above…

The Value of a Villain Offering Radical Candor

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In her book Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Kim Scott describes four quadrants for feedback. She explains a type of feedback that is obnoxious and aggression. Over the years in sports, business and private life, I’ve discovered that with a simple twist in perspective, I can receive feedback delivered as “Obnoxious Aggression” with the positive benefits of Radical Candor. If I take it in as though it were delivered with good intent and recognize that every time someone points out a weakness or failing of mine, they are actually doing me a favor by showing me where I can work on being stronger and more successful. This also dis-empowers any aggressive intent to tear me down. Yes, it sounds easier than it is at first, but once you realize you can do it, it becomes a lot easier.

I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t carry with them some degree of self-doubt and concern for their own worthiness. Even narcissistic glorious bastards are often burying a need to prove to themselves and the world how worthy they are. Those willing to vulnerably accept their imperfections often discover doing to be a great source of strength and fertile ground for growth. Being vulnerable can require a higher degree of bravery than being filled with self-conviction. Being fearless doesn’t equate to bravery; acting in spite of fear is true bravery. As leaders, public vulnerably accepting our imperfections gives license to those we lead to be more at ease with their imperfections. It dis-empowers the confidence villains and empowers those able to be comfortable with being vulnerable. It’s the hurdles we encounter that should define use, but how we choose to process the experience.

On the Football Field

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Legendary football coach Lou Holtz, now retired and in the College Football Hall of Fame, had an uncanny ability to turn losing teams into winners.
On overcoming adversity, Lou Holtz had to say:

In adversity, there is opportunity.
Show me someone who has done something worthwhile,
and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.
I’ve never known anybody to achieve anything without overcoming adversity.
Adversity is another way to measure the greatness of individuals.
I never had a crisis that didn’t make me stronger.

Remember that adversity presents us with numerous possibilities for success,
if we are just willing to see them.

As Helen Reddy once put it

“You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul”

Releasing the Villains that put You Behind Bars

When the Villains of Apartheid imprisoned Nelson Mandela and tried to break his soul in a tiny prison cell on Robben Island, he says he maintained his sanity and positive outlook in part by reciting Ernst’s Invictus to himself. I remembered this when lying immobile for weeks behind the bars of a hospital bed after the mighty Pacific had broken my shoulder, collarbone, rib, five vertebrae and wrangled my neck to the point where I couldn’t move my head. But behind the opioid fog of being on Oxycodone and Morphine, I could only remember the last lines “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” It also brought me back in touch with my previous experiences with breathwork.

When my dad turned 103 and felt he had lost his autonomy in the physical world, I also read Invictus to him. Luckily, he still had a remarkable amount of clarity in his mind until the end, and we had some great conversations to the end. My dad had also the experience of learning to cope from behind bars many years earlier when he had been imprisoned by the Nazis.

Invictus

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At the Office

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Management can instill confidence or rob it. I discovered the importance of leaders that recognize that as a quality while working at Intuit as Brad Smith pulled me aside after a status update meeting to say he noticed that while most other managers consistently showed their projects had a green status, I often showed mine as yellow (at some risk). After a pause, he said he thought that was a good thing. I was being honest and while many other managers did everything to run their projects so safely that their status.

Certainly, Confidence Code underscores that failure is the inevitable result of taking risks. Allison Mnookin, a GM at Intuit at the time, told me that, from her perspective, it’s not failure that defines you but how you recover. Risk mitigation is key, but the ability to recover from a loss or failure is also an important skill to master. My take-away – don’t allow a failure to be the villain that robs your confidence, see it as the teacher that imparted a valuable lesson. updates would consistently be green, I was willing to take risks, show that my status was often yellow, and recognize and have mitigation plans in case the risks came to bear.

Leveraging Competition as a Villain

There is also power in confidence when scaled to a team. When I started at Intuit, it was resting a bit on it laurels for having created Quicken as a very useful tool for individuals to manage their money. It was doing well in the market, until a competitive, copycat product appears on the market built by a very powerful and successful company.

Microsoft Money appeared on the market as a big morale blow to the employees to see this powerhouse show up to steal our glory. However, the notion that this smaller, but dedicated team could beat that powerhouse grew as the team set about improving the product on a variety of vectors with many new and improved features. Intuit’s leaders did not allow the competitive villain to rob them of their confidence, instead they instilled confidence that we were batter at this game. The level of energy and commitment in the office which had just taken a huge blow, was suddenly way up and everyone was inspired to win this game. It was like the Marshall football team that would not give up. The resulting Quicken product came from behind to deliver tremendous improvements leaving MS Money in the read-view mirror.

A Community Overcoming Tragedy

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Perhaps not surprisingly at all, Intuit’s CEO, Brad Smith hails from West Virginia where he seems to have come from with the confidence to win repeatedly against all odds such as was the case in the aftermath of the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 football players on the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team. The experience of the tragedy was the villain in their story which at first seemed to completely rob the university and surrounding community of their confidence and spirit, and yet they were able to rebuild the team, heal the community and ignite a powerful new spirit behind a rallying belief and chant “We are Marshall.” See also: Legendary Leadership: The Wisdom of Brad Smith

As a Government

One of the greatest challenges is to persevere is when your government is the villain against you. When you consider what confidence and courage it took for Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, Oskar Schindler, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousafzai to find a voice to speak out and inspire others and draw courage from their convictions, you can only be left in awe.

In an Industry

In 2009, my colleague and friend, Evan Driscoll, told me he was going to leave IMVU to join a startup as their first engineering manager at a startup that was daring to challenge the storage industry EMC. I left to go to work for a small startup that was challenging YouTube with a niche approach of streaming video gaming – talk about confidence. After tripling the size of the engineering team and lots of due diligence discussions, Twitch was acquired by Amazon for ~$1B. That’s when I left to work with Evan at Pure Storage that had found the confidence to challenge an established storage industry which led to another unicorn IPO experience for me. In both experiences, it also seemed to help motivate the team to find their confidence by finding villains to challenge and conquer on their road to success…

The Rival Nation as a Villain

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As recently reminded from the movie Hidden Figures, in 1957, the “villainous” Soviet Union robbed the U.S. of a great deal of confidence by beating the U.S. to to space with the orbiting of Sputnik 1.
In 1962, Kennedy said: ” We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

That became a great example of a growth mindset confidently presenting a setback as an inspirational challenge. As a leader with the support of a nation behind him, instead of allowing the USSR to rob the U.S. of all it’s confidence, it was seen as a challenge and used to motivate. Hidden Figures, Apollo 11 and In the Shadow of the Moon (narrated by the original Apollo astronauts) are very inspirational in conveying what can be achieved by a confident nation in the aftermath of such a confidence robbing experience. Similarly, with Apollo 13, where the confidence robbing villain was a malfunction that initially seemed to have sealed the fate of the astronauts; however, instead of giving up, the team pulled off a miracle and managed to save them and again restore confidence in the program and nation.

The Experience Villain:

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Fear gripped me after a rogue wave broke five vertebrae and the Pacific pulled me under. Chasing Mavericks’ “Fear is good, panic is bad” came to me as pushed past the pain to get my head over water. I remember the resignation of accepting my life was over the second time the Pacific pulled me under. It was perhaps the most serene moment of my life as I felt myself separate from my body and seeing my parents above the beach about to lose a child. That thought drove me to fight to get my head above the water again. I was pulled out by a friend and an off-duty EMT who had seen it happen and rushed in. Every day since then and since learning to walk again has been a gift. This experience helps reduce the power that my various villains might have over me.

At some point, the opioid fog became something I wanted to free my brain of. The doctor advised against it, telling me that the pain killers had allowed my brain to stop producing endorphins and that would kick back in right away. He said it would bring me to a new level of pain that would be hard to imagine. I learned that people that try to come off like that end up going right back on. I’m glad he warned me and informed me that after time, if I actually preserved, the endorphin production would kick back in. That knowledge combined with the ability to meditate myself away my pain allowed me to pass through that valley and eventually learn how to walk again. It still helps me 13 years later to separate myself from the villain of pain that has lived as my constant companion every day since.

Confidence Robbing From the Book

Further along in the book, the authors do mention ~”A memory of a negative comment made by a colleague in a meeting four years ago may still be contributing our choices to keep quiet.” It’s from the perspective of the impacted party. Thinking about robbing confidence as a strategy and they being aware that it could be used against you, may help lessen that affect when you see/recognize it…

As a Horse and Trainer

Its not about the horse

Seabiscuit is a great true story about finding confidence for a horse, a trainer, a jockey and as a nation. All face seemingly insurmountable challenges brought on by the Great Depression which was a villain in its own right. The owner, the trainer, the jockey and the horse are all faced with various challenges that could have destroyed them. Together they turned those challenges into opportunities to achieve what seemed unimaginable.

Lean Startup Lessons

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The Confidence Code makes reference to taking risks and failing fast as perspectives embraced in high-tech startups. In The Lean Startup Eric Ries describes his experience at the startup IMVU. Joinging after Eric left, I became responsible for engineering process. I continued the culture of taking risks, failing fast, and experimenting as the company grew. I developed a strange love of failures, which I had come to see as “teachable moments” as a teacher. In business I started celebrating the discovery/recognition of a failure as an opportunity. We find the root cause of the failure through a post mortems. 5-why analysis further strengthened and improved our product and systems.

As a National Champion Ultimate Player

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Competitive sports not only taught me the benefits of taking risks (a la Michael Jordan), but also the competitive edge that can be gained by forcing errors in the opposing players/teams. It is often more of a male characteristic to be competitive not only by excelling and exploiting our own strengths, but also to capitalize and exploit our opponents’ weaknesses. The Confidence Code and the … (Ted Talk Superhero pose…) talk about building confidence but don’t really call out the notion that there are others out there that will seek advantage in eroding your confidence (hopefully not within the same team/company). From my experience, being aware that strategy is out there and not taking it personally (or seeing it as a negative personality trait), but seeing it more as an Art of War strategy can help reduce the impact when that card is played against you.

The Challenges of Diversity in the Classroom

Working towards my teaching credentials, I wrote a paper on diversity from my classroom experience. I recognized that often the students that struggled at first could be the ones that later excelled the most. It reminded me of “Smooth seas don’t make for strong sailors“. Lou Holtz said “Show me a champion and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” Confidence Code calls out examples where challenges, if not entirely devastating, would strengthen you. Good skiers lean over the tips of their skis and if they make it to the bottom of the hill on a practice run without a single fall, think to themselves: I didn’t push myself hard enough. The book further references “insufficient neglect” in parenting by overly protective parents having a weakening effect on their children.

At the Table

Informix once hired a retired IBM exec to come and observe and provide advice to managers. After a few meetings, he pulled me aside. He noticed that I’d walk in and sit quietly on the outside. When I did have something to say, every one would turn to listen. He told me to sit at the table and speak up more. I’ve also since heard that introverts think to speak and extroverts speak to think. Often we’ll we hear things that weren’t thought out. Time often runs out before hearing the thoughts based in reason. Our societies seem to generate more introverts in women than men and we often go without hearing them. I guess the retired exec was telling me to lean in.

Instilling confidence where you discover a vacuum…

My first teaching assignment was with a group of disruptive 8th graders. Other teachers had tossed out these students that were all in gangs in East San Jose. Most didn’t really expect to live long enough to make it to college. I bought copies for everyone the book The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur. For many of them it was their first book ever and opened the to start reading and writing poetry.

They were caught off guard by someone not from their hood but could connect with them at this level. These students had never read a book. They now walked around proudly this book and new found faith in their own abilities. Writing their open poems about their own lives, they asked for other book suggestions. They were able now to appreciate Shakespeare was just writing from the context of life in his world at his time…

Villain Quotes

“You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.
– Michelle Obama Commencement Address

“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time.”
– Malcolm X

“A man of character finds a special attractiveness in difficulty, since it is only by coming to grips with difficulty that he can realize his potentialities.”
Charles De Gaulle

“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.”
– Albert Schweitzer

“Just as we develop our physical muscles through overcoming opposition – such as lifting weights – we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity. “
-Stephen Covey

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

“Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another stepping stone to greatness.”
– Oprah Winfrey

“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.”
– Amelia Earhart

“You may not control all the events that happen to you,
but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
– Maya Angelou

“There are uses to adversity, and they don’t reveal themselves until tested. Whether it’s serious illness, financial hardship, or the simple constraint of parents who speak limited English, difficulty can tap unexpected strengths.”
– Sonia Sotomayo

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