The First Step is to Believe That You Can

by Serina Gousby

Taking the first step is always the hardest. Building the foundation of an idea you want to achieve all starts with your mind. Your attitude, your focus, and the mental strength you need for the hard work you’re about to do, has to be solid. We all have different strategies to help us start and continue forward, but in my strategy, I’ve been skipping ahead of the first step.

Monday morning, I received two rejection emails from writing contests and literary journals. Those were the last two out of the ten places I submitted to this year, and all of them were rejected. I feel numb to the internal punch in the stomach that these emails give. Some are sweet enough to invite you to submit more work in the future, and others will announce the winners without any mention and gratitude for my submission. I used to look at this as the most devastating news I would ever receive as a writer, but now I expect it. I know the poems I submitted were not my best work, and I know that I didn’t spend the hours of editing to make them clear and strong. Over the years I’ve experienced amazing opportunities to perform and showcase my work, mainly because my attitude was positive. Yet, with every rejection, it takes a piece of motivation out of me, and with that, comes with moments of anxiety and depression that halts my progress.

Every year around the fall or winter seasons, getting out of bed becomes harder to do. Personal goals are usually at a standstill, and I only have enough motivation for my 9-5. These low moments began in 2016, just months before college graduation, and I knew that if I wasn’t going to fight through this, I wasn’t going to graduate. So, I grabbed my notebook and listed all of the activities and goals I wanted to tackle within the next ten years. In the two hours of creating this ongoing list, I felt a sudden rush of power at my fingertips. My attitude changed, I felt uplifted, and I was finally looking forward to a life I’ve always wanted to paint.

A few of the activities on my list were attending conferences, panels, and book talks. Since 2016, I’ve attended over twenty different events, ranging from writing conferences to award ceremonies. My main reason I included that on the list is to continue my role as a student after college. There is so much more to learn, even for people who think they know everything. I’ve been in the same room with scholars, award-winning poets, music legends, successful bloggers, and philanthropists. It’s a privilege to be in these rooms and hear stories from people, especially those who look like me. I would bring a small notebook to every one of these events and take notes. However, I’ve reached a point where I’ve become too comfortable…let me explain.

Two days ago, I attended the 2019 W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony at Harvard University, where the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research honored seven remarkable Black leaders, scholars, writers, musicians, and entrepreneurs; including Queen Latifah, Rita Dove, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, and Elizabeth Alexander. It was such a monumental ceremony, but there was one speech that shifted everything for me.


One of the honorees, Artist Kerry James Marshall, had a very powerful speech, and these words especially had me in tears:

“At a certain point in your life, you have to come to terms of the fact that either, you will always be out in the world, going to places and looking at magnificent things that other people do, or you can become a participant by trying to match the level of excellence that those people who made those things first achieved.”

The moment he said these words, I wanted to throw myself out of the theater. Here I am attending yet another event, and I’ve been afraid to become the participant. I’m too comfortable with receiving information, and not implementing it. There’s only so many times I can say that I’m inspired by these events, and not transform the advice and resources to action items. Wow, I needed to hear that.

Over time, I understood that the jewels these speakers give in their speeches are meant to be executed. They aren’t meant to collect dust in my notebook. There are amazing people in this world who believe that I can do what I’m destined to do in the world, so the first step has to happen. I have to believe that I can. Period. The hard work to perfect my art is next. Attending this ceremony came at such a crucial time in my life while I’m fighting through these temporary periods of sadness. I’m grateful that each day I haven’t lost any hope, and that I’m not allowing myself to stay in bed. 

If you are one of those people who attend events regularly, like conferences, panels, or even church, leave the place with a goal in mind. Think of a quote, phrase, scripture, or advice you heard, and see how you can incorporate it to that goal. In this age, if we’re given gold, don’t leave it on the table. You can be as achievable as the people you look up to. Don’t count yourself out, I know I won’t.

You can watch Kerry James Marshall’s speech in its entirety below:

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