One day I was observing a junior high class. I was there as a researcher and consultant. Usually, I just observed, but sometimes if the teacher asked or I saw a particular need, I would give some feedback to the teacher. I also corresponded regularly with the teacher about some of the students she struggled with most. In this setting I rarely if ever intervened directly with a student. But on this day the teacher had been away on leave for some time and was about to return the next week. The substitute for this small but extra challenging class was looking forward to turning the class over to the regular teacher. He announced with a smile: “Your teacher will be back next week!”

One student immediately replied, “I hate my teacher. I’m going to make her life miserable!”

I had a teacher once who used to say that the beginning of his education took place after he was in college. Before that, he had done well in school. He had earned good grades; he had been awarded scholarships. But he had never learned well. His learning was always slave to his desire for good grades and his desire to please others. We often learn best through failure—by trying and failing and trying again, having learned from our failed experiment—and because he didn't want to jeopardize his grades or his scholarship, he didn't take the risks that make learning possible. He settled for doing just want the teacher required, and only that much. He settled for taking only the classes that he was sure of.

When I started studying at the university, I wasn’t sure what to major in. I was like a kid in a candy store. There were too many interesting possibilities, all separated into a long list of individual subjects. I tried out anthropology (hoping eventually to study archaeology). Then, after taking a break from my studies and living in Italy for two years, I tried international relations. I majored for a semester in psychology. All these subjects interested me. But I had to choose just one. Several of my cousins had studied engineering, and I considered engineering as a possibility.

Finally, because I was having trouble deciding, I decided to major in English. I knew I liked to read, and as an English major I would get to read lots of good books. I had done well in English. And as an English major, I would still have many options available. I could postpone my final decision until graduate school. It was a decision not to decide yet.

One of my first classes after I decided to try the English major was a class in American literature. I enjoyed the teacher and the books, but I was intimidated by many of my classmates. When they opened their mouths I was sometimes overwhelmed by the intelligent things they said, even though I didn't always understand what they had said. They seemed to know so much more than I did. I started to wonder if an English major was right for me. Maybe I couldn't keep up.

Soon the teacher announced our first writing assignment. We were to write a five-page essay on a certain subject. He explained pretty specifically what he wanted in the essay. I took notes and went home and got to work. I turned in the essay on time, having tried hard but not knowing what to expect.

A few days later, the teacher brought our graded papers to class. "Some of you didn't completely understand what I'm looking for on these essays," he said. "But some of you hit the target. Let me show you what I'm looking for." Then he put up on an overhead projector an example of what he thought was an excellent paper. The writer's name was blocked out at the top of the page, but I was stunned to see that it was my paper that he thought was excellent.

That was an important moment for me. I learned that even when I was intimidated by the excellence I saw in others, I also had something valuable to share. I gained some confidence in my ability to write, but also in my ability to do other things, in spite of the intimidation I sometimes felt.

You may look around you and see excellence in others. That excellence may make you feel that you have nothing of value to share. If you have that thought, don't believe it. You don't need to compare yourself to others as you learn. You're not a piece on an assembly line. You have unique experiences and insights that can enrich the lives of others. You can learn to have the ability to share those insights. In moments when you may feel fear or when you may doubt your ability, be persistent and stick with your plan. With persistence and patience, you will succeed.