The VHS scene fizzled into focus on the TV, my mom’s hushed voice whispering the date—December 1988—and that the following was my first piano recital. Oh man, I sighed, holding back an embarrassed eye roll as my twiggy then-six-year-old figure perched on the bench to peck out an over-simplified arrangement of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. I only paid about half attention to the video as the small audience at my piano teacher’s house politely clapped for my finish. But as my shy, waifish former self tip-toed back toward my parents’ waiting video camera, a small but bold voice to the side caught my attention. “Gooood job, Hilary!” It was the adorable—and obviously adoring—chipmunkish voice of my then three-year-old sister, Whitney.
Twenty-five years after that first piano recital, my family sat at the foot of the Christmas tree, laughing at old home videos. And as the scenes of swimming lessons and impromptu little-kid dance parties flashed by, that tiny, awe-filled voice of encouragement kept echoing in my heart. There was something so childlike and innocent in my sister’s awe—I obviously was no child prodigy on the piano. What touched me was how, over the years since then, that voice has stayed the same.
As we get older, we all get more complicated. More cynical. We realize our own limitations, and those of others. Maybe jealousy creeps in. Or insecurities. Maybe we think we’re too cool to say such positive things as, “You can do it,” “I believe in you,” or “Great job!” We reserve those phrases for kids, too grown up to be so boldly positive.
But I have a stack of letters, and a file full of e-mails from my sister with unabashed encouragement, cheering me on, applauding my efforts in life and boosting me to be my best. In our world full of negativity, of internet trolls ready to tear you to shreds and trash-talking audiences with no sense of awe or humility, those positive messages add up to a lot.
A couple weeks ago, my friend Elizabeth sweetly volunteered to give me a ski lesson—and it was especially sweet since teaching skiing is what she does as a part-time job. She patiently walked me through the most basic movements, relentlessly encouraging me through my first couple of turns. Stopping part way down a green slope, I chuckled to myself as she caught up behind me, saying, “Great job! That was good!” I felt almost embarrassed, unused to such unabashed positive reinforcement. But with such an encouraging teacher, I felt brave to keep trying and improving.
It’s usually easy to criticize, to tear down. Sometimes it might be hard to be positive, maybe because somewhere inside it takes a little bit of humility or ego taming. But when I think through my friends, the ones who aren’t shy about saying a positive word—the authentic cheerleaders in my life—are the ones who really stand out. They’re the ones who’ve supported me through job changes, personal first ascents, breakups and glorious personal first descents—even if they’re just bunny slope runs. They’re the ones you want on your side when the shit hits the fan. And I began to ask, am I like that? A cheerleader? Maybe it’s time to let go of being too cool, and open up to being authentically happy for each other.