People often talk about self-belief – they say you have to believe in yourself to succeed. I tend to agree, but what I don’t like about that particular statement is that it’s very vague.
What are we trying to believe in? Are we trying to believe in the certainty of an outcome, or that we’re competent in a particular way?
Research has shown that self-efficacy – the confidence we have in our ability to do a particular task – is a big predictor of behaviour and persistence toward a goal. This is why we should celebrate every small success; because every success, no matter how small, provides us with positive feedback about our competence, which is a catalyst for further action.
But sometimes we have no realistic idea of what specifically we are going to be able to achieve. For example, my aspirations in running lie in achieving the quickest times possible, and fulfilling my potential. I hope that one day I can achieve some sort of international-standard performance, regardless of whether I get to compete internationally or not. But the issue with that is that I am not in direct control of the outcome. I can train effectively, but I can’t control injury, illness, random events and various life circumstances.
Therefore it can become difficult to establish what the exact long-term result will be, and hence believing in your ability to reach a specific milestone becomes difficult. In addition, it’s often near impossible to convincingly envision ourselves achieving something we have never come close to before, simply because we have not done it yet – we just have our history to go on.
This is why in sport, business and any real personal endeavour, psychologists will emphasise the importance of focusing on the process, not the outcome. You can control the small steps that you make, but not how it emerges.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” – Dr Seuss
When you are trying to work consistently towards a long-term goal, investing time and energy into the process, it is inevitable that you are going to encounter some setbacks or obstacles. Events or changes in circumstances are going to make it more difficult for you to do what you need to do, and your mindset is going to fluctuate along with life.
When something like this hampers your progress, or even sends you backwards, it can leave a real dent in your confidence or self-belief. It’s easy to end up wondering if you’ll ever get back on track.
While there often is no way of making the actual experience of these setbacks or obstacles less stressful, there is a way of thinking and behaving more constructively in response to them. I firmly believe that nurturing the belief in our ability to change is key here – and research strongly suggests this too.
The growth mind-set
A leading psychologist and researcher named Dr Carol Dweck coined the term “growth mind-set” many years ago, when she discovered that students’ response to failure depended on their perspective.
The growth mind-set essentially describes the perspective that one is capable of improving themselves with effort. The idea is that success is not based on innate ability, but learning and consistent practice. People with this mind-set tend to view failure as feedback, persist in the face of obstacles and failure, and embrace challenges. This is because they know that with purposeful practice, they will make progress.
On the other hand, the opposite mind-set was termed the “fixed mind-set”, which describes the view that progress will be dictated by innate ability. This is a rather demoralising perspective to take; people with this view tend to see failure as evidence of absolute ability, give up easily and avoid challenges. When you believe that your ability to progress is limited, why would you be motivated to put in effort?
You can read in more depth about it here: https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/
So how do we apply this?
A growth mind-set is what underlies persistence in our endeavours, and therefore success. You may not be confident in whether you can hit your target in 6 months’ time – how can you be completely confident, when you’ve still got all that time to go? But having faith in your ability to change will keep you going, because you know you can be effective in some way.
If you fall into the “fixed mind-set” category, it isn’t possible to simply change your perspective overnight, but it is possible to change it over time. Here are what I believe to be two of the most important actions:
1. Look at your past successes
Count your victories, be proud of your past achievements and remind yourself of the progress you have made so far. However small, these experiences are evidence of your ability to change.
2. Focus on the small and controllable steps
All long-term goals and achievement consist of tiny, purposeful steps. Get each of these small actions right, and they add up to create something much bigger. Focus on doing what you can right now. For example, the best I can do to work towards my long-term goal with running is to do each training session with purpose, and be consistent.
You may not be capable of doing the things that some people do, like running 100m as quick as Usain Bolt… But when it comes to changing lifestyle factors and behaviours, everybody is capable of making small changes to their actions, one at a time, and therefore taking steps towards their goals.
With these points in mind, next time you feel frustrated or pessimistic about your progress or present position, remember that no matter what happens, you will always have the ability to change and improve.