This article was originally published on riskology.co
A four-year-old boy sits at home, playing with his toys. He’s hungry, but he doesn’t tell anyone. He’s tired, but only his posture reveals it. Four years old and he can’t (or won’t) speak. Every day, his family wonders, “What’s wrong with this boy? Is he mentally disabled?”
When he starts school, his teachers and classmates think him a dunce. They try to teach him art and languages, but he doesn’t pick them up like the other kids. He’s only learned enough German to get by.
In high school, he repeats his sentences to himself. Everyone thinks he’s slow. He applies to college, but fails the entrance exams. Eventually, he earns his degree, but can’t get the teaching job he wants, so he spends his days working in a boring patent office.
But, through the many years growing up and thought of as a nobody capable of nothing, the young man told himself a different story. He knew he was good at something, and that something was science. He spent all his free time and energy honing his thoughts until he had something worth sharing.
The young man was Albert Einstein and, in 1905, he shared four ideas that would become the foundation of modern physics.
Einstein was a genius. We all know that today, but it couldn’t have been further from obvious in his formative years.
Did he make the impact on the world he did just because he was smart? Does intelligence shine through despite the odds? Probably not. There are lots brilliant people who never overcome the hurdles of being misunderstood and made to feel they don’t belong.
Brilliance was one critical ingredient in the Einstein formula, but an equally important element was likely how he thought about himself — his ability to keep working and see his own worth when everything around him suggested he didn’t have any.
Today, there’s convincing evidence from the psychological study of high schoolers that how well you perform in life depends a lot on how much you believe you can improve when it seems like you’re not achieving anything.
How Self-Doubt Sabotages Your Performance At Work And In Life
Have you ever felt stuck in a spiral of self-doubt — those times you want something so bad, but you fear you simply aren’t good enough to get it? If you haven’t, let me tell you: it’s a special kind of hell. A small failure makes you question yourself, your abilities. And that question leads you down a dark path until you aren’t good enough or smart enough to do anything. And that’s about the time you stop trying.
If fear is the mind killer, as Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, then self-doubt is the fear enabler.
But if you’ve been lucky enough to experience the opposite — those times you feel invincible and can accomplish anything — you’ve seen how powerful that belief can be, too. You set your mind to something, and you achieve it.
Both of these scenarios are two sides of the same coin, and a Stanford-backed study of 643 Australian high school students reveals some interesting data about how the belief you hold when you’re in the self-doubt death spiral affects your ability to perform and achieve goals.
The study looked at 3 distinct beliefs that students held about their own intelligence:
- Intelligence is a fixed trait; I have a certain amount of it and I can’t do much to change it.
- Some people can increase their intelligence, but I can’t increase mine.
- Intelligence is generally malleable and how smart I am today doesn’t indicate how smart I’ll be in the future.
Compared through a series of cross sections, controlling for variables, and referring to earlier research that studied similar subjects, the data was undeniably clear: the kids who believed intelligence can change — specifically that their intelligence can change — achieved higher test scores, got better grades, and were more motivated and engaged learners. Basically, the kids who thought they could get smarter actually did.
This wasn’t the case for the ones who didn’t believe in themselves. Sadly, neither was it for those who thought intelligence can change, but that they couldn’t change theirs.
If you’ve ever experienced the dreaded self-doubt death spiral, you know what that feels like, too. Everyone around you is getting better and better and you’re stuck in the same place (or getting worse). The anxiety and dread that comes with it is a special torture.
So what’s the prescription? Just decide you’re smart and capable and you can be the next Einstein, too? Hardly. When you’re stuck in the dread of self-doubt, you know as well as anyone you don’t just talk your way out of it.
Here’s what you do instead.
You Can’t Pep Talk Your Way Out Of Self-Doubt. But You Can Do This…
Q: What do basically all motivational talks have in common?
A: They don’t work.
Those high-flying “be your best self, you can do it you handsome devil, you” inspirational sermons are great for people with high self-esteem. They’re just what you need when you believe in yourself and you need that little push over the edge to amp up your performance. It’s like the words activate some hidden energy in your cells and you spring to action.
But when you’re stuck in a rut and your confidence is shot, it’s more like having Pinocchio tell you how incredible you are.
What studies have shown conclusively is that we’re pretty bad at talking our way out of a rut (but we can get better with help). So what actually does work? Like Einstein and the students from the study above, how do you get yourself to believe you’re capable of more and then actually boost your performance?
There are three important things you can do, and none of them are particularly intuitive, especially when you’re having a pity party for one.
1. Take action rather than trying to convince yourself to change.
It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of acting. One of the key principles of psychologists who help people struggling with depression is to get them to downplay everything they’re thinking and convince them to start doing things, even if those things don’t feel right at first.
That goes against the way you typically prefer to learn and change. There’s safety in careful thought but, when your mind is already caught in the self-doubt trap, it’s not exactly working in peak condition.
Rather than try to convince yourself you can do better, just give it a shot. Even if you initially fail, action is motivating and encourages you to try again which — of course — increases your odds of success and gets your thoughts headed the right direction, too.
2. Focus on past successes.
There’s a whole arm of psychology dedicated to the study of the self. One major discovery in the field is how closely connected your perception of you is with the way you remember yourself in the past. Do you focus on the negative — the failures you’ve experienced? Or the positive — the successes you’ve engineered?
Your answer has a big impact on what actions you’ll take next and how well they’ll turn out for you.
I often wake up on Monday mornings and find it difficult to write. I’ll have a good idea, but not a clear path for how to write it. It’s demotivating. When this happens, though, I have a nearly foolproof way to fix it. I look at another recent article I wrote that I’m happy with. It reminds me I’m capable of producing quality even when I’m struggling. I know it’s true because the evidence is right in front of me. And that’s just what I need to get the job done now.
3. Build momentum by celebrating small wins.
How do you eat an Elephant? One bite at a time. It’s a lame, overused figure of speech. Why? Because the answer is both true and timeless.
When you’re stuck in the pit of self-doubt, all your attention becomes consumed by it. Even if it’s not true and not a big deal, you make it true and turn it into a big deal in your head. You create the elephant. And just like it took a series of small but important actions to sink to that level, it takes small but important actions to climb out.
Small wins are motivating because you can see real progress being made, and the momentum built by those tiny changes add up quickly.
Self-doubt is a bitch to overcome, but it can be done by pretty much anyone who knows the steps to take.
- You have to believe you can perform better to actually perform better. Duh, but it’s incredibly easy to forget when you’re in a rut.
- To believe you can perform better, you have to draw your motivation from the right well.
- The “right well” mostly means focusing on actions that get results and motivate more actions.
What it really comes down to is placing yourself in the right circumstances, even when you don’t feel like it. Getting out from under the funk of self-doubt depends on finding a small action to take that you can succeed at and will build on the next one. When you do that, you become unstoppable and success is more a matter when and not if.
Einstein holds the regard he does today because he was a relentless genius. But on the path to releasing that genius were many opportunities for it to shrink away under criticism and self-doubt.
If any one of us should crawl out from under our cloud of self-doubt long enough to achieve even a fraction of what he did, we should consider ourselves a great success.