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One of the unique things about humans is what Jenny and I commonly refer to as the gift of Agency. As far as I’m aware, this is a gift that is uniquely given to humans – I believe by a loving Creator.
We are the only species on planet Earth which has the ability to extrapolate from the present and visualize multiple possible futures and to choose a course of action to manipulate our environment in a way that results in a future reality that is desirable to us.
In contrast, other species operate exclusively on instinct – a given stimulus elicits a response that is predictable based on the prior conditioning the organism has experienced. We alone make conscious, self-aware choices in order to modify our current situation, ideally towards something better.
According to the work of Albert Bandura and Frank Pajares, two of the most highly acclaimed experts in the field of human learning, the belief that our choices have power to change our situation is central to our ability to organize and execute courses of action which result in change, and the strength of those beliefs influence our level of effort, our persistence, and our perseverance.
In other words, if we believe that our choices, as manifest through our actions, have the power to effect a change in our circumstances toward a better future, we are more likely to marshal higher levels of effort in pursuing choices that we believe will benefit us, maintain that effort for longer, and try again if we fail.
Conversely, if we do not believe that our choices and actions have the power to change our circumstances, we are unlikely to expend much effort over a long period of time in pursuit of change…much less get back up and try again if we fail the first time.
I’ll refer back to the work of Bandura and another leading researcher named Edwin Locke, who stated in 2003 that “among the mechanisms of human agency, none is more central or pervasive than beliefs of personal efficacy.”
Believing that our choices are meaningful, and that we possess within ourselves the power through our own action to improve our situation is essential to success in any area of life. We cannot progress without at least some faith – even the faith the size of a mustard seed – in our own personal efficacy.
Of course, our actions are not the only variable that determines our future. Tragedy and good fortune, the choices of others, and our own inability to chart a perfect course forward certainly impose certain limitations on us. But, we must never believe that we are solely at the mercy of the fates if we are to rise to our potential.
We must choose to believe, at all costs, that our choices have meaning.
The million dollar question is, how do we develop this sense of self-efficacy, or self-confidence? How do we go from viewing our failures and shortcomings as threats to be avoided to viewing them as challenges to be overcome? How do we develop faith in our own ability to do hard things? Here are four ideas to help you boost your self-confidence:
#1: Place yourself in an environment that encourages and rewards success.
Of course, we rarely have total control of our environment, but there are many environmental factors which can improve our self-confidence. In general, an environment that is rich in interesting and challenging situations tends to result in increased self-confidence.
Some ways we can put ourselves in this kind of environment is to find a challenging hobby, pursue further education or take community education classes, participate in community service organizations, clubs, sports teams, political organizations, etc.
One caveat here is that we don’t want to overwhelm ourselves. We want a rich and challenging environment – not one that runs us ragged.
Another important aspect of this point is the home environment we create for our children. Research shows that children also develop stronger self-efficacy beliefs when they live in a home that presents them with experiences that are challenging and interesting.
Parents who model perseverance and encourage their children to try new things also help their children develop a strong sense of personal efficacy.
#2: Surround yourself with positive role models.
Another way of developing self-confidence is through vicarious experience. When we see an individual – especially an individual who we perceive as similar to us – achieve success, we are more likely to believe that we ourselves can achieve similar success. Therefore, it’s important for us to surround ourselves as much as possible with people who exemplify what we would like to become.
#3: Use positive self-messaging.
The way we talk to ourselves about our capabilities can greatly influence our beliefs about those capabilities.
In 2008, a group of four researchers at the University of Thessaly in Greece recruited 46 teenage tennis players for a research study. The players were split into two groups, and each group completed an identical training regimen in performing a forehand drive (I don’t play tennis, so I have no idea what that is.)
The only difference between the two groups was that one group, the experimental group, also participated in motivational self-talk exercises in which the players used positive statements to describe their own performance to themselves.
After assessing the self-confidence and performance of the players, the researchers found that both the self-confidence and the performance of the players in the experimental group showed a statistically significant increase, but that both self-confidence and performance among players in the control group remained the same.
This is one example of a body of research which shows the importance of our self-talk in influencing our performance via our self-confidence in our own abilities.
The Power of “Yet”
One way we can help improve our self-talk is by re-framing the way we think and speak about obstacles. This can be as simple as the addition of a single word: “yet.”
For example, a child who is having difficulty mastering a concept in math could say “I just don’t understand this…yet!” By doing this, the child has re-framed the obstacle as a challenge to be overcome instead of a threat to be avoided. Don’t underestimate the power of “yet.”
There are other ways we can re-frame obstacles using positive self-messaging, such as by telling ourselves why we can instead of why we can’t, or outlining to ourselves what we will have to do in order to overcome a challenging situation.
#4: Set challenging, but attainable goals.
Low self-efficacy is characterized by a lack of belief in our own abilities, perceiving the task at hand as being more difficult than it is, or both. This outlook is precipitated by a prior lack of success due to insufficient ability, attempting (and failing at) tasks that are too difficult, or both.
In order to develop a stronger sense of self-efficacy, we need to experience success in overcoming challenges. In the scientific literature, this is referred to as “performance accomplishment,” and it is the most effective means of developing strong self-efficacy beliefs.
To experience performance accomplishments, we need to set and achieve goals that are both challenging and attainable. In education, we refer to this as the “zone of proximal development”. It’s the place where the goals we set for ourselves are sufficiently challenging to introduce the possibility of failure, but not so difficult as to guarantee failure.
It’s in this zone that we are simultaneously able to accomplish our goals and stretch outside of our comfort zone in terms of our abilities. Setting goals that fall within this zone of proximal development is essential, because if we only set goals that are too easy we will easily wilt when faced with more challenging circumstances.
Conversely, if we only set goals that are too difficult, we will avoid setting or pursuing them in the first place. Either way, our sense of personal efficacy will atrophy and we will lose confidence in ourselves.
In order to set goals that are challenging, yet still attainable, we first need to honestly assess our own abilities related to the goal we are setting.
What stretches me?
If we don’t have a realistic idea of our ability level, it will be difficult to set an appropriate goal. One way we can do this is by thinking about how difficult or easy it is for us right now to accomplish tasks related to our potential goal.
For example, if I would like to set a goal related to running, I should think about how far and fast I can currently run, and how much effort it takes to do so.
Another way we can assess our ability level is by asking others to give their honest opinion. The perspective of a trusted outside observer can be invaluable in giving us a more objective view of ourselves.
When we have a good idea of our current ability level, we should set the goal within that ability level, but near the upper boundary of our ability level. For example, if I can currently run ten miles on a Saturday long run and not be confined to the couch for the remainder of the day, a reasonable goal might be to run a half-marathon race. It’s enough to stretch me, but definitely within reach.
Once we have set our goal, we need to develop a plan to achieve it. This will increase our odds of success, and increase our confidence that we are able to choose and execute a course of action that results in success. Breaking the goal up into smaller steps or benchmarks, and setting a timeline to achieve each step can help us get where we want to go efficiently.
One-Liner: I have the power to change the future, and my choices matter.
Journal Prompt: Write down one area in which you don’t feel very confident. Using the four points we discussed in this episode, write down specifically how you plan to improve your self-confidence in this area.
❤ Jenny and Joe
P.S. – Joe wrote this one based on the research he did during his dissertation, which is linked below!