And why you should believe in a purpose instead.
If I had a dime for every time I was advised to believe in myself, I’d have enough to buy a double Shackburger at Shake Shack. For you, it might be crinkle cut fries or even a full meal.
Heck, I too am guilty of having in the past told one too many individuals to believe in themselves.
Lately, I’m beginning to think that believing in yourself, while important, may not be the most important belief we should hold in our walk toward success.
The role of self-belief
As part of my MBA program, I once spent a weekend at a motivational course run by Shiv Khera, author of ‘You Can Win’.
One of the things we were asked to do after the course was to stare into the mirror each morning and repeat positive statements to ourselves like: “You are a winner!”, or “You are going to have a great day, nothing can stop you!”
It sounded stupid to me, but I decided to try it out anyway.
And it worked, in some way.
At the very least, saying those things put me in the right frame of mind to tackle the day’s activities.
Though the dread of certain tasks remained, the power of positive thinking, it seemed, gave me the willpower to forge ahead with completing them.
The industrialist Henry Ford once said:
“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”
Thoughts, both positive and negative have a powerful way of shaping our beliefs and subsequent actions.
Some of these thoughts are thrust upon us by others.
As a child, praise might have been heaped upon you by doting parents and relatives that spoke of your talents and smarts. As a result, you grew up thinking everything you touched turned to gold.
If, while growing up, you were told you would never amount to much, you could have perpetuated those very thoughts in your head. If they were uttered by someone close to you, you can be sure those thoughts are deeply entrenched, and debilitating.
But most other thoughts are self-generated.
I used to tell myself that I wasn’t any good at math or Mandarin when I didn’t do well in school for those subjects.
Guess what the result was? I feared both subjects and didn’t do well in either.
I also used to believe that I would one day grow up to become a highly-paid, mega-successful lawyer.
I did end up becoming one, though I quit before I had the chance to hit pay dirt or attain the heights of success I once aimed for.
Does a high level of self-belief make one successful?
“You need to believe that you can go out and do something but that’s not the same as thinking that you’re great.”
When we look at the Richard Bransons, Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of the world, we view their success through the lens of their self-confidence.
We tell ourselves, “Of course they became successful. They had an unworldly level of self-belief! They trudged through multiple failures with the sheer force of will and a huge shot of confidence.”
If this were really true though, shouldn’t there be more ‘successful’ people around?
After all, there’s no shortage of individuals with inflated egos and healthy self-esteem.
Success is not that easy, though we’d like to think it is.
To reduce success to factors like believing in yourself, waking up at 5 am or reading a book every month is to trivialize the amount of work and effort it actually takes to be successful.
It also over-inflates the value of self-belief that is not rooted in the pursuit of something meaningful.
How unfounded self-belief can harm more than it helps
“You need to believe that you can go out and do something but that’s not the same as thinking that you’re great,” says psychologist Jean Twenge.
The first part of what Twenge says hints to the value of adopting a growth mindset, borrowing Carol Dweck’s definition of the same.
Believing that you will come to acquire the skills or resources to be able to do something you set your sights on is not only healthy but necessary.
The second part of Twenge’s statement, however, hints toward narcissism and especially if you’ve got nothing to back it up with, delusion.
But such is the ‘self-esteem culture’ that many of us grew up with.
We listened to motivational gurus shout it from the rooftop and chanted positive statements while jumping alongside them.
We lapped it up when they told us to believe in ourselves. And believe in ourselves we did, to an almost unhealthy level.
Self-belief is vulnerable to setbacks
Twenge notes that there has been an increase in anxiety and depression since the ’60s and ’70s that coincides with the growth of individuals’ expectations.
The truth is, having a disproportionately positive self-view can lead to increasingly unrealistic ambitions and expectations that can easily backfire.
It stands to reason that if you start off firmly believing you can reach your own ambitious goals, but eventually don’t due to circumstances beyond your control, you’re going to end up in a funk because, in your mind, you had set yourself up for success a long time ago.
Blind self-belief does that to you, especially when it’s not grounded in reality.
You can only go through so many setbacks before your self-belief starts to question itself.
Why you should believe in a purpose instead
“If you have a strong purpose in life, you don’t have to be pushed. Your passion will drive you there.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Why waste mental and emotional energy relying on sheer willpower and self-belief, when as Bennett says, your passion can take you where you wish to go?
Instead of forcefully willing yourself to work every day, exhausting your mental faculties in the process, and telling yourself you believe you can get through another day of your high-paying, bullshit job, why not find a purpose that you can believe in and commit to?
The resulting passion that arises out of having a sense of purpose is more powerful than any self-belief you can generate.
This could well have been the case for Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.
Sure, they had a strong sense of self-belief, but more likely than not, this sense of self-belief was buttressed by an even stronger belief in their purpose.
Take Richard Branson. Although he overwhelmingly urges others to believe in themselves and their ideas, you get a sense that it’s his uncompromising commitment toward delivering the best customer value and experience across multiple industries that truly drives him in his various Virgin ventures.
For Steve Jobs, it was his desire to change the world through his products. He even once quipped, “I’ve always wanted to own and control the primary technology in everything we do.” That he truly did when the first iPhone was launched in 2007.
Then there’s Elon Musk, who believes in changing humanity’s future — which explains why he’s crazy enough to found Tesla and SpaceX, go through a near collapse of both companies in 2008, and still have the incredible drive to see both projects through in the face of uncertainty and financial failure.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
You can’t do these extraordinary things if your self-belief is not supported by a purpose of equal if not greater strength.
This is also why it’s increasingly important to find work in an organization whose mission and values find alignment with what you believe in.
Purpose keeps you going where willpower fails.
And no discussion on purpose these days is complete without mentioning the work of Simon Sinek, author of ‘Start With Why’.
In his now famous Ted talk, Simon says:
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”
Now imagine that you’re trying to sell yourself on what you do or the goal you are working toward. In this case, you are the company, investor and customer all at once.
Do you buy what you do?
Do you buy the goal(s) that you’re working toward?
If you don’t, then why are you even doing it?
I didn’t buy what I did as a lawyer, so the decision for me to leave was a natural consequence of my beliefs.
In the past year or so, I identified a new purpose for my life apart from being a father, husband, and steward for the family business.
This new purpose drives me forward when my own self-belief is found wanting, as is so often the case.
My hope for you is that you too will find something powerful to believe in, something bigger than yourself, for that is when you draw upon a wellspring of strength you never knew existed within you.