Could I become the principal clarinetist of a major orchestra? A YouTube star? Generate a 6-figure freelance income? Deadlift 500 lbs?

When we consider such questions, we know what the “correct” answer is. That is, if we work hard, anything is possible.

But even if we believe this to be true in an abstract sense, it can be difficult to truly believe this is possible for us.

As in, it’s easy to look at our friends or everyone around us, and believe that they are capable of amazing and remarkable things, but seeing our future selves as a world-renowned horn player, astronaut, or best-selling author may feel impossible.

Indeed, it’s like a wise person once said1, it’s easy for us to champion another, but to champion ourselves is much tougher, as we tend to overestimate others’ capabilities and underestimate our own.

Nowadays, as we are inundated daily with curated feeds of everyone’s daily feats of awesomeness through Facebook, it can be incredibly easy to forget that these are our friends’ highlights. The more typical moments, and the daily struggles, snafus, and fails go quietly under the radar (except when they don’t).

So how can we stop underestimating ourselves, and believe more strongly in our own capacity for great things?

Stories

I remember reading an article once, which suggested that as children, it’s important for us to read books with protagonists that we connect with. The idea being, this can actually have an impact on our own behavior and shape our values and sense of self. I can no longer find that article, but research does suggest that connecting to fictional characters can affect our actions and choices in real life.

Given that, a team of researchers at Columbia University conducted a study to see if they could increase students’ beliefs in their ability to succeed in science – through strategic storytelling.

What do you believe?

At the beginning of a grading period (6-weeks in length), 402 9th and 10th graders from 4 different high schools took a short survey to gauge their beliefs about intelligence, effort, and failure. The survey asked questions like “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence” (1=strongly agree; 6=strongly disagree) to gauge whether they held a “growth” or “fixed” mindset, and ”If you’re not good at a subject, working hard won’t make you good at it” to assess their beliefs about effort, and ”I would spend more time studying for tests” or “I would try not to take this subject ever again” to see how they would respond to failure.

Then, they were randomly assigned to one of three groups, and read a set of stories with a particular theme – a) achievements, b) intellectual struggles, or c) life struggles.

Below are some excerpts – take a moment to read each one and pay attention to how each one makes you feel inside.

A – Stories about the achievements of famous scientists
“By the time she reached college, Marie Curie was able to understand five languages: Polish, Russian, German, French, and English – all of which were the major languages that top scientists spoke at the time. Curie attended the top college in France, the Sorbonne. Not only was she the first woman to receive a degree in physics there, she was also selected for a prestigious award when she graduated.”
B – Stories about the intellectual struggles of famous scientists
“It was frustrating that many experiments ended up in failure; however, Curie would not let herself stay sad for too long. Instead, she returned to where things did not work out and tried again. Often working hour after hour and day after day, Curie focused on solving challenging problems and learning from her mistakes. She knew that the way of progress was never easy, and later, she said, “I never yield to any difficulties.”
C – Stories about challenges in famous scientists’ personal lives (e.g. poverty)
“Going to college was hard for Curie because at that time, people did not approve of women going to school. Thus, Curie had to study at secret classes. What’s worse, when the government of Russia controlled Poland, no schools in Poland were allowed to accept any women. For this reason, Curie had to travel to another country, France, to receive education.”

Story “A” feels very different than B or C, no?

What changed?

In terms of grades, there were no significant differences between groups in the distribution of students’ grades. There were of course a range of grades between students in each group, but the groups themselves were similar.

But by the end of the grading period, things had changed. Group A, which read the stories about scientists’ achievements, with no hint of their struggles, now had lower grades than either group B or C.

And although the next finding didn’t quite meet statistical significance, students’ grades in the struggle conditions tended to go up over the grading period. Meanwhile, the grades of students in the achievement stories group got worse – a finding that was statistically significant.

Who benefits most?

Part of this may be due to an interesting observation the researchers made about what type of student benefited most from stories about struggle.

The students who already had high grades didn’t get better grades as a result of reading about scientists’ struggles. They just continued to get good grades. The students with lower grades, however, did benefit from the struggle stories, getting higher grades than their fellow classmates who read the achievement stories.

These were the kinds of students who might be likely to say something like “Well, if I’m being honest, science is a field that I have not thought much about because I am not good in it.” Or, “I won’t, because I don’t get the best grades in science class right now. Even if I work hard, I will not do well.”

Takeaways

The big takeaway for me is that while aspirational role models can be valuable, they must be relatable – and we must see how they themselves struggled and had to work hard to achieve what they did. If we are given the impression that they achieved greatness easily, without setbacks, and without having to overcome challenges and difficulties, who are we to think that we could become scientists, artists, or doctors when we’re struggling at various points in our journey?

But when we see that people who achieve greatness are not so different from ourselves, and that roadblocks and speed bumps are to be expected, we are less likely to give up and quit when we encounter those inevitable character-building challenges.

Take action

It seems that it may not be our successes, achievements, and feats of spectacularitude that inspires or empowers others, but the sharing of our doubts, fears, failures, and the adversity we have faced. Our vulnerabilities, in other words. Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think)?

Indeed, as much as I learned from my mentors’ expertise, wisdom, and skill, hearing about their failures, flaws, and imperfect moments had just as big (if not bigger) impact on what I saw as being possible for myself, strengthening my belief in my ability to make a dent in some tiny corner of the universe.

And growing up, I have fond memories of reading and re-reading stories like a particular one about Louis Pasteur, and how he was ridiculed for his research – until he saved a boy who was bitten by a dog with rabies. In fact, I still have that book, and have read it many times to my kids. I don’t actually know how true the story is, but it has left a lasting impact – that of the importance of believing in ourselves.

Do you have a favorite story of struggle and adversity that motivates you and strengthens your belief in yourself? I’d be curious to hear what stories have inspired you…

Footnotes

  1. I can’t remember who, but it may have been David Schwartz in the Magic of Thinking Big