A Way to Stop Underestimating Yourself

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

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Comments

23 Responses

  1. Gandhi’s. He studied law to please his parents. Law, a subject who hasn’t been useless to him since short after finishing his studies, he joined a group of people in South Africa to defend their rights. Then, he is a guy, and me a girl.
    I found him fascinating even though, and the way he managed to study world history among other things, to save an entire population and country, and his philosophy overall. The fact that Gandhi was a saint is the truth of something, yet he used the same format as everyone does, one life, a certain number of years.
    There are a lot of things that not only ourselves do, but say, my parents do, to remind myself of my features (they can do it because they know me since I was a toddler and even since earlier in my life). Features or not features, people say that there was no indicators in the way Gandhi lived and was earlier in his life, when he had not achieved anything big yet, that would reveal that he was going to be a great soul and do so much for millions and millions in his country.

    As for Marie Curie, she was in the Sorbonne, so I can’t show off as much as she could (in the A story). However, I face setbacks, rejection, so I relate to her in the B and C stories.
    Well, I don’t want to be trapped in thinking, just because I study the same thing as someone I admire, I will be like him or her, because, again, how I practice is not separate from who I am, how I am, like Tara Styles says.
    When there is a gap between who I claim to be and the people I look up to, I feel guilty to read the story of someone I don’t relate to.
    Knowing that Curie had to study at secret classes, reemphasizes the importance of doing the things that are important for me, because I would like to study some world history in secret, even if saving other people is not what my parents wish for me, maybe because it’s not financial independence and independence right now related. That helps me keep doing them in secret, so that I can protect it, even if I have already told about obsession at Gandhi’s achievements to my parents and they know he appears like a god to me, even if he is a guy and me a girl.

    I wish for myself that I help myself with some stories for inspiration, without feeling sort of ego because I devote a worship to a certain person that I admire. I wish for myself that I study a little bit of world history, and all the things that will be necessary. I wish for myself that I do everything that I have to do or that I do and that I practice them all how I want to be. I wish for my self that I reflect on how I could practice them all to get to actually pratice how I want to be. #mindset #stories #courage #confidence #resilience

    1. Sandy,

      I will say this to you honestly, but it appears to me that I have some similarities with you already that somewhat resembles with MY hopeful dream and future. I want to become a musician and/or author in the future to change the world and save the world from hunger, poverty, and other economical problems; change people’s lived from misery to inspiration, make them smile and make their days even a little brighter. Not just that, but to change people’s perspective on life itself, too. Anime and movies I’ve watched, novels and articles I read had helped me take a step forward to my significant dream. I also agree with the fact that I have to take world history and social studies in order to also find the truth in… many things, in which requires you to make me also do some “undercover”, secretive things. My number-one inspiration is Miyazaki Hayao, the creator of the Ghibli Studio movies (I would recommend you to watch his movies if you have the time). He teaches and show, through his amazing films, such great lessons that most film directors don’t, and I hope that someday I achieve that goal with my writing as an author in the future. Thanks to these novels I have listed, today I have become a better person that I am happy with. I have created a life I have longed wanted for in these past few years since I moved here. These examples from movies, novels, articles, etc. made me feel inspiration and a strong sense of motivation to become a better student and person. People around me made me realize many important qualities and lessons, nature, of life and now I have applied this in my lifestyle. Right now as a student, I want to make people’s’ lives better, like I am today; and order to do that, I need to learn much more. Practice. Work hard and labor. It’s extremely hard to describe this “ambition” with others around me, but I feel like you will understand, or at least get, my goal.

      But I’m sure, with the words I have read, you will reach towards your wish. Because… you are kind of like me. Saving other people like other well-known people did for us future generations to create a life we deserved. Although it’s not perfect. “Nothing’s perfect, the world’s not perfect, but it’s there for us, trying the best it can. That’s what makes it so damn beautiful.” Don’t you think? I don’t expect you to reply or read this. I’m not even sure why I am telling you all this where the public can see it But I just wanted to let you know, that there is someone out there like you (you’re not alone). There will be people in the future considered as “gods” or “saviors” that saved the world when it was crumbling out of hand. Who knows, those people, out of millions and millions around the world, might be ones we see and interact with… every day.

      Yours,
      Elena

      1. Hello Elena,

        Thank you for writing to me. I am glad to have found someone who was like me here.
        Miyasaki Hayao is awesome, yeah. I have already watched Grave of the Fireflies as a child(it’s really sad). Then, Mononoke, the Moving Castle, The Castle in the Sky, and also the girl whom parents turn i to pigs, you know? Am I right ? Are these movies by Miyao Miyasaki?
        The issues that are happening around the world, yeah. I wish Noa’s tricks could enable to change the world too. I do relate to you in some way.
        I wish I could talk to you about the world more than I do, but for now, I don’t talk about perfection. When I think about the world, I just think that everything that exists has been created by humans (including arms, for example). That’s the difference between archeology (human culture) and biology (for example, pieces of stone on the Moon that tell us about the formation of the Solar System). I mean that everything that is around me is human (except trees and stones, the sky the planets).
        What we can do for future generations is “going green”, you know, sustainable development.
        The series of international attacks in November and on strenghened my goal of “going world history” and “going Gandhi”. You know that during the WWII, maths and music were the subjects that were still taught in the schools in Europe, whereas philosophy and history, all the subjects that could have allowed the students to think were banned from the education? Thank you for telling me that.
        Thank you very much.
        Maybe in the future we will be able to talk to each other. As I am not a psychic, I can’t tell you if we will write to each other in the future again. I wish that you hold your pacific views about the world and take action consequently as I wish it for myself.
        Yours,
        Sandy

        1. Sandy,

          This will probably be my last reply, and I don’t expect to be long. But I might be lying, this might not be my last reply to you.

          I am delighted to hear that you have seen Miyazaki’s movies (I have seen all the ones you have listed). They’re all amazing, aren’t they? Yes, the Grave of the Fireflies was very saddening. Some movies of his, literally, almost made me cry. I’m not sure of the pigs one… maybe I’ve never seen it, or simply not familiar with it at this moment.

          It’s interesting how you see the world more in depth than I do, for I had to reread it (I have very little experience in biology and archeology. And I do agree, what we can do currently is to be able to sustain Earth life and human life. Green.

          It does upset me that children during WWII and today are limited with philosophy and history warped with statistical facts of lies. As I continue to take history, I will (and already have) experienced some suspicions of some facts of the world. I’m guessing some parts of the government hides the truth and make it look like they did nothing wrong. (I’m assuming they don’t like to admit their mistakes, such as the atomic bomb back then, which I still consider inhumane).

          You’re welcome, part of me does actually hope we will meet again in Mr. Kageyama’s articles or even better, do talk in person someday. Maybe even work together, who knows. I will look for your name in the next article, perhaps. Nobody really knows the future of anyone, only time will tell.

          Thank you for your wishes, I additionally hope you will continue to view the world carefully and make decisions that will help you reach close to your goals. Again, thank you for your time of replying to me.

          Thank you so much,
          Elena

      2. Sandy,

        The Miyazaki film in which a girl’s parents are turned into pigs is called “Spirited Away” in English.

  2. I was inspired by books and stories about homeless kids eg during war “making do” in the war torn zone, or jewish kids getting to Israel and finding/building their place in their corner of the world (book “to Build a Land”. So I guess from my childhood reading I assumed I could build my place in my corner of the world wherever that was going to be. And I assumed it would all turn out ok. And it has.
    But I didnt realise that was my assumption until you brought it to my attention. Thankyou Noa.

  3. Bringing this to the context of teaching music performance, it seems there would be a place for the “Challenge Class” as an alternative to the “Master Class”, where instead of coaching the student who has already “mastered” the piece, to coach the student through sections that still need mastery, for the benefit of those in the audience as well as the student.

  4. The Little Engine That Could. Should be on every preschool kids’ bookshelf and should be read to each kid repeatedly.

  5. Hi, I’m Elena, a young high-school flutist [and other instruments as well, such as the electone, piano, piccolo, and little of violin] (I have been playing the flute for approximately over three years) who has recently subscribed to your beyond conductive, crucial and beneficial articles that has helped me become a much more motivated, persistent, hard-working musician over the course of weeks. I just wanted to say a quick thank-you for your time to create these valuable articles to improve ourselves as a musicians and also generally as a better person, as well.

    This article especially hooked me due to the psychological study I have been overly obsessed with. I have read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. It also reminded me of two readings I am actually working with right now in my English class – The Secret to Raising Smart Kids by Carol Dweck (a well-known psychologist and professor at Stanford University), and The Genius of Jobs by Walter Isaacson, both in which relates to the notion of intelligence. Although the enticing article you created, Mr. Kageyama, does not necessarily directly relate to the idea of what intelligence is, when mentioned the “growth” and “fixed” mindset in the section of What Do You Believe?, it notably reminded me of Dweck’s long study on mindsets. I have concluded that the main key to satisfactory success and improvement in one’s goal is not only labor to grasp that certain goal, but also to learn to expand their field in knowledge of that certain topic. Alternatively, what connected from this article and Dweck’s study is that I find it very true (and I did not know a study proved this correct, my friends had not believed me) that reading fictional novel that relates to us readers some way and connect to them will develop our characters and ourselves as a better person; I have known this “experience-taking” in my favorite novels countless times. At the end, I am striving to become a better person, more hard-working and successive person in variety of fields in my daily lifestyle. Even just a short story affects my morning routines, which is, broadly, chores. I feel delighted that someone else has actually done a scientific study on that certain notion of fictional novels and how it reflects us (after all, one of a book’s purpose is to create a better living and learning something from it for us human beings).

    I have not yet (or it’s just that I can’t reflect back to the past) found a perfect fictional novel that has made a huge impact in my daily life (because what really connects me is usually nonfiction novels like examples above; or, it’s often real-life people, as my best friend, who influence my life), but one remarkable fictional novel that has probably gave me an everlasting impression on me is The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (of course, this is additionally connected to some psychological and philosophical theories). Other fiction ones include The Giver series, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I am the Messenger, When You Reach Me, The Fault in Our Stars, A Wrinkle in Time series, and The Little Prince. Certainly, my childhood favorite such as The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss and Pete The Cat by James Dean and Eric Litwin does hint out some significant messages to kids that I now realize as I reread these to my siblings.

  6. Annika Sörenstam. The best golfer ever was not very good golfer in here youth (as I have heard). The best thing she loved to do was training. After a big victorious weekend she was out training monday morning

  7. My Master Teacher of Meditation. He’s a 96 year old Thai Monk. His story is just enough contemporary mythology, hard work, challenge and great teaching methods that he has inspired me greatly.

    As a soprano, I actually find many stories about the challenges that other musicians go through frustrating because I am going through them now….while I’ve already studied with a great at Meditation and learned the technique portion so it’s not such a big learning curve.

    Being in the learning curve stage is very frustrating.

  8. I read several of the already mentioned books as a kid… I’m sure they had an impact on me, especially the little Prince, Lord of the rings ( Frodo, the unlikely hero…) and later The Alchemist. But now I really find inspiration in the struggles famous singers had. Like Rene Flemings autobiography, where she says how she was almost ready to give up, cos she was rejected at auditions so many times. That really made me feel more comfortable about my own portion of unsuccessful auditions. Or joyce di donato telling a story about cracking all of the high notes in an important performance and then being praised by her teacher because she dared to try something new even if it didn’t quite work yet. These are really helpful and make me braver and more resilient

  9. There are few blogs that I actually anticipate and read regularly, and this is one of them. I’m not a Classically-trained musician. In fact, I’m a metal guitarist, and the information here on mindset, practice, performance, etc. is priceless. Keep up the great work Noa.

  10. My most inspiring book, growing up in the ’60s, was ‘Over My Dead Body’ by June Opie. She was a New Zealander who contracted polio on her way to England and spent considerable time in an Iron Lung as she couldn’t breathe independently and she was only capable of winking one eye to communicate. The story of her rehabilitation from such a deadly disease really affected me and was my favourite book for years.

  11. A violinist named Rachel Barton Pine, one of the big-name tier-1 violinists who plays a 1742 Guarneri del Gesu. If anyone has had the deck more consistently stacked against her and simply refused to back down one millimeter, it’s her. And it’s not that awful train accident she had in the 90s that makes me think that of her — it’s her upbringing. She grew up poor, like the lights and phone were always being turned off poor. Her family had to choose between driving her to lessons or groceries, and when she was about 14, she was the family’s main source of support. She used to pile on a ton of makeup and play at weddings and things to make money to feed her sisters and parents. It’s crazy. Even Pine’s mother, when she realized that she had this crazy obsessed toddler in the family who couldn’t put the violin down, regarded her with some dismay, thinking to herself, “Violin is a rich child’s thing.” She should never, ever have been able to stick it out and get to where she is now — recording the Mozarts with Neville Marriner and SMitF for pete’s sake, and playing a seven figure fiddle, jetting all over the world.

    I tend to get sick and tired of books and TED talk pep rallies by kids from rich families who tell me to “lean in” and learn “the art of asking.” I’m sick of hearing about people who went to $80,000/yr colleges telling me how to succeed. Talk about people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple!

    Pine was born a half mile from the field and on the wrong side of the tracks. She worked her ever-loving ass off to get where she is. I find stories of women who succeeded in male-dominated fields without having powerful fathers and husbands to lend them alpha-male cachet, and stories of poor kids who succeeded in traditionally monied arenas far more useful than any other kind. Making it to where Pine is now, at the pinnacle of an unbelievably exclusive profession, considering where she started out, is staggering.

    Sadly, I think it hurts her somewhat, due to a previous effect you talked about where people don’t want to hear about hard work; they just want to hear about the mystical miracle prodigy. Which, to be fair, Pine was. But it’s her grit in the fact of incredible lack of financial and family support and resources that never fails to amaze me. And hot damn, but she sounds like heaven.

  12. Being a big fan of jazz guitarist John Scofield I remember reading an old interview where he spoke about his “klutziness” being a big issue in his playing and how he compared it to some his contemporaries who he thought never seemed to have a problem with it. He also talked about how hard music is in general.
    It made me feel good to know that was something he was able to overcome because it’s something I feel is an issue in my playing (among other things)!

  13. It’s always interesting when you read about famous guitar players in that you tend to find a lot of the ones you thought were naturally gifted, did in fact just work extremely hard at learning their instrument. They may have had a predisposition towards the instrument, but they all put in lots of hours and became obsessed with playing.

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