Evidence That We Are Capable of More Awesomeness Than We Think

“But I caaaan’t!”

Whether it’s long division, making their beds, or controlling their bladders until we can get to the nearest restroom, this is one of the stock responses my kids like to use when they get to a sticking point and feel like giving up.

Pushing through challenges is never easy, and whether it’s a solving a difficult technical challenge or counting the rests when you’re last stand in orchestra, we all have a point at which we say enough is enough and throw in the towel.

And sometimes that’s the perfect time to step back a bit and take a break, because there’s only so much to be gained by stubbornly beating our heads against an immovable wall. And sometimes we really can’t get around the roadblock – at least without further development or a little help and guidance from someone further along the growth curve than us.

But often, we totally are capable of more than we give ourselves credit for.

Like, at least 2% more.

Wait, what?

2% more

A team of British researchers theorized that even when athletes think they’re giving all-out effort, they are still capable of more than they realize.

So, to test this, they took nine trained cyclists and had them perform a series of 4-km (~2.5 miles) time trials on a stationary bicycle. The bike was hooked up to a computer monitor that, much like a video game, displayed two avatars riding along a path. One figure represented the cyclist’s current pace and time, while the second figure represented the cyclist’s previous best time on the course. Of course, what the cyclists did not know, is that sometimes, the second avatar was programmed to race along the course at a speed 1% faster (requiring 2% greater power output) than the cyclist’s fastest time.

The first race was just a “habituation” trial – to give the cyclists a chance to get adjusted to the setup.

The second race was the “baseline” trial, where the cyclists were to give their best effort and go as fast as they could go.

In the third and fourth races, the cyclists were instructed to race against the avatar representing their fastest time. When the avatar accurately portrayed their own personal best performance, the cyclists had no problem keeping up, and matching their fastest time (as expected).

And when the cyclists raced against the avatar that was programmed to go 1% faster than their previous best performance?

Not realizing the deception, they kicked things up a notch and matched that performance too!

There’s more in there somewhere

This is not the only study to find that a little bit of deception can yield greater performance.

A recent Indiana University study of 14 cyclists found pretty much the same thing, for instance.

On the other hand, a 2010 study found that there are limits to how far we can take things. While a 1% boost in speed seems to be doable, researchers found that a 5% bump in speed was unsustainable in a 20-km time trial, with performance suffering significantly in the last third of the race.

So we do have to be somewhere in the neighborhood…

Aggregation of marginal gains

A 1 or 2% increase in performance might not seem like much, but remember that we don’t always have to hit home runs in order to experience meaningful and profound improvements in our craft over time.

Like compounding interest, a 1% improvement here and there (a.k.a. the principle of “aggregation of marginal gains”) can really add up!

Take action

Sometimes, we underestimate how much growth we are capable of. How adaptable, how resourceful, and how resilient we are capable of being – and get intimidated by the magnitude of a task before we give ourselves a real chance to dive in and get our feet wet.

But as writer Robert Brault once noted, “How often in life we complete a task that was beyond the capability of the person we were when we started it.”

We can’t always know just how much we are capable of in advance – but based on the studies above, perhaps it’s worth operating under the assumption that we are capable of more than we think?

Additional reading

Trying to adopt more positive habits? The words we use to talk to ourselves (and others) do matter – especially with regards to the word “can’t”: This column will change your life: don’t say ‘I can’t’ if you can say ‘I don’t’

Somewhat tangential, but a nice reminder that sometimes we can be too “smart” or all-knowing for our own good: Can-Do vs. Can’t-Do Culture

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8 Responses

  1. Wasn’t there was a Russian Olympic weightlifter who broke a world record because his coach deliberately deceived him by telling him he was lifting an amount he’d previously lifted and knew he was capable of lifting?

  2. Powerful words and concepts. And I love that it’s not just “Tell yourself you can do 2% more.” It’s the accumulation of 2% every time that fascinates and inspires me. Let’s face it 2% is not very inspiring. 🙂 But when you incrementally overcome shortcomings by 2%, you’re on to something extraordinary.

  3. Little things do add up over time. A circle contains 360°, and we can break it into 36 ten-degree pieces, remove half a degree from each, and put them all back together to discover 18° are now missing from the circle, even though we can’t really tell the difference between a 10° angle and a 9.5° angle by sight alone.

    Am I also correct to assume that this post is referring to constant percentages, even if the whole is greater now than it was before? So if we could do 2% better now, that 2% now is greater than the 2% of last time, right?

  4. How can we apply the lessons from this research in the practice room? Other than cooking the data on my practice logs to say I played faster tempi than I did 😉 I like the idea of identifying what the 1-2% gain is and going for that with total confidence, rather than worrying about playing something drastically better.

    1. Ha, yes, a literal application of this study probably doesn’t help, but this is one of a few studies that have come out recently which suggest that we tend to underestimate what we are capable of. Knowing that might help us to set our sights a little higher, and perhaps make it easier to trust that focusing on 1-2% improvement will help us get there eventually.

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