Self-Improvement Science in the Real World
Our ultimate goal for each of these newsletters is to leave you with a better understanding of a performance practice that can help you in your daily life. In service of that goal, we tend to combine academic research and personal experience. We are especially big on the research – it not only legitimizes and gives our message more integrity but hopefully it also sets us apart from so many of the self-help “gurus” out there.
Yet when reading about self-improvement principles, even those that are backed by science, it’s easy to convince ourselves that at least some of this stuff must be hype over substance. Everything makes sense and seems important on paper, but does it actually hold true in the real world?
Yes. It does. And to show you how, this week we are going to deviate from the format of prior newsletters and simply tell a story. (Note: minor details have been changed to protect the identity of the individual involved.)
A few years ago, I had a conversation with one of my collegiate athletes who was going through a particularly rough spell in school. He was consumed by anxiety and sadness and expressed a general feeling of failure with how his life had been unfolding recently.
At first, he received a few B’s instead of the A’s he expected. Then came a couple of sub-par performances on projects. And finally, the breaking point: a poor score on a graduate-school admissions exam.
Suddenly, his future path was in danger. The life he’d envisioned since childhood was slowly slipping away, at least in his eyes. I (Steve) was personally befuddled. This young man had always been one of the brightest, most positive kids on the team. It wasn’t until I sat down with him for a heart-to-heart that the reasons for his derailment became clear.
It wasn’t that he had suddenly stopped caring or working hard. The effort that had propelled him to such a high personal benchmark was still there. In fact, he was likely trying harder than ever. What changed is that he no longer felt like he belonged. As he reached higher and higher levels of academic achievement, he felt like a stranger, an imposter who somehow wound up in a selective club of intellectual elites. When it came time for him to cement his place in the club – in this case, taking difficult classes and shooting for a top graduate program – he panicked.
He told me his inner dialogue went something like this: “Everyone else is so smart. I don’t belong here.” These thoughts would become louder and louder, echoing in his mind until he was completely overtaken by anxiety. His academic performance and test scores plummeted not because he didn’t know the answers, but because his mindset was wrong.
As our conversation unfolded, I learned that ever since he was a child, he was never told that he was smart. Athletic? Sure. A great runner. You betcha! Handsome. Always. But intelligent, smart, or good at school? Nope.
Because he was such a good athlete, my runner’s parents focused their praise in that area, while they praised my runner’s older brother (an intellectual genius) for his intelligence. It’s not that my runner’s parents thought he was “dumb.” It’s just that they perceived their older child to have more academic prowess while the younger one seemed to be a natural at sports. My runner’s parents likely thought they were doing the right thing; they were encouraging him to play to his strengths (sports). Unfortunately, they were also ingraining the idea that when it came to academics, my runner was just “smart enough,” especially in comparison to his brother.
Fast-forward a decade, and as he sat in challenging classes and applied for competitive graduate school programs, we can now understand why he didn’t feel like he belonged. He wasn’t raised to believe he was a high academic achiever.
Now mind you he had years of accolades, academic awards, scholarships, and a current GPA of 3.75. But that wasn’t enough. No amount of evidence could overcome the 20-plus years of programming that led him to believe he wasn’t that smart.
The story has a happy ending: my runner was able to re-frame his mindset. I worked with him to help him understand that he was being downright delusional in his beliefs about his intelligence.
Of course, his parents, friends, prior educators, and coaches aren’t entirely to blame. It’s not like they told him he was stupid. They just never told him he was smart (when in fact, he was very smart). Hell, if I wasn’t so immersed in this research, I doubt that I would have identified this as the underlying problem myself.
What this story teaches us is the power of self-belief and the role that we all play as parents, coaches, teachers, and friends. Even though we may not realize it, we are often the ones holding ourselves and those we care about back.