Every story of success starts with a question: what do you think you can do?
Self-belief is a powerful attribute. Some people seem to have it, others not. Actually, we can all develop self-belief to heighten performance.
The world’s greatest-ever football player, Pelé, was nine years old when Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay. The 2-1 defeat shocked the 200,000 fans packed into Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium, and appalled the entire soccer-mad nation. It’s still regarded in Brazil as a national tragedy. Pelé’s father, listening to the radio broadcast, cried. Pelé consoled him: “No. Don’t worry, don’t be sad. I will win the World Cup for you.”
Fast forward two World Cups, eight years later. Pelé is now 17 (just seventeen!), but he’s picked for the national squad. He plays superbly, and Brazil progress to the final against the hosts, Sweden. “My father always told me, ‘don’t worry, when you step on the pitch, everyone is equal’. That gave me a lot of strength”.
Self-belief – perhaps motivated by the adversity of 1950 – saw Pelé score twice in a memorable 5-2 victory. He is still the youngest-ever World Cup winner, and he went on to become one of the sporting world’s all-time greats.
Despite his tender age, Pelé had allowed Brazilians to trust anew, and hold new truths. For Black Brazilians he was a symbol of emancipation. All citizens now felt they could free themselves from the nation’s defeatist attitude, what the national poet Nelson Rodrigues had called the “Mongrel Complex”. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso says Pelé was crucial to the emergence of a modern Brazil, one that believed in itself.
Self-belief to hurdle challenges
To understand how self-belief enables performance, it’s useful to realise it’s also key to navigating struggles, crises and, more broadly, anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence (the 3As).
"Our beliefs either help us through difficult circumstances, or hinder us in making headway."
Self-confidence, and a deeper self-belief, is one measure of a spiritually and emotionally mature person, argues psychologist James Hollis. It follows, then, that growing the muscle of our self-belief makes us more rounded, and better able to face life’s challenges. This, in turn, primes our minds for accomplishment, and our mindsets to seize opportunities.
Can I do it?
The first person you need to convince is yourself.
Albert-László Barabási, professor of Network Science at Boston’s Northeastern University, studied and compared the success of US graduates from a range of universities. He noted that “the single determinant of long-term success was derived from the best college a kid merely applied to, even if she didn’t get in.” A person’s ambition – where s/he believes they belong – drives their ultimate success.
“Whether you think you can or think you can’t — you’re probably right.”
If self-belief is a key ingredient for achievement, how do we nurture this – both within ourselves and in others?
Self-efficacy and the links to success
Stanford University psychology professor Albert Bandura delved into this question some 25 years ago. His work was seminal to our understanding of the interrelationships, and the differences, between the various ‘self’s’ of esteem, confidence, and belief. His studies helped define ‘self-efficacy’ – our perception, or belief, in our capability to perform a behaviour or specific action – and to pinpoint its causal influence upon expectations of success.
“There are three ways in which self-belief is generated and nurtured.”
- our own experience of mastering something
- the vicarious experience of understanding how others have succeeded
- a ‘social persuasion’ factor, the affirmation of others
The most powerful and lasting form is probably when all three are at play. When we master something by overcoming challenges, this gives us a precedent upon which to build. (We’ve done it before, so we know we can do it again – even better. The momentum of repeated success builds in a kind of mastery flywheel, like this: perseverance → success → belief → perseverance.)
By observing or learning from others’ success, in a form of vicarious social learning theory, we can imitate actions. (Someone else has done this, the path is prepared, so we have both an inspiration and a guide.) And when we are encouraged by others, our belief – and our will – expands. (The affirmation of others makes us realise we do indeed have potential and capability.)
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the confirmation of these studies hold is that the relation to motivation and performance is so clear. There’s potency in this: self-efficacy is a predictor of performance. Put differently, in almost any domain – academic studies, sport, the world of work – a causal relationship exists between self-efficacy and performance.
Self-belief is not showmanship
It’s true that there are circumstances where self-belief tips to overconfidence, even hubris. The result may be overclaim and under-delivery. Today’s technology company and venture capital leaders sometimes provide an illustration of this. When Uber launched, co-founder Travis Kalanick proclaimed his company would significantly alleviate city-centre traffic congestion and pollution. But recent research proves the opposite: Uber and its major competitors Lyft and Bolt have contributed to a worsening of traffic in major metropolitan areas. Precisely by simplifying on-demand and destination-direct transport, they have redirected people from public transport.
The learning is that unintended consequences piggy-back on the decisions we make in business – and in life.
"By tempering our self-belief with an appropriate degree of circumspection it becomes more rounded and robust."
Our delivery and performance will further improve. And being humble and honest enough to say ‘I don’t know’ might be the purest indicator of genuine self-belief.
Habits specialist James Clear also offers this thought-provoking insight: “If you never copy best practices, you’ll have to repeat all the mistakes yourself. If you only copy best practices, you’ll always be one step behind the leaders.” Clear is urging us to be humble enough to learn from others (seek out vicarious learnings), but also to be confident in developing our own ideas (to strive for personal experiences of mastery).
The power of persuasion
In his book Greenlights, Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey tells a story which illustrates the power of social persuasion as a factor in generating self-belief. When McConaughey was a young child his mother entered him in the Little Mr Texas competition. For years afterwards she would celebrate his victory each morning at breakfast – a habitual reminder of his worth, spurring his belief that he could accomplish his goals.
In fact – something McConaughey only found out from his mother’s admission 42 years later – he didn’t win; the trophy was for 2nd place! But it was a symbol of success which his mother used to instil self-efficacy. Would McConaughey have become a brilliant, award-winning actor and film-writer without it?
Green for ‘Go’
Greenlights is scattered with examples of how a young person gains from multiple factors – individually small, but together a powerful mix – which nurture their confidence and self-efficacy. In particular, a parent’s affirmation seems so important. It’s the sanction which liberates, and that freedom in turn engenders responsibility.
The book’s title itself is profound. McConaughey’s expression of the ‘greenlighting’ validation he obtained from his parents – and later from his wife and various associates – is a metaphor for unleashing the potential in people. Giving them permission to fly.
"Of all the ingredients for high performance, self-belief may be the most important."
Especially when we note how closely it’s linked with another, motivation, which LRMG has explored in the performance model of Chelsea Football Club sports psychologist Tim Harkness.
Harkness emphasises motivation as a key element in winning at elite level, where superb abilities are close to par across almost all players. He developed a formula to understand and spur the dynamics of motivation; Motivation = (Reward ÷ Task) x Confidence. His concept’s main point was to show that larger gains (rewards) and/or smaller tasks (relatively easy performance improvement goals) would drive motivation. But I’m also interested in the other variable in the equation: Confidence. The greater our confidence, the formula says, the greater our motivation – a clear reason to grow our self-belief.
One of the most important social challenges of our times is the empowerment of women. I think it’s true to say that self-belief contributes to a woman’s sense of self-empowerment. In turn, it’s possible this triggers the broader realisation – among men, too – that women’s accomplishments prove that women must be empowered. This virtuous circle of achievement is perhaps a combination of Bandura’s second and third levels of self-efficacy in action: vicarious, evidence-based achievement of other women, and the amplification of social persuasion.
Kamala Harris, as America’s new Vice President, will undoubtedly be an inspiration to millions of women globally. Closer to home, my colleague Nozipho Tshabalala tells of the inspirational example set by her mother. At the age of 48 she went to night school to obtain matric, then qualified as a teacher and started a new career at 54. Her mother demonstrated that “the responsibility to change things starts with changing yourself”, says Nozipho. She also acknowledges how she was “blessed to be backed by many people in spaces I had not earned the right to be in. [They] believed in me far more than I had believed in myself at the time.”
It’s also helpful to make the connection between belief and energy, and how this contributes to high performance.
Vincent van Gogh offers a depth of wisdom when he writes about how he overcame a lack of self-belief and a paralysing fear of failure.
“You don’t know how paralysing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter, 'You can’t do anything.'”
“Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of ‘You can’t’.”
No matter how motivated, confident, qualified and self-assured we may be, we should always seek contextual awareness.
Irish rock band U2 made it big – huge – even though, when they started, they could barely play their instruments! They had self-belief, in spades. But how were they able to stay in the groove for 40 years, in an industry rooted in fads, fashion and edginess? As noted in another of our LRMG case studies , the mindset of ‘productive paranoia’ was at play. Knowing the fickle nature of the industry, they resisted any inclination towards overconfidence. They understood that past performance is no guarantee of future success.
Lessons for leaders
Self-belief is not a state of smugness or blindness to alternatives.
“True self-efficacy allows the flexibility to realise we may be wrong, or we need to change habits. Or to reinvent our entire way of thinking.”
Some of our LRMG ‘Survival Toolkit’ case studies illustrate this. During the Vietnam War, US naval commander James Stockdale was captured and held prisoner for seven-and-a-half years, in brutal conditions. Only through a radically altered approach did he survive, and help 500 other prisoners, also, to return home.
Stockdale impressed on the men that individual courage alone was not enough to survive. In a nutshell, he threw out the US navy’s prisoner-of-war rule book, establishing his own, new set of rules for his fellow prisoners, relevant to their appalling reality. Stockdale himself drew wisdom and guidance from his studies of Stoic philosophy; they adopted new coping behaviours, they lived day-to-day without losing long-term hope; they supported each other. In a terrifying and terrible situation, we can see Bandura’s three drivers of self-belief: as they survived each day they realised they could survive the next (own experience instilling further belief); Stockdale’s imitation of Stoic pillars (vicarious learnings); their mutual support network represented a crucial, cohesive persuader (social affirmation).
Stockdale displayed incredible courage and leadership. The story also shows extraordinary self-belief in action. In a terrifying and terrible situation, we can see Bandura’s three drivers of self-belief:
as they survived each day they realised they could survive the next (own experience instilling further belief); Stockdale’s imitation of Stoic pillars (vicarious learnings); their mutual support network represented a crucial, cohesive persuader (social affirmation).
Stockdale displayed incredible courage and leadership. The story also shows extraordinary self-belief in action. In today’s complex and uncertain business climate, multiple factors go into good leadership. Knowledge, skills, motivation, the right habits, sound judgement, innovative flair: these are all vital. But the need for leaders and managers to inspire and to grow their people may be paramount.
“Building individual and organisational belief may be a key factor differentiating great leaders from good ones.”
I hope you are on track to achieve your goals. If you believe, and put effort behind that belief, you can actualise your own story of success. You. Can. Do. It.
PS – some practical tips
Referencing Bandura’s model, by focusing on each factor we can deliberately pursue ways to improve our self-efficacy:
Towards individual mastery: We can set realistic goals, even smaller ones, initially. We can be deliberate about achieving these, taking the necessary time, and persevering. We can affirm our belief once they’ve been achieved – and then keep going, build upon the success by stretching to fresh, incremental goals.
To widen vicarious experiences: Actively seek learnings from others. Read experts’ accounts, observe your mentor at work, listen out for stories of success, search for lessons from related fields of endeavour, or from history.
Embracing social persuasion: Network appropriately. Surround yourself with positive people. Give encouragement to others, because the biblical reminder that became a mantra for Vincent Van Gogh that ‘as you sow so shall you reap’ definitely applies!
Many of our LRMG case studies also provide valuable vicarious our performance.