I’ve been re-reading Putting Out of Your Mind by Bob Rotella. He’s a sports psychologist for golfers. A head doctor if you will. He recently walked the Open Course with Darren Clarke and is seen as a contributor to Clark’s Open victory.

In this book he suggests that, when lining up a put, we believe with all our being that the put will drop into the hole. We visualise it. We tell ourselves it will happen. We see it so clearly it is as if it has already happened. AND, we don’t care if we miss.

It’s basically about what psychologists call self-efficacy. Very crudely, self-efficacy is our belief about how effective we are at doing something. How skilled we are. How competent.

The key word is belief. Our belief about how effective we are, or could be.

Many studies have shown that it is better to have an inflated belief of your abilities than a deflated one. Yes indeed, confidence, even over-confidence is good, if annoying for those around you.

Self-efficacy is important because it affects almost everything we do. The more self-efficacy we feel about a task or challenge, the harder we work at it. That’s another wee quirk of the human mind. We work harder at the stuff we think we can do.

Critically, I think the better we think we could be in the future, if we apply ourselves, is also a part of self-efficacy. The acceptance that we might be a bit rubbish at the start but having a belief, from self-knowledge, that we could get better in the future – that’s also self-efficacy. The books don’t mention this “self-efficacy orientation”, and I just made it up, but it rings true to me.

Taken to extremes in the other direction, the poorer we think we are at something, the less hard we try, until we give up entirely. Psychologists have a name for this too. It’s called learned helplessness. Isn’t that dreadful – learned helplessness? Ugh.

There are two staircases here.

On the first staircase we take action. We improve. We gain competence and hence confidence and so we take more action and so it goes on. It’s an upwards staircase to the top floor where there is a glass ceiling below an azure blue sky. This is self-efficacy. Psychologists actually say that this is the route to a happy and productive life. They really do. I have the book in front of me (Understand Psychology – Nicky Hayes).

On the second staircase, we seldom take action and when we do take action we are hesitant. Failure or poor results are immediately seen as evidence of our lack of competence. We pull back, do not improve and our competence and hence confidence does not rise. Eventually we stop. Further attempts at action become less and less frequent. We have attained learned helplessness. This is the staircase down into the basement. Where there is no light. We are doomed. Death soon follows.

OK. OK. I’m joking about the death bit.

I had a brush with self-efficacy recently (actually all the time but this is a neat wee example). You may have had a look at my new website for my programme Leading for Growth. I put this website up in about two weeks. It was a lot of work. Most of it outside of my competence. I had so much to learn. I had to do some videoing of me, of all people. Here’s me not yet with the physique of the Tour de France rider and some say a face for radio. Then I had to deal with masses of technology – editing, screen recording…and then the wonder of third party video hosting in the cloud (wot?). It was quite stressful at times and the children were shouted at on more than one occasion (poor self-control). And there were times when I put my foot on the first step of the staircase to the basement…

For example when after two days of video editing I discovered that all my videos were stuttering like Max Headroom (remember him?). But I knew I was going to sink the put. I knew I could do it because, hey, if it can be done by anyone I can do it too. That’s my self-efficacy orientation kicking in. I knew that we as humans have this really funny characteristic where when we do things we seem to get better at them! And in fact, to turn it around, if we don’t do things we CANNOT get better. And the converse of getting better is that in the past we were less good, or rubbish. (I used to have a boss once in my early career who at annual appraisal time would look at my improvement over the year and criticise me for being more rubbish at the start! The only way to avoid this criticism would be to never improve! I guess management just isn’t for some people.)

So where am I now? Well, the video website is up and running and a critical skill set I need for the future has been developed (first steps at least).

What seemed like a huge black hole of zero competence now holds no fear for me. I have improved my self-efficacy massively in an important area and I look forward to my next video/web project not with helplessness but with enthusiasm. I am on the right staircase.

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