If you’ve ever tried to achieve a goal, you know it’s not easy. The things we really want are usually not that simple to attain. Very rarely to we set a goal of “making 25 cents” or “putting on my pants.” Goals, as most of us define them, are hard to attain and require some intense effort. It’s more than natural to hit some rough patches along the way, and when this happens, it’s also natural to get discouraged. It’s what we do when we’re discouraged that really determines our chance of success.
The primary psychological factor in being successful is self-perceived competence. If you see yourself as competent, you’ll keep trying new things, working hard on projects, and “bearing down” when things get tough. On the flip side, if you see yourself as incompetent, you’ll constantly shy away from challenges, sure that you’ll fail. One of the greatest joys a human can experience is the feeling that he has a hand in what happens to him. It follows, then, that the most depressing and discouraging thing most of us could ever experience is the feeling that we don’t matter, that fate has a plan for us and we’re just along for the ride.
A person who experiences much success in life tends to continue to do so because of the feeling of competence. Randall Strossen, a clinical psychologist says that the best way to realize how this works is to turn it around. “That way,” he states, “you’ll know what behaviors to avoid.” It’s the psychological counterpart to being told that snakes are dangerous before you hike through the jungle.
Strossen says to see yourself as incompetent, follow these four rules:
1. Surround yourself with authority figures who regularly correct you or put you down. Make sure you pick pompous, insecure people to spend time with, and make sure that they give you plenty of unsolicited advice. Lots of people get this chance straight from birth, others have to wait until they are in school. If you really want to be ridiculed, find someone that has different priorities, and tell them your goal. They won’t miss any opportunity to say, “I told you so,” when you’re having troubles.
2. Always set yourself up for failure. If you’re trying to lose weight, make sure to plan on losing at least 20 pounds. If it’s your half-marathon you’re wanting to improve, don’t be satisfied with anything less than a ten minute improvement. And my favorite, take a few weeks off of training, then come back and flat-out expect to be just as fit as when you stopped doing the workouts.
3. Rehearse your failures and keep the bad feelings fresh. Our imaginations are virtually unlimited; we can come up with all kinds of reasons to think we suck. Remember how poorly you did last time you rode your bike up Sinks Canyon, or how you fell off the warm-up climb at Wild Iris.
4. Establish unrealistic goals. Similar to setting up for failure, you need to put big plans out there so you’re always worrying about them. Not that goal setting is bad, but planning on winning the Boston Marathon after barely qualifying is probably a bad plan. This is the best way to set yourself up for repeated failure.
The path to engineering competence then becomes clear. You just reverse all the rules above and you’re on the right track.
Start by surrounding yourself with people that will support your efforts and who believe in your ability to achieve your goals. Make sure that these people know that their support role may even require (gasp!) a sacrifice on their part.
Next, be sure to set yourself up for success. Pick activities where you succeed often, and work at stretching yourself from there. Can’t do a full rage squat with 200 pounds on your back? Work your way toward it by perfecting all facets of the movement. There’s nothing wrong with air squats. Make sure you give yourself time to reach the big goals.
Rehearse your successes. Don’t focus on the crappy workout you just had and how weak you feel. Remember how you ran your intervals faster than ever last week? Scale didn’t budge today? Remember how much you’ve lost so far on this plan. You get the idea…
And finally, establish some good, ambitious, and achievable goals. If you reach these goals easily, set the bar higher and attack again. One thing to beware: don’t use “realistic goals” as an excuse to lower your standards.
Belief in yourself is critical if you’re ever going to really get anywhere. Whether you get to the gym or out on the road is really up to you. Whether you’ll make that leap depends on how much you believe in yourself.