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The U.S. moon mission was fabricated, humans and dinosaurs co-existed, and Elvis (Presley) is still alive: these are just a few of the many contentious beliefs some people maintain and ardently defend when challenged. We also have deep-seated beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs are substantiated by a lifetime of personal experience amplified by our cultural affiliation. Personal beliefs are wide-ranging and may include assessments of how favorably we compare to others, evaluations of what we do well or poorly, which individual traits we value, and how we think we should present ourselves in public.
You may think “what’s the problem with being unique and having unorthodox beliefs?” The answer is, plenty! Teachers with false beliefs may perpetuate mythical “learning styles” with their students compromising learning outcomes, parents and doctors with health misconceptions may object to vaccinating their children out of an unjustified fear of autism, and the phenomenon of “fake news” is totally substantiated by the ‘truth vs. belief’ conundrum. The problem worsens when we hold false or unjustified beliefs about ourselves because these beliefs establish the boundaries for our goals and behaviors. If we believe we are poor at mathematics we won’t seek a science career, if we look in the mirror and think we see an unattractive person then a party invitation will likely be turned down, and when we have an unwarranted opinion of certain races or genders, we avoid – and possible discriminate against – such individuals.
The damage from irrational, unjustified, or false self-beliefs and personal misconceptions accelerates when the strength of the beliefs are so powerful and intense that the beliefs dominate your behaviors and how you interact with the world. Minimally, people may question your motives and scrutinize the degree of passion you express toward certain people, topics, and causes. In extreme cases, others will question why you appear to act so irrational and bizarre. Often false beliefs carry consequences for the individual. If you are dissatisfied with your personal or professional growth, the impact of false self-beliefs can lead to feelings of apathy, depression, or feeling alone in a room full of other people. While the “weirdo” label is coveted by some, most people want to thrive and feel good about themselves and the image they present to the world.
The Big Five
Five of the most flagrant and influential self-beliefs that impact performance are described below. Be cautious if you find yourself thinking or believing any of these common misconceptions about the self. However, if you harbor any of these self-beliefs you should remain optimistic because beliefs are always subject to revision. Keep in mind that the first step toward personal or professional growth is awareness of what needs to change and understanding how your motives drive the behavior you seek.
Success is determined by how I compare to others
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We set standards of excellence for our personal and professional agendas in one of three ways. We can compare ourselves to our own past achievements, to an objective set of standards, or to other people. In turn, the points of comparison help determine the goals we set. Social comparison sends a signal to others that we are more focused on competition and eliminating envy than we are about personal improvement.
Social comparisons are especially tricky because only one type fosters improvement: upward comparison. Comparing yourself to someone you perceive as superior can prompt you to develop skills, but still may limit success if you are actually capable of achievement beyond that of the comparison target. Downward comparisons generally just make you feel better about yourself, rather than motivating personal improvement as in the case of upward comparison. These downward comparisons are used by people who lack confidence or self-esteem and who worry about what others think of them. Downward comparisons feel good in the short term because when we believe others are inferior relative to ourselves, our brains produce the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine enhancing our perception of well-being (Qui et al., 2010). However, generally speaking it is best to avoid making social comparisons of any type because when we favorably compare our potential is restricted and doesn’t produce the same level of competence as comparing ourselves to a defined standard or criterion of excellence, or besting our own previous achievements.
Happiness is unobtainable
Many people operate under the flawed presumption that no matter how hard they try or what they accomplish, attaining happiness is about as probable as finding a unicorn in the White House. The happiness shortfall was recently confirmed by a survey in Time Magazine titled “The Science of Happiness,” which revealed that only 30% of the U.S. population described themselves as “very happy.” Happiness is determined subjectively and varies for every individual, explaining why author William Arthur Ward described happiness as “an inside job.” The happiness void is not so much difficulty in determining what makes you happy, but by failing to use certain science-based strategies that help you attain your own personal nirvana and avoiding counterproductive approaches known to interfere with reaching your happiness goal. Contrary to popular beliefs and some commercial publications, you cannot become happy merely by smiling. You can however achieve happiness if you know what happiness actually is – a highly subjective emotion that is not exclusively determined by wealth, relationships, or perpetual optimism.
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So, what can you do to inch even closer to your happiness goal? First, figure out what you value. Second, realize that mere attainment of goals is not the answer, unless you celebrate by focusing on what you accomplished and avoid immediately thinking about the next thing. Research reveals one key reason that people fail to sustain happiness is because they do NOT have a balanced time perspective and either dwell on the past or focus too much on the future (Sobol-Kwapinska & Jankowski, 2016). Third, give your life a jolt of reality. In my latest book I discuss the “Reality Hack,” which contends no individual is immune from life’s hardships. Whether we like it or not, we will lose loved ones, we may get fired from a job, and we might suffer physical and mental health setbacks. People who recover from misfortunes best are those who use the event to become stronger and wiser – thus contributing to and not impeding their happiness. Finally, talk to other people. While close relationships with others are crucial for happiness, research reveals that even chit-chat with complete strangers can significantly enhance our perceptions of satisfaction and contentment (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014).
I can’t control the world
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As a university professor, I interact with my students dozens of times each day. When an assignment is missed or a failing test score is earned, I often receive emails with a litany of reasons why things did not go according to plan. The emails invariably imply that either a series of unfortunate events (e.g., bad luck) or a combination of factors beyond the control of the student (e.g., my dog ate my computer charger, flash drive, and textbook while I was sleeping), contributed to the undesirable outcome. While I try to be empathetic, I know that when I hear “the questions were too hard,” “the instructions were not clear,” or “you are the worst instructor EVER,” that the student believes success is a function of luck or ability rather than effort.
Popularized as a “mindset” belief by Psychologist Carol Dweck, people have one of two primary views that influence how they interact with the world. We can operate with the motivationally superior belief that we can change and grow when we invest personal effort, or we can believe (and act) like we are at the mercy of the world, incapable of influencing our personal or professional destinies. People who have the “fixed” mindset may stagnate and unconsciously withhold effort because they fear failure. These folks believe it is better to viewed as weird or unmotivated rather than to be looked upon as incapable. Conversely, people with a “growth” mindset deliberately immerse themselves in new and challenging situations. Growth mindset people realize that failure ultimately leads to success. Instead of stagnation they allow themselves to learn and admit fault because they realize that successful people make mistakes all the time (at least according to Amazon.com Chairman Jeff Bezos, allegedly the richest person on the planet).
My skills and ability are extra(ordinary)
A 2018 survey of 2,821 college-educated Americans revealed that 73% believe they are above average in intelligence. These results update the seminal 1999 study that substantiated what is known as the Dunning-Krueger effect, whereby people routinely overestimate their cognitive abilities and are oblivious to the mistakes they make. Skill inflation contributes to an extraordinary workplace phenomena: college grads showing up for work thinking they can do the job, when in reality they are ill-prepared. A recent Gallup survey found that only 11% of business leaders strongly agreed that students have the appropriate skills and competencies for job success, while 96% of academic officers from their universities believed their students were highly qualified. Ironically, former Duke Professor, Stuart Rojstaczer, analyzed 50 years of publicly-available university data and discovered that the average grade point average (GPA) has risen from 2.8 to 3.2 over the last 30 years. Nowadays a student is twice as likely to be awarded an “A” than they were 40 years ago—and it’s not because students are getting smarter – it’s because similar performance is rated higher than in the past.
Beside career derailment, over-confidence makes us appear incorrigible because we are ignorant of our own subpar performance. When we are in a professional environment we may not recognize the obvious, using flawed reasoning or logic to support our claims, while resisting objective feedback from more knowledgeable others. Instead of seeking improvement, “inflators” may go through life searching for information that confirms their beliefs, while ignoring or filtering out inconsistent information[MM1] . In some cases, miscalibrated individuals are unable to distinguish truth from wishful thinking, which not only gives others an obtuse impression, but lead to some of the greatest mistakes in the history of the world.
It’s not me, it’s my motivational type
Humans have an insatiable need to search for the causes of events, outcomes, and behaviors. If something goes wrong, we want to know why and who was responsible. If something turns out right, first we take credit and then we seek to understand the reasons for success to replicate the desired outcome next time. Humans also enjoy the convenience of withholding cognitive effort whenever possible (Stanovich, 2009). Why think and reason when you can generalize? The combination of seeking causality and resting our brain results in labeling individuals according to specific characteristics and traits. Not unlike a doctor who indicates a diagnostic code to summarize a bunch of symptoms, we diagnose ourselves and others. We use all sorts of labels to justify our identities and the behavior we exhibit to others by thinking or stating, “He’s an introvert,” “I am a patriot,” “She’s autistic,” or “I am a single parent.”
Labeled self-assessment becomes a problem leading to weird and inaccurate branding of people for several reasons. First, there is no such thing as a fixed motivation type, despite what some consultants and authors would like you to believe. Although you may exhibit dominant motivations, behaviors change according to the situation, the people involved, and our emotions, among other mediating factors. Second, generalizing assumes all people with a specific label are motivated by the same things. Not only can similar behaviors represent different motives, but there is huge variation in the behavior of people with the same label. Third, sometimes the label results in the person acting the way they think they are supposed to act based on the label ascribed to them. Individuals who maintain the status quo will feel better about themselves when they can blame lack of success on an unjust and unfair society, rather than when they objectively evaluate and take accountability for their own behavior.
What should you do next?
If you think or exhibit any of the weird thoughts and behaviors described—do not worry. All behaviors can be changed when the person gains self-awareness and actually wants to change. First, start by comparing yourself to your past performance and strive for incremental success by besting your own previous accomplishments. Second, figure out what makes you happy and bask in the enjoyment of the accomplishment in the here and now—wait a few days before planning the next thing – you deserve the down time and glory. Next, realize that you can change your probability of success by being prepared. Do work in advance and avoid reacting to the world and instead plan and influence your destiny. Fourth, realize you have a unique set of skills, abilities, and potential, but be realistic and objective. Those who accurately calibrate their abilities (and developmental needs) are consistently more successful than the “inflators.” Finally, remember that you are a unique individual who responds differently to the people, places, and the conditions you encounter. Unlike an ingredient label on a jar of pickles or a can of beans, your flavor changes all the time!
Bobby Hoffman is a university professor and author who is generally considered weird and unusual by others. Follow him on Twitter for daily updates and original content on learning, motivation, leadership, development, and life.