An entire industry of self-help gurus tells us that what we think about ourselves is the most critical question we can answer in life. Their insistence on this idea has made it almost a matter of fact as far as the general population is concerned.
This notion leads us to place more emphasis on our beliefs about ourselves rather than on our true capabilities. If we become so wrapped up in our own perception of ourselves that we let it dictate what we can and cannot accomplish, we will almost always fail to live up to our true potential because we end up relying on our limited reserves of willpower to push us forward. A great racecar driver, for example, does not rely on inspiration and positive thinking to execute a turn. Instead, he or she relies on the ability that they honed through practice and experience.
When you are truly capable, belief in yourself is irrelevant.
What is relevant is being in touch with reality, which includes a grounded assessment of your own capabilities. Moshe Feldenkrais, a physicist and judo master who spent years studying how people learn said, “Will power is necessary only where the ability to do is lacking.” According to Feldenkrais, the more capable you are, the less you have to convince yourself that you can actually accomplish the task in front of you.
The top competitors or experts in any field might pay lip service to ideas that sound like philosophies of positive self belief, but if you look beneath the surface into their actual lives, you are likely to find that the story is quite different. A top athlete is not a product of pure willpower. A top athlete is the result of years and years of focused practice and careful, calculated coaching. Your favorite basketball player might say something inspirational in a shoe commercial, but what you don’t see is him waking up at 3am to practice foul shots.
The same story is true for top business people or for surgeons or for scientists. They develop and grow their true capability over time rather than relying on positive self-belief. And you should see this as good news because virtually everyone has the capacity to practice and learn.
That top heart surgeon at a prestigious hospital, the one who barely sweats during a six-hour operation, once sat in a regular high school biology class like nearly everyone else. He or she might even have struggled at first and studied extra hard to reach his or her next goal. It’s not that they are super human or have some hidden reserve of Spartan dedication that most of us lack. Their growth is gradual, with each step forward building on the last.
The same story can be true for your own life, whether we are talking about your professional development or your health goals, and it’s the root of the Habits of Health philosophy. No one can flip a switch and become a master of any skill. No amount of self-esteem or positive self-talk will make that possible.
What is possible is for you to start where you are with your current ability and build it over time. If that means doing one push-up a day for two months, that’s fine! Eventually, you’ll work up to doing two push-ups a day, and then five, and then 20. As you work at it, your true capability grows. You won’t need faith to know if you can do 20 push-ups when you’ve made it a habit to continuously improve, little by little, each day.
That’s the practical truth here: start small to build your true capability up over time if you really want to achieve your goals.