Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Focus on Skills and Goals

It's a mistake to worry about talent or rely too much on it.

We're told that we succeed when we "believe in ourselves." But in our "self-esteem" culture we rarely hear the truth: research shows that people normally overestimate their abilities.

 We also sometimes hear that high-achievers need anxiety and fears to keep pushing themselves. "It's been a two-edged sword," says Carol, a workaholic. "I like the rewards success has brought me, and I know I worked so hard because I worried I was stupid."

Does chronic insecurity have any relationship to success? So far, research says no. Fear of failure can lead people to spread themselves too thin, or miss deadlines while seeking perfection.

The middle path between complacency and arrogance and destructive anxiety lies in accurate measurement and feedback.

Don't focus on who you are, your intrinsic intelligence or talent. Think, instead, about your skills and goals. This is true even in areas like writing or the arts where there's a big emphasis on early evidence of talent.

Realistic self-esteem is possible when you set measurable goals, gradually up the ante so that you can see progress, and seek trustworthy feedback. So if you're a writer, you might commit yourself to blogging every day. You might up the ante by making your blogs more complex and then ask an experienced editor for comments.

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Let's say you've won a good new job as a HR manager, and you've never had management responsibility before. One rookie mistake is to walk in thinking you can change all the procedures and boost everyone's morale right from the start.

Better to take it slow. You may feel you are "winging it" for the first months or even a year or so in a new role. You are, and it's better to be realistic than overconfident. When you're new and don't know the standards, you're especially likely to misjudge. The proof comes as you meet expectations week to week, and rise to new challenges. Then one day you can say "I'm a HR manager with a staff of six," and feel fine.

If you never reach that point, you may suffer from what psychologists define as "chronic impostor" feelings. Some people (often female) believe that they've covering up for their ineptitude or stupidity by working overtime, mastering office politics, or avoiding the more difficult tasks.

As a child in school, my friend Amanda, for example, believed she was "stupid," and that she was fooling all her teachers. "I could synthesize other people's ideas," she says, "but I didn't believe I could come up with ideas of my own." Fearing her lack of creativity would be exposed, she chose not to pursue a degree in English literature, her passion, and became a lawyer instead. Her early feelings of fraudulence led her into a field where she never belonged-and again, she felt fraudulent, As she says: "I didn't believe in it, I did it for the money," she says.

Feeling inadequate can get so extreme it's bizarre. Ellen, an Oxford philosopher, tortures herself over every word of her papers. "It's completely inefficient," she admits, since she typically throws out numerous "first drafts." But she's afraid that if she isn't absolutely careful, she'll look dumb. Dumb? Well, Ellen feels she lacks the "quality of mind" of a true philosopher. In conversation with colleagues, she continually evaluates their "quality of mind" and assumes that they are evaluating hers.

The trouble here is a dramatic version of what happens when we worry about who we are rather than what we've trying to accomplish.

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Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.


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