How to Become More Capable
Three ways to build a strong foundation for your life.
Posted September 23, 2020
This essay was first published in Womankind magazine, #025: Canada, 2020. Used with permission.
What is the basis for a happy, meaningful, satisfying life?
Love and work, the experts say[i]. Wholeheartedly invest your resources, talents, time, and energy into developing loving connections with other people and work that is meaningful and makes a difference. That is a life worth living.
But, you might wonder, how do I do this? Our fast-paced, driven, me-centered orientation undermines rather than supports the development of this kind of life. How do I slow down, grow deeper roots, and expand my life beyond the tyranny of the urgent?
To this question, I submit this: Invest in growing yourself mentally and emotionally. Your relationally-oriented world and your work-oriented world are built on an even deeper foundation. This is the foundation of your inner world. I believe that meaningful work and loving relationships are built on a deep sense of mental and emotional well-being.
Through my work as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, I have come to appreciate the value of one particular aspect of mental health: a sense of being capable. By this I mean the feeling that you have a mind that can manage yourself, your work, your relationships, and life’s challenges in an effective way.
A sense of being capable involves coveted psychological capacities like patience, tolerance, courage, humility, flexibility, and resilience. It reveals itself in practice as a sturdy mind that can listen, receive and use critical feedback, speak up, take risks, manage conflict, and recover from disappointment and loss. It yields the fruit of happiness, creativity, contentment, inner security, and harmony with oneself and others.
A sense of being capable is fundamentally an attitude. It is not about being the best, the strongest, or the smartest. It is more like the moral of the childhood story, “The Little Engine That Could.” As the tale goes, an engine was needed to pull a heavy load of freight trains over a hill. The larger engines felt that the load was too great and refused to help. But the Little Engine offered to give it a try. It hooked up the freight trains and slowly made it up the hill, chugging and chanting, “I think I can, I think I can.” With that attitude—the mind and heart to gather whatever power it had and rise to the occasion—"I think I can” became “I did it." That’s what I’m talking about.
This sense of being capable is not something that we are born with, but something that we develop through lived experience. The kind of experiences that promote its growth are challenging ones. Just like the work of developing physical strength, we must push ourselves in order to become emotionally and mentally strong.
Here are three ways that we can develop a sense of being capable.
1. Work toward excellence in areas where you are naturally gifted. I once met an extremely talented, genius-level jazz guitarist. I was in awe of his skill, especially his improvisational ability. After his set was over, I told him how impressed I was with his musicianship, having some idea of what it took to be as good as he was—that rare and essential combination of natural giftedness and practice, practice, practice.
He looked at me with sadness in his eyes and said, “I really should be practicing. I would feel so much better about my music if I really put in the time.” Despite the fact that he was so brilliant, he did not feel capable, deep inside. He did not feel that he owned, earned, or deserved his success.
This is a cautionary tale. It is tempting to coast in life, to fool ourselves into believing that we are satisfied with getting by. That is always an option. It is a choice. But that choice leads to a sense of being disappointed, ashamed, and even guilty that one has not invested the gifts that one has been given.
There is an alternative choice. To bring your best. To practice. To improve. And that choice leads to an entirely different emotional state. It leads to a sense of being capable, competent, masterful, honorable, responsible, and proud of oneself in the best sense of the word. And that emotional state is a big part of feeling good about oneself and one’s life.
2. Put yourself in situations that are outside your comfort zone. Try something new—especially something that you are not naturally good at—even if it means feeling awkward, small, or afraid. When you are able to be successful in an area of weakness, the feeling of being capable is especially strong.
When I was in my early thirties, I participated in a hiking trip in the national parks of the southwestern United States. We were a group of 12, mostly women, with two guides. While I am modestly fit, I am not particularly athletic nor an experienced hiker, so this was a reach for me. Pushing myself to hike in the up-and-down elevation of the Grand Canyon and through the hoodoos of Bryce was challenging, but Angels Landing in Zion was the comfort-zone buster for me. When I heard that people have fallen off the steep cliff to their demise (there are guard rails and chains bolted into the mountain to keep you from falling), I wasn’t so sure I could or should do this.
But I realized that I was there to challenge myself. If I wanted safety and security, I could have stayed at home. So I had a conversation with one of the guides. “You have seen my level of capability over these five days. Do you think I can do this?” She said, without hesitation, “Yes, you can do this.” Only half of our group decided to go. Two turned back halfway. But faith in my guide led to faith in myself, and I was able to go and face my fears. When I got to the top (and then thankfully and safely back to the bottom), I felt capable in a way I had never felt before.
3. Respond to life’s unwelcome challenges with intention and determination. Our world is in the midst of enormous challenges today, reeling with the demand to find our way through a global pandemic as well as upheaval in race relations, economic turmoil, natural disasters, and political divisiveness. We are shoulder-deep in an ocean of anxiety, loss, rage, and helplessness.
The best that we can do is set our minds to manage as gracefully as we can. We would never choose to go through these painful experiences, but going through them thoughtfully and intentionally can grow our capacities and develop our mental muscle. In times like these, it can be very stabilizing to channel the “I think I can” energy of the Little Engine, taking one hill at a time, one step at a time, one breath at a time.
The foundation of a good life—one in which we can wholeheartedly engage in meaningful work and loving relationships—is a sense of being capable. This sense can be developed and strengthened across the whole span of our lives, through the many experiences that challenge us, whether we choose them or not.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.