If you're feeling in need of a pep talk, you could turn to your best friend or a coach. Or you could just take a look at the scientific literature on potential. A host of studies insist that we generally underestimate our own creativity, persistence, and persuasiveness.
In short, science says you probably have way more potential than you even realize.
You've got more guts than you imagine.
And what's true of persuading others and cranking out good ideas might also be true of mental toughness. According to Brandeis International Business School professor and my fellow Inc.com columnist Andy Molinsky, most of us have a whole lot more grit than we give ourselves credit for.
How does he know? Molinsky regularly teaches a class that explicitly pushes students to get out of their comfort zones. He's even written a book, titled Reach, on the subject. In a recent HBR blog post, he shared how his students usually fare when asked to test their mental toughness and try something that makes the uncomfortable.
To get a sense of what Molinsky's students discover when they're forced to push their boundaries, I reached out to Andy for a success story. He pointed me to the case of a Vietnamese student whom he calls Thao, which is detailed in his book. Thao was a Fulbright scholar who was dedicated to her studies but she struggled to adjust to an American academic culture which values class participation and strenuous debate. In Vietnam, open conflict in the classroom is strongly discouraged, so speaking up felt incredibly uncomfortable for Thao.
But nudged by Monlinksy's class to start sharing her thoughts more, Thao soon transformed entirely. "She became such an enthusiastic participant that professors often had to rein her in so others could speak!" reports Molinsky.
All the reasons you underestimate your resilience
Thao isn't just an isolated case, Molinsky insists. We're all capable of overcoming seemingly paralyzing fears and accomplishing much more than we think possible. If you're skeptical, Molinsky offers a handful of reasons for his faith in our untapped mental toughness (the first four are from his HBR post, while the final one is a bonus reason he offered over email):
- We're more flexible than we give ourselves credit for. "Throughout your life, you've been trained to adapt and adjust your behavior across contexts. Think about the wide range of people in your social circle who you already interact with. Do you speak with your boss the same way you do with your colleagues? Do your interactions with your in-laws take the same form as those with your friends from university?"
- We're braver than we think. "Consider all the things you've already done in your life that took serious guts."
- The situation we're worried about probably isn't as bad as we think. "Fear gets in the way of clear thinking. We worry about the worst possible outcome... There's always a slight chance that the worst will happen, but the reality is a bit more nuanced than that," writes Molinsky.
- We have more resources than we think. "When you face a really tough situation, you often feel vulnerable, perhaps even hopeless. But you're not alone in the situation. You often have quite a number resources to use -- mentors, colleagues, or friends to go to for guidance."
- You're probably better at handling anxiety than you think. "We often doubt our ability to handle anxiety, but the reality is that we're often quite capable of handling it, especially if it's not completely overwhelming. It's critical not to let the 'fear of fear' get in the way," Molinksy wrote me. "There's great power in simply giving something you fear a try. People often have an epiphany when they actually get the courage to try: what they feared isn't as bad as they thought and that they're more capable than they thought."
Are you letting a false sense of your limitations hold you back?