When Elon Musk found out that NASA had no intentions of going to Mars, he decided to invest $100 million of his own funds to develop reusable rockets; if NASA was not going to bring humanity to Mars, he would do it himself. Space industry veterans dismissed him by saying that reusable rockets were impossible. They had, after all, been trying to develop them for fifty years.

Musk just shrugged and said, "I think I can do it."

He turned out to be right. Musk has been called a "walking moonshot," but if Musk's achievements inspire your awe, you should spend a little time reading about Nikola Tesla, the man for whom Elon Musk's auto company is named.

As a college student, Tesla blurted out in his physics class that it was unnecessary to use a commutator to harness the electric current of a dynamo. His outraged professor responded, "Mr. Tesla will accomplish great things, but he certainly will never do this. It would be equivalent to converting a steady pulling force like gravity into rotary effort. It is a perpetual motion scheme, an impossible idea."  The professor then spent the rest of the class proving why Tesla had to be wrong.

But within three years, Tesla had proven that it was the professor--indeed the entire physics and electrical community--that was wrong. It is Tesla's AC systems that power the world's electrical devices today. Tesla also invented wireless communication, many forms of lighting, and the first remote controlled robots. He was an astonishing man who didn't let others define what was possible for him.   

In my research on breakthrough innovators, I've found that one of the most important traits Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Dean Kamen, and others share is an intense faith in their own ability to overcome obstacles and achieve their objectives. This is known by psychologists as "self-efficacy"--a form of task-specific confidence. A person with extremely high self-efficacy may take on projects other people think are impossible, and stick with them tenaciously, even in the face of adversity or criticism. Because they have great faith in their own ability to assess a problem or a solution, they trust their own judgment even when others don't agree with them. Knowing they can overcome obstacles also means they don't perceive difficulties or setbacks as signals that they won't succeed; instead they are just prompts to work even harder.

But where does self-efficacy come from? More importantly, how can you increase it?

Early Wins 

One of the most effective ways to help yourself or others get greater self-efficacy is through experiencing success at a challenging problem. Most breakthrough innovators I've studied had early wins that taught them important lessons about what they were capable of. Elon Musk, for example, created and sold a videogame, Blastar, at the age of twelve. Thomas Edison had opened two stores and was publishing his own newspaper, the Weekly Herald, by the age of fifteen. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had an early win when they successfully built and sold "blue boxes"--small boxes that could replicate AT&T's tones well enough to hack the phone system for free long-distance calls. Jobs noted, "If it hadn't been for the Blue Boxes, there wouldn't have been an Apple. I'm 100% sure of that. Woz and I learned how to work together, and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and actually put something into production...You cannot believe how much confidence that gave us." 

One of the key takeaways of this is that we want people to experience success at overcoming difficult problems. We want to help them rack up early wins by giving them problems that are challenging, yet are likely to be solved, and we want to avoid "rescuing" people if they experience setbacks. Swooping in to help others when they face difficulties might strengthen social bonds, but it can also undermine self-efficacy. In some cases, it may be better to step back and express, "I know you can do this."

Hero Stories

The second most powerful way of gaining self-efficacy is through observing how someone else overcame obstacles to achieve their goals--"vicarious learning." Humans are hardwired for social learning. We learn how to do things, what's safe to eat, what the likely outcome of an action is, and more by watching others. A big part, then, of how we ascertain what we are capable of is by seeing what others are capable of doing. This is why hero stories--especially if the hero is someone we can identify with--are so powerful.

Nike, for example, inspires its employees with the story of track coach Bill Bowerman. Bowerman wanted to create a running shoe that would provide excellent traction, but without the metal spikes that were the standard of the day. One morning while he contemplated his waffles he was suddenly inspired: What if you reversed the pattern and formed a material with raised waffle-grid nubs? Several ruined waffle irons later, Bowerman had created the waffle-soled running shoes that debuted at the 1972 Olympics.

It was those Waffle Trainers that put Nike on the global footwear map, initiating a period of unparalleled growth. Nike makes sure all employees know this story. It is particularly effective because it shows that powerful innovation can come from anyone. Bowerman, after all, was a track coach--not an engineer. Furthermore, the fact that Bowerman's inspiration came from waffles show that innovation can literally come from anywhere.

The inspiration we get from reading stories of great innovators can actually change us, by building our own self efficacy. When we read about how others have overcome difficult challenges or achieve grand goals, we are teaching ourselves about how we too can overcome difficult challenges and achieve grand goals.

Self-efficacy makes us bolder, more likely to challenge assumptions, more resilient, and more persistent. These are traits that are crucial for innovation to be sure, but they are also valuable for a person's performance in a wide range of domains. Just by having that feeling of "I think I can do it," you increase the likelihood of that statement being true.