Unscientific Evidence That What We Believe Matters

Blog Originally Posted May 12, 2022

A few years ago, I was helping kids in a local community race. The children had an obstacle course to navigate, and my job was to offer both direction and encouragement as they ran the course. I was not the only one yelling encouragement. There were lots of us cheering them on, with the typical cheers like “You can do it!” “Go, go, go!” and the ever present “Run faster!”

As I was running alongside one of the boys, I remembered something I had recently read in a book, the title of which I’ve long since forgotten. According to the book, encouragement that says you ARE doing something is more effective than cajoling someone to do better. In other words, you get more of what you touch.

So, I changed my script with this runner and said, “You are so fast!” instead of “Run faster!” Immediately, the boy sped up perceptibly. His face also just looked a little happier.

For the next few runners, I conducted my unscientific experiment. Every other one got “run faster” and the others got “you are so fast.” From my already biased view, it was clear to me that the ones who heard “you are so fast” believed it with their feet. When they heard those words, they kicked into another gear. I saw no change in the others. I didn’t record times, or otherwise follow basic scientific protocols to verify my “findings.” However, it was so clear to me that one way worked better than the other that I just used the “you are doing it” version encouragement the rest of the day.

I have to say I had some mental noise about telling someone “you are so fast” when they were not the fastest. A part of me wondered if I was lying to myself and to the kid.

However, every kid was being as fast as he or she believed they could go. I simply poured a little gasoline on their belief, and it appeared to amplify their speed. It certainly amplified their confidence.

A few years later, I went to ski with Seth Stisher at his ski school near Charleston. I had skied with him many times before, so he knew how I ski. In the first few passes, he only commented on what he saw me doing well. After three passes, each of which got consistently better, he said “Wow, Lynn. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you anything else. You keep getting better when all I talk about is what you are doing well.” He did eventually have some very useful tips for me.

However, both of these stories remind me that the distinction on the razor’s edge of performance is not our skill. It’s our confidence and belief in our skill. The subtle message of encouragement like “go, go, go” or “run faster” is that you aren’t quite there. Counterintuitively, it can keep us from going faster. Why? I’m not quite sure and it’s not true of everyone. But if we think we are slipping, it’s common to start beating ourselves up. The message of “not there yet” can fuel self-doubt instead of confidence. If we touch our self-doubt, we will get more of that.

When I find myself frustrated by my lack of progress in any area, I’m focusing on the progress I have already made. The difference in my ability to then take the next brave step is notable.

Where are you looking to progress? How can you focus on what you’ve already done? What is the next best step?