I was recently having dinner with a friend who was telling me his plan to get in shape. He had always been on the skinny side and wanted to bulk up a bit. His plan was to gain ten pounds over the following two months. Being the good friend I am, I told him he’d probably fail.
My response may seem rude or pessimistic, but it was the truth. I’ve known this friend for a long time—long enough that we can give each other blunt feedback without taking offense—and setting fitness goals only to make zero progress was so common it was practically a ritual for him.
Instead I gave him a better plan. Why not focus on trying to just exercise regularly for one month? After that, it will be easier to keep working out even if you can’t hit a specific milestone.
The problem with my friend is a general one. Self-help books and our overly self-esteem obsessed culture tells people that they can do anything. That everyone is the smartest, strongest and most beautiful person. The only problem is, we’re not.
You’re Lazier, Weaker and Dumber Than You Think
I believe, on the whole, confidence is a good thing. It may even be the case that even being irrationally overconfident is a good thing. Narcissistic people do better in job interviews, and many of the worlds most productive people had egos bordering on megalomania.
The reason confidence works is that it is usually in the abstract. Genuine confidence is hard to fake consistently, so being overconfident in the abstract leads people to believe it’s justified.
This advantage of confidence may explain why people are so overconfident. Despite the media cries about low self-esteem, most people tend to believe they’re above average in everything. In fact, there’s some evidence that the more realistic self-estimate is associated with depression. Evolution may have hardwired us for our own self-deception.
The weakness of confidence is when you’re forming concrete, short-term plans. These occur on such small timescales that you’re unlikely to reap any of the benefit of your inadvertent boasting, so being too ambitious can actually hurt you.
My friend’s fitness goal is a clear example. He, like most people, was overconfident about his ability to make behavior changes in a short time. By trying to accomplish much less in the short-term, his chances for lasting long-term change goes up dramatically.
You’re Not Really in Control
Think of any recent action you took: reading this article, taking a shower, eating breakfast. Now ask yourself, who decided to take that action?
Obviously you did. The entire principle of consciousness is that we’re agents, aware of and responsible for our own actions. Aside from rare cases of extreme intoxication or psychological disturbance, we generally suggest people are the causes of their behavior.
But this grip of control over our actions may be more illusory than we’d like to admit. Cognitive scientists are just beginning to discover that many of the reasons why we take particular actions are simply made up. The conscious mind may be less of a causal force and more of a storyteller, fabricating explanations for behavior which is dictated at an unconscious level.
An interesting experiment provides insight into this frightening reality. A split-brain patient is someone who, usually as a treatment for extreme epileptic seizures, has had their corpus callosum severed. Those are the interconnections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
In the experiment, the patient was shown two images, one to the left hemisphere and one to the right hemisphere of the brain (each eye is wired to separate hemispheres). In this case, a picture of a snowy driveway and a picture of a chicken.
The patient was then asked to pick an image corresponding to the scene. The left hand (connected to the right hemisphere) pointed to a shovel, matching the snowy driveway. When asked about this choice, the more verbal left hemisphere said that it was because the shovel could be used to clean out the chicken shed. The left brain had no access to the picture of the driveway, so when asked what caused the right brain’s response it simply made something up.
This experiment suggests many of our conscious decisions are actually stories created after the fact. We make a decision, and then our conscious mind weaves a story to explain it, even if the true motives are unknown.
How Recognizing My Feebleness Changed My Life
This may sound depressing, but it doesn’t have to be. Knowing that your conscious control is weak is actually tremendously helpful. It means that instead of constantly chastising yourself and making excuses when you fail, you can uncover and tweak the true generators of your behavior.
For me, the biggest change in my life happened when I stopped trying to accomplish everything at once. I realized that I’m actually incredibly lazy—most of what I do has to do with habits and trivial stimuli, rather than deep thoughts.
Instead of trying to change every behavior at once, I would pick something incredibly small and simple and focus on it for an entire month. Even that can be difficult, but it meant I could make a change almost habitual before I tried something else.
In my short-term to-do lists and projects I strive to be modest. My agenda is usually far less ambitious than my friends, even in cases where my track record is better than theirs.
What About Optimism and Ambition?
I believe optimism, hope, ambition and all that general self-help pabulum work best as far beliefs. That is, being overconfident works best when it is a generalized ideal you use to think about the long future, not when you’re planning your to-do list tomorrow.
The truth is, most people make two errors in their judgement. They are overly optimistic in the short-term, because inherent overconfidence and the illusion of control convince them they can achieve more than they can. But people are also too unimaginative about the future—we tend to imagine the future as mostly resembling the present.
I suggest two cures: first, acknowledge your short-term laziness more. If you know you’re lazy, you can work around it. Most people don’t because we like to think of ourselves as being industrious and in control, not easily manipulated automatons. Second, be more imaginative about the future, even small ripples can turn into big waves over time.