The kids who hated math have something to teach us

Aug 19, 2023 11:01 am

Hold Lightly

Our most recent pod featured investigative journalist Scott Carney speaking about The Power of Lightly Held Beliefs. The premise is that holding onto an idea lightly and being open to change is a potent force.

This got me thinking about another area where belief is at play and that is self-belief. While there might be power in lightly holding on to belief in an idea, I think the opposite is true for belief in self.

The old adage goes something like this

Whether you think you can or think you can’t - you’re right.

It has a ring of truth - one's mindset and attitude can greatly influence their ability to achieve goals. If you believe you can do something, you're motivated and more likely to put in the effort and find a way to make it happen.

Conversely, if you don't believe you can do it, you may not even try, thereby ensuring failure.

Is there evidence that this is actually true?

I think that we all have some experience suggesting validity to this, but is there empirical evidence to say it’s true?

Oh yes! Behold.

Enter Bandura

Albert Bandura was the maven of researching self-belief. He called it ‘self-efficacy’ - a person's belief in their ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task.

According to Bandura, those with high self-efficacy—that is, those who believe they can perform well—are more likely to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than something to be avoided. In addition, they tend to have better performance (Link).

Dunning and Kruger

An important proviso here is that while high self-efficacy generally leads to better performance, there can be instances where it leads to overconfidence. There’s a bevy of research suggesting that a high degree of self-belief can lead to complacency (Link).

Clearly, there’s a balance to be struck and we can’t forget the Dunning-Kruger effect where the incompetent may overestimate their abilities.

The preponderance of data, however, points toward self-belief being a net positive.

This then begs the question, how do I generate it if I don’t already have it?

A doable way to build self-belief

There are myriad ways to build self-efficacy/self-belief. One of the most tangible is using short-term, specific goals.

Meet the kids who hated math

In a seminal study looking at children who disliked and underperformed in math, those who were told, “Complete 6 pages of this book at a time and you are a math LEGEND!” had superior skills development, heightened interest, and boosted self-belief. (Link)

They went from math haters to math slayers. When they could see the goal on the near horizon and then achieve it, they made a deposit in their self-belief bank accounts.

Kids who received no direction or were given the goal, “Get through the whole textbook, then we’ll talk,” reviled math nearly as much at the end of the study and didn’t turn into mathletes. How does this stuff even pass the IRB?

The takeaway from this study was that those who were given small, achievable goals not only built their skills and interest but believed they were capable.


Ted Lasso had it right


Self-efficacy can impact outcome.

Keep on rocking

Robbie O


Emergency, acute care, critical care coaching

If you're feeling stuck, burnt, overwhelmed, or simply want to elevate your career, I specialize in 1-on-1 coaching for emergency, acute care, and critical care clinicians. Learn more here.


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