Perseverance and Self-Efficacy

If one remained as careful at the end as one was at the beginning
there would be no failure

 —  Lao Tsu

In contrast to ordinary language in which a word may mean different things to different individuals, a technical term has a single definition. Self-Efficacy refers to the expectation that one can master the challenge. “I can fix any computer problem” is an example of the confident expectation of a person with high self-efficacy in that domain. That same person may have low self-efficacy in another domain: “I am a nerd and will probably be socially awkward at the party.”

My clients tend to be impressive individuals who generally accomplish what they set out to accomplish; they typically develop the necessary skills and work industriously until they achieve their goal. In other words, they have high self-efficacy in most domains of their life. But when it comes to managing their emotions, they perform less well — astoundingly less well — and so tend to have low self-efficacy in this domain.

As you would expect, self-efficacy influences performance: People with high self-efficacy can tolerate physical discomfort and surprising amounts of frustration, and yet they persevere, creatively solve problems, and stay the course until one way or another they accomplish what they set out to accomplish. In contrast, people with low self-efficacy tend to abandon the effort after minor discomforts or frustrations. “I’m not going to succeed anyway, so why suffer more than necessary?” is an example of the demoralized attitude of a person with low self-efficacy.

Achieving a worthwhile outcome often requires that you persevere through at least some discomfort or frustration. A mountain climber would never achieve the intended outcome if [s]he abandoned the task at the first sign of discomfort or frustration. It is persevering in the face of difficulty that is part of the adventure of mountain climbing. But discomfort and frustration do not evoke a heroic reaction when an individual has low self-efficacy in a particular domain. Instead of triggering resolve and creative problem solving, setbacks often elicit negative emotional reactions such as hopelessness, shame, or self-loathing, which in turn trigger the motivation to abandon the effort.

A Peak Experience

Mountain climbing is a metaphor for a difficult but surmountable challenge. It would be foolhardy to attempt a serious climb without proper preparation or without the understanding that you will probably encounter physical discomfort and difficult challenges along the way. Despite the dangers and obstacles, most people who set out to climb a mountain successfully achieve their goal and remember their adventures as peak experiences. Mountain climbing is hard and often painful, but people take it on voluntarily without financial compensation because it’s fun to experience the enhanced self-efficacy that results from mastering a difficult challenge. In fact, when competent individuals have realistic expectations about the nature of their challenge, they tend to perform responsibly, and persevere—despite the physical and mental discomforts they encounter—until the goal is achieved. The difficulty of the challenge is in fact an essential part of the story, and the whole enterprise—including the discomfort—is often remembered as a positive experience.

It is important to distinguish between process and outcome. The mountain summit is the nominal or outcome goal of the mountain climber’s efforts. Performing well is the process goal. For the climber, the real goal of going mountain climbing is the exhilaration — the peak experience — that results from engaging the challenge. The function of the summit is to provide a focus that gives structure to the activity and later to the story the climber will tell friends, family, and self. If, for example, a storm developed during the climb and the team performed brilliantly by getting everyone off the mountain with no injuries, the climber would feel successful despite failing to achieve the nominal goal of reaching the summit.

Self-Efficacy Research Highlights

  • Individuals who have high self-efficacy
    • are willing to tolerate physical discomfort and psychological frustration without abandoning the path to their goal.
    • tend to employ an action oriented thinking style—that is, they focus on how to solve the problems.
      • Action oriented thinking makes success more likely.
  • Individuals with low self-efficacy
    • tend to abandon their goal in the face of even minor obstacles.
    • tend to employ a state oriented thinking style—that is, they focus on how they feel and why they feel that way.
      • State oriented thinking makes failure more likely.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy: I am Effective Vs. I am Defective

Demoralization is the enemy of good outcome. Most people I work with have tried several different approaches to resolving their emotional issues by the time I first see them. The fact that they are still seeking resolution indicates that none of their previous attempts have succeeded. This history of failure puts them at risk of defecting at the first difficulty, even though this same individual would never abandon a challenge that was in a high self-efficacy domain.

Question: Why is it that a lost object always turns up in the last place you look for it?

Answer: Because once you find it you can stop looking.

Major life accomplishments emerge over time as you systematically solve the problems you encounter along the way. Many The research suggests that in domains in which you appraise yourself as able to successfully cope with whatever may come up, you are more likely to focus on problem-solving than on self-evaluation. Actual success is encouraged by an attitude that permits you to competently and consistently perform all the actions required to achieve your goal, the pleasant ones as well as the unpleasant ones.

Good outcome is the byproduct of doing what needs to be done, and the perseverance to do what needs to be done, despite the temptation to defect, emerges from good outcome.

The kind of change we seeks requires persevere, and perseverance is highly correlated with self-efficacy. Low self-efficacy is a major obstacle to doing what it takes to achieve good outcome. The transformation from low self-efficacy to less handicapping perspectives results from an act of will.

Like other subjective phenomena, self-efficacy does not exist in the objective world; it exists entirely within you. Low self-efficacy — the expectation that "I will fail" —  handicaps future performance. This is a thinking error and is not valid; you are not a fortune-teller. Nevertheless, self-fulfilling prophecies tend to come true. You can change your future by using Suggestion or by De-Reifying the concept of your incompetence.

Thought Experiment: Efficacy Enhancing Imagery.

Consider an area of your life in which you are usually successful—athletic, artistic, occupational, social, etc—and imagine what it feels like to be you when you take on a challenge in this domain. Elaborate this imagery until you experience the confident state associated with high self-efficacy. Now, imagine that you are presented with an impressive new challenge in this domain: What is your attitude toward it? How would you expect to react to the discomforts and frustrations you encounter?

The objective of this course is for you to develop some mastery over your emotional reactions to the things that happen so you can act in accord with your interests and principles, even when doing so is difficult. The challenge to persevere when it is difficult to do so is a difficult one. The trance formational tools described in this section will enable you to persevere despite frustrations and discomforts so that you get what you want out of life.

Just as insufficient perseverance can interfere with getting to good outcome, excessive focus on the outcome can interfere with doing what it takes to get it. Buddhists, Greek Stoics, and modern psychologists agree that attachment to outcomes produces failure and unnecessary suffering.


Doing Personal Research > >
^ Back to Top