“You can do anything if you believe in yourself”

Trust your heart.  Believe in yourself.  Follow your dream and you can do whatever you want to.  Ubiquitous morals in Hollywood movies and many TV series.  But potentially poisonous.  As Andrew Rilstone has pointed out, “this is a deeply re-assuring message for the high-achievers who make movies. It says in affect ‘We are rich and famous because we deserve it’. It is a very depressing message for the people who make their coffee.”

Plus it’s, you know …  Not true.

(This image is from a T-shirt that I am very tempted to buy.)

As Terry Pratchett pointed out in The Wee Free Men [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]:

If you trust yourself and believe in your dreams and follow your star … you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.

And yet, and yet …

Lack of belief can stop you from doing things that you would otherwise be able to do.  What it can’t do is enable you to do things that you’re just not capable of.  I would love to play football for England, but not only am I 43 years old, unfit and somewhat overweight; I was a terrible footballer even back when I used to play.  Self-belief can’t change that.  But I am a pretty decent singer and an OK guitarist, and there was never really any reason why I shouldn’t have stood up at a folk club at some point in the last decade and sung a few songs.  Looking back, the reason I didn’t do that comes down pretty much to … you know, not believing in myself and trusting my heart and following my dream (hereafter BIM&TMH&FMD).  And sure enough, once I started doing it I found that it was OK.  I’m not going to win any awards, but, hey, no-one gets up and walks out in disgust.  So that’s something.

And once I’d spotted that, it turned out to be a pattern that applied to other parts of my life.  It didn’t occur to me for a couple of years that my avocational interest in dinosaurs could result in writing papers that contributed to the technical literature, and in fact it took several pretty solid kicks up the backside from my friend Matt Wedel before I started to even take the idea seriously.  But, yeah, turns out that that’s something I can do.  And I suppose it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise since the core skills — careful reading, absorbing information, thinking hard, being methodical, writing well — are the very same things that I do five days a week in my programming job.

Come to that, it applies in programming as well.  It’s an area where I’ve been confident (some would say over-confident) from the start.  That’s hurt me in some ways — I didn’t take Computer Science in school because I stupidly thought that it had nothing to teach me, and boy was I wrong!    But it’s helped me in other ways.  That same over-confidence allowed me to write commercially published games for the VIC-20 when I was fourteen, and to make what was, as far as I can tell, the world’s first Internet MUD a few years later.  Understand: the games were nothing special, and the MUD was actually pretty awful.  But the fact that they existed at all was in part because, without being conscious of it, I was signed up for the whole BIM&TMH&FMD thing — at least so far as it applied to programming.

Here’s the key point: these are areas where I was right to Believe In Myself etc.  And I had good, rational reasons for doing so.  I’m not talking about someone who can’t sing going on Bognor’s Got Talent and thinking he can win on sheer force of belief.  I’m talking about taking a look at what you’re good at, assessing it soberly and objectively, and saying “Hey!  Why the heck am I not doing X?”  And then going ahead and doing it, not allowing an unfounded lack of self-belief to hinder you.

The challenge for me now is to figure out what else this applies to.  For example, I’ve had an idea for a novel floating around in the back of my mind for a couple of years, but sort of assumed that that’s not something I can do.  But … well, wait a minute — why not?  I know I can put sentences together, I know I can plan out a narrative sequence (I have to do this for my palaeontology papers).  Looked at objectively, this doesn’t look like something that I’m fundamentally unable to do.  I should have a crack at it, see what happens.  Really, there’s no reason not to. [Update, March 2014: still no novel, but I did write a non-fiction book about Doctor Who.]

[Apart from lack of time, of course.  That is often the limiting factor.  To do something new, I will probably have to give up one of the old things.  Of course I could give up re-watching every Buffy episode.  But, hey, a man has to relax.]

I want to leave you with this observation.  Since we are now living in the Shiny Digital Future, this is much easier than it used to be.  OK, it doesn’t help with becoming a rock star or an astronaut, but the Internet does mean that anyone who cares to take a stab at writing can find an audience.  It means that anyone who writes an interesting program can distribute it world-wide to interested people.  It means that you can find and make connections with people who are doing the kind of thing you want to do.  You have better access to research materials than anyone, even the most established academics, had ten or twenty years ago.

So is there a project that you want to do, that you have the basic skills for, that you have access to the resources for, but you’re not doing?  Why not?  Is it because you don’t BIY&TYH&FYD?  If it is, then get your self-belief in line with reality.  Judge yourself as generously (and as harshly) as you would a third party.  Do you have the stuff for your project, be it folk singing or programming or writing a novel?

Then do the project.

Because it’s not true that “you can do anything if you believe in yourself”.  But there are things you can do that you never will if you don’t believe in yourself.  Don’t let that happen.

18 responses to ““You can do anything if you believe in yourself”

  1. You could join the US folks in their NaNoWriMo. You get to make a run at your novel, you get to be part of An Experience, and you get to look forward to December when you don’t have to write your novel any more.

  2. Interesting thought. I’ve toyed with the idea of NaNoWriMo before — like, LONG before, back in the 1990s. But I’ve never done it. It would go very much against the grain for me to write in that way — full steam ahead, never mind the details — but maybe that it be a useful experience for that very reason.

  3. I’ve thought about doing a NaNoWriMo before even though I doubt I’ll ever pursue being a “real”, published author.

    It’s like you say, yeah, the experience thing.

    When podcasting was new, I listened to lots of them. It so happened that something like 1 in 3 or 1 in 2 podcasters that was either a real author or a self-proclaimed wannabe author. As a result, without trying to, I picked up a lot of howto advice on being an author. One thing both the wannabes and “real” authors agreed on was that your first novel was almost certainly going to suck “so,” they say, “why not just get it over with? Just write the first one then chuck it in a drawer.” (or online archive) “and forget about it for a few years. Later, after you’ve learned more about how to not suck at writing, you can consider going back to the first book and re-writing it.”

    Once there was an interview with one author who’s very first book was published. But upon closer examination it turned out she’d been writing other, non-fantasy novel things for a long time and getting those published. So that was how she got around the your-first-novel-will-suck edict. And then there was that guy that wrote Eregon. But depending on who you talk to, that might only be an exception to the rules of what counts as publishable instead of what counts as sucking. Note: I have only vaguely glimpsed bits and pieces of the Eregon movie. At this time, I do not personally have an opinion on whether or not the Eregon book was good or not.

    Anyway, I think NaNoWriMo is a good idea.

    And yeah, I’ve long known that “you can do anything you want” and “anything is possible” are basically just gee-whiz empty phrases.

    In my case, it took me a while to realize the opposite. Not that those phrases weren’t entirely true, but that those phrases aren’t entirely false. ;-)

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  4. Relevant to your SDF section is the latest essay from Paul Graham. Money quote, from the second footnote:

    “Most unusual ambitions fail, unless the person who has them manages to find the right sort of community.”

  5. This is a good, balanced perspective. I grew up believing I could do anything, and that my lack of promise as–say–an Olympic athlete had more to do with not putting in the time than raw potential. But that’s foolish.

    In my case, it was healthy to grow out of “What do you want to be known for?” and towards a “Know thyself” approach. I’ve found the StrengthsFinder categories helpful for knowing what I might ‘have the stuff for” and what strengths I should be capitalizing on. Realism doesn’t have to be a call to inaction!

  6. I believe that a person can do practically anything (barring obvious impossibilities like running for Stephen Hawking, for example), but only a few can be really good at whatever they choose to do. In addition, you can often make up for a lack of natural talent through plain old hard work, though it’s often the naturally-talented who rise to the top simply because it’s easier for them to do so and remain full of passion. As an additional addendum, I think there’s always someone better than you at whatever you think you’re good at (ie, keep humble because even an Olympic gold medalist can’t be sure he’s the absolute best when there’s probably some really talented person who just couldn’t get into the training or limelight because of circumstances – there are good examples of this in deeper Africa with running athletes). And the corollary to that addendum is that if you come across someone who seems to be better than you in every way, remember that there is something you can be better at – you just may not have found it yet.

  7. Wyrd wrote:

    It took me a while to realize the opposite. Not that those phrases weren’t entirely true, but that those phrases aren’t entirely false. ;-)

    Exactly! If I’d thought of that formulation, my article could have been a lot shorter!

  8. If you decide to let that novel out, you may want to consider having a listen to Writing Excuses (yes, I know, last thing you’re going to need is more *stuff*)

    It is an excellent and entertaining podcast by a number of successful authors on the process of writing and everything associated with it… and they have the awesome tagline “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart”.

    URL: http://www.writingexcuses.com/

  9. I’m thinking about a book I read, not long ago, “The Talent Code”, by Daniel Coyle.

    He discusses the ten-years, 20,000 hours of practice, effect, the tendency of loci of greatness to just show up in odd places, for no immediately obvious reason. (The girls’ tennis team of the High School I graduated from has taken 29 of the last 33 state championships).

    And he talks about the importance of teachers – not the world-renowned trainers of stars, but the first teachers who can take a kid and turn them into someone who has the love of the sport, game, art, craft, or whatever, someone who has the inspiration that will see them through the 20,000 hours of practice that will be necessary to be someone who can accomplish the dream.

    And that, I think, is where the “If you trust yourself and believe in your dreams and follow your star” takes effect. It’s the inspiration for the decades of effort that is necessary to excel. Absent that faith, there is no effort, and thus no accomplishment.

  10. Your mention of football reminds me of a dream I had where I was playing for Newcastle United (my team) and even in the dream I thought to myself “This is strange, since I was so rubbish at football at school”

  11. I am much better at sports in my dreams than in real life. In dreams, I have played football for England (though I was by some distance the worst player on the team, and if I remember right was called up only because of some emergency). Better still I have dreamed of playing rugby for the national team, and excelling (in fact they could have used me on Saturday morning). I have a recurring dream where I play rugby for a pub side and win the match single-handed, sometimes causing the opposing team to give up the game in disgust, seeing how outclassed they are. On the other hand, I have another recurring dream in which I go skiing with friends, but never get out onto the slopes, due to a series of complications with equipment.

    I have no idea what to make of any of this.

  12. Overheard on a bus here in Leeds – ‘if everyone followed their dreams, no one would drive the buses’. Not particularly useful advice.

    The one thing I have realised over the years is that you CAN get better at things you are not a ‘natural’ at through practice. I think a common failing of people with a reasonable degree of intelligence, who find a lot of academic work easy, is that we tend to drop things that require persistence.

    (This may not be unreasonable – it’s far more productive to throw your generalist analytical skills at a new domain, than putting yourself at the bottom of the curve).

    I have no natural sense of rhythm (I can’t play any musical instrument) but people mistake me for a reasonable dancer because I’ve been doing it for over 20 years.

    As for writing – it’s impossible to say. Someone mentions Eragon, but that makes me think of David Eddings – that – as with most arts, it’s perfectly possible, if not easier, to find an audience for a work that’s competent and cliched.

    The main thing I get from reading writers blogs (Stross, Moorcock) is the importance of writing every day – even if it’s correspondence.

  13. I find Malcolm Gladwell’s book on this subject a bit annoying. It’s a useful corrective in some respects- I’m sure there are people out there who think that Mozart composed his best work without having to work very hard at music (though I’m not sure there are a lot of sensible people who think this.) But Gladwell seems to suggest that the main difference between me and Mozart is that Mozart had more time invested in composing. I’m pretty sure that’s not true.

    I have a feeling that if I were to devote myself to, say, marathon running, I could become better at it than 99% of the people in the world, even at my advanced age ;). I am also pretty sure that even if I had started long-distance running at an early age I could never have become competitive at it- I was not born with the ability to win the Boston Marathon.

    The good news is that there are a lot of fields in which virtuosity is either hard to define, or unnecessary for really worthwhile work. Writing novels and playing folk music are good examples. You generally need a certain level of competence for either, and many people get discouraged because they are not competent when they start. These people need to understand that it takes work to be competent- I wish I had understood this better when I was younger. On the other hand these are fields where competence is enough, and the merely competent can do better work than virtuosi. If you were talking about becoming a concert classical pianist I would advise you to give up on that idea, but I think you ought to go for the writing and the folk music.

  14. Tagore, I’d agree with all of that. I’ve been disappointed by the Gladwell books I’ve read. He seems to have good and important ideas, but spin them out to way over their natural length to make what would naturally be a chapter up into a whole book. This self-created need to find more to say may be responsible for his sometimes saying silly things, such as that the difference between Mozart and me is application. (Apart from anything else, I’m not sure how the eight-year-old Mozart is supposed to have put in the requisite ten years of study.)

    Maybe the trick is for us to see with clear eyes how good we want to be at something. It just isn’t on my agenda to be the World’s Greatest Folk Singer. It really is enough for me to sing and play well enough that people listen appreciatively and there’s a ripple of polite applause when I’m done. For my wife, that wouldn’t be close to enough — she really is potentially a world-class musician. It’s very freeing for me to realise that I don’t have to try to keep up with her (which I wouldn’t be able to do however I tried) but that I can still enjoy what musicianship I do have.

    But in other fields — including both programing and palaeontology — I need to be much better than that. Happily, these are areas where I have more natural aptitude, so that when I put in the hard work, it has something to work on.

  15. Well, Gladwell is pretty world-class at what _he_ does, I think. He has a gift for taking an interesting idea and posing it such that it becomes the answer to everything, and makes people feel like they are in on a secret when they have heard him explain it. And he manages to pose things such that they can’t be refuted- a lot of what he says is tautological if you break it down far enough. He has a gift for telling people what they want to hear in a way that makes them feel smarter for having been told it. This is why he gets >50k per speaking engagement ;).

    I was talking to my uncle (who was a concert classical guitarist and is now a professor and writer) a while back, and I explained why I had decided not to be a professional musician by saying “I was pretty sure that I could become a good musician. But I was also pretty sure I couldn’t become a great musician, and while the world needs as many great musicians as it can get, I’m not sure it needs more good ones.”

    I became a programmer because being good is enough. The world does need more good programmers. I’m no Mozart of code (actually I finally found a bug yesterday that embarrassed me enough that I’m not sure I can even consider myself competent at this point ;),) but the software I write often runs for a while without crashing and does something useful. It would have shocked a 20-year old me to hear the current me say this, but I feel like that’s pretty good. Good enough, at any rate.

    If Gladwell had limited himself to pointing out that with enough work you can get good enough at any of a wide variety of useful things that you are, well, good enough I think his book would have been more interesting, and more useful.

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