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  • Writer's pictureJayaram Krishnan

Win by Self-Belief, but do not fail by empty Self-Deception!

Updated: May 24, 2023


We often hear that we must have self-belief to achieve our most challenging goals. But does that really work? And how does it work? Is it just something that leaders and winners say AFTER achieving success? What else is required besides self-belief and how do we put it all together? What are the correct ways of building self-belief and the risks of doing it the wrong way? This article explores these questions and tries to find answers.


Remember all those movie scenes in which the hero gets beaten up within an inch of his life and the villain is celebrating? Then something happens – either the hero sees, hears or remembers something symbolic, remembers the purpose of his struggle, or is goaded on by his mentor or long suffering supporters; and then he gets up, forgets all his injuries and fatigue, and beats the villain and his gang (no matter how many they are) to a pulp. Perhaps he got back his self-belief!

Moving to real life, we often see interviews of tremendous achievers: billionaire entrepreneurs, pioneering innovators, world champions and award winners, many of whom give us the same message: “you must believe in yourself to succeed.”

So, how does this work? If I tell myself a thousand times a day, or keep writing in a notebook that I believe in myself, will that do the trick? Even better, if I believe in myself to achieve a specific goal: I shall top so and so national competitive exam; I shall get picked for the Indian cricket team; I shall create the next billion dollar unicorn startup; I shall become a fortune 500 CEO …and so on. And, if I tell myself enough of times and start believing it, i.e. if I have enough self-belief… Will I then achieve my goal? Let us analyze this and try to find a method which shall actually work!

Fear and lack of self-belief could be a good thing to begin with

Suppose you are trying to do an athletic or gymnastic move that you are personally NOT used to: say, you are trying for the first time to do a handstand, a summersault, a fosberry flop high jump, a pole vault or a 180 degree (van damme style) split. If you have not been systematically training for this movement (see SAID, blog # 4) or doing other similar movements with competence, you can be sure that your mind shall NOT allow your body to even get into a preparatory setup for that movement. That is because, your mind has decided at an intuitive level, that this movement is dangerous for your body, and so, to protect you from injury, your neuromuscular system shall not allow you to even start. If you try to overcome your mind by telling yourself that you believe in yourself, and that you CAN do a handstand for the first time in your life without ever training for it, you shall probably find that you are unable to subdue your intuitive mind with the voluntary force at your command. Your intuitive mind shall simply NOT allow your voluntary mind to dominate it, because after all, they both work with the same central nervous system (CNS), which by design prioritizes survival and self protection above voluntary action.

However, in domains other than personal physical fitness, it may be more possible and easy to override our intuitive mind with our voluntary mind: we may gather the courage to speak up in a hostile crowd or to a superior authority in the face of opposition. Even here, the fear that we experience may actually be a good thing, to help us reflect on our position in the situation, our probability of success, the cost and risk of failure etc. And after we have processed these, both intuitively and rationally, we can then proceed with our chosen course of action. While this could be a good thing sometimes (like when we are fighting for a true cause that we believe in and standing up for the cause is more important than winning that particular battle, for example), it could also be bad as our rational and voluntary mind can go rogue and make us work against our instincts. More importantly (and specific to this article), our rational and voluntary mind can override our intuitive assessment of capacity by giving misleading messages of self-belief! Think of examples in your own experience or what you have seen with others you know: we may prop ourselves up with false messages of self-belief and pursue a goal which we have absolutely no chance of achieving, whether it is an exam, a job interview, a business target or a life goal – and then, we end up with failure.

Therefore, false and exaggerated messages of self-belief and affirmation could actually be self-deception. It would like lead to failure, and in the long term, may result in a reduced capacity for self-belief, due to the experience of failure after attempted affirmation. An oversimplified example: I do not have enough fuel in my car to complete a journey but I keep telling myself that I believe in myself and therefore shall complete the journey. What is likely to happen? The car follows the laws of science and engineering and is least bothered about my self-belief. When the fuel is exhausted, it stops. While this example may seem ridiculous and extreme, I would like to point out that many real goal achievement journeys actually proceed this way, by attempting to substitute sufficient physical capacity and correct processes, with self-belief... not only with individuals, but with teams, organizations, and even nations!

Then, does self-belief really matter, and how does it work?

Even though the previous section is all about how self-belief does NOT work, the truth, which we all should anyway know, is that self-belief absolutely DOES work, and is essential to performance, success and goal achievement. Now that we have done the important job of separating out self-belief from self-deception (which could be the act of substituting capacity and required processes with false and exaggerated thoughts and bravado), let us discuss how to actually make self-belief work.

We just cannot achieve a challenging goal by not aiming for it (unless we want to depend on luck or freak chance); We cannot aim for it with conviction unless we truly believe that we can achieve it (of course, given all the correct inputs and efforts); therefore, self-belief is absolutely essential to even begin the achievement journey for challenging goals.

The super important aspect of making self-belief work is to make various parts of our mind work together. Our rational, logical mind as well as our intuitive mind must accept the following from all points of view:

  1. The chosen goal is of high value and importance for us.

  2. The paths to achieve the chosen goal are known, or they can be discovered (perhaps with external help).

  3. The capacity and processes we need to build to achieve the goal are known or can be discovered.

  4. We shall be brutally honest with ourselves about the capacity and processes we need to build them, and NOT ignore, underestimate or avoid them with short cuts.

  5. We recognize that there may be sacrifices, tradeoffs with other activities, costs, investments and efforts required to build the above capacity and processes

Points 1 to 5 above are more to do with objective, rational and logical assessment, with no emotion, intuition or subjective opinion. NOW, let us come to self-belief, which is more intuitive and emotional:

  1. We believe that we can achieve the goal if we do all the right things

  2. We believe that we shall have the commitment, mental endurance and discipline to keep doing the capacity building, process building and operational execution towards achieving our goal, in spite of distractions, disasters, breakdowns, losses and conflicts

  3. We believe that if we are able to build the required capacity and processes to achieve our goal, we are no less determined to achieve it than anyone else on earth or in the history of mankind! (You can now see humongous levels of self affirmation coming in… but like a carpenter using his hammer, this happens only when all other things fall into place, and only when the point of force application become crystal clear)

  4. Now that we are building the required capacity and processes to achieve our goal, we have no fear of failure. If we still experience thoughts of failure (which are normal), we shall in tandem utilize our rational/logical mind (review the capacity and processes we are building) as well as our intuitive mind (self-belief that we are second to none, now that we have the required capacity and processes), to counter these thoughts.

  5. We shall not focus on our competition, the audience, social media, what-if scenarios, and other extraneous factors. It is only us and the goal in front of us in our universe right now. Like Arjuna and the birds eye (from the Sambhava Parva chapter 135) we shall focus on, and only on, the goal we want to achieve. We shall not be weakened and distracted by irrelevant extraneous things.

  6. If we have specific negative thoughts haunting us like demons – perhaps from our own past failures, assumptions about our weak position compared to our competition, the low success rate of others who pursued the same goals… then, we shall deal with each of these one by one, examining, deconstructing and resolving them.

  7. We visualize future success. We do not do it as idle dreaming, but as the culmination of a process of preparation (building of the required capacity and processes), self-belief (I can do this as well as, or better than anybody, this goal is meant for me, I can see myself achieving it, and can visualize the world after I have achieved it).

  8. We enjoy the pursuit of our goal because we are going to achieve it. We love the parts of our journey that are pleasant, and shall learn to love the parts that are NOT pleasant (see ETS, Blog # 6)

Points 6 to 13 constitute some of the cues, methods, messages and self-talk phrases to build self-belief. There could be many others which you may create, choose or adopt, which work for you personally, and that could be a topic for more discussion. Returning to the theme we started with on popular movies… there are also several of them with valuable stories of building true and sustainable self-belief, along with creation of capacity and processes. If I had to pick one, it would be Rocky III (1982) – I watched it 40 years ago but didn’t really get the nuances… I watched it again a few days ago and found it amazing!

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