Fix-It Self-Efficacy: A Yes-We-Can Attitude Learned the Hard Way

Once I wrote a book six times, about three hundred pages per draft. Every time I started over, I cried.

I took some comfort from knowing that I would stick with the project until it got published and that its success would make the enormous effort worth it. The agent who’d sold the book “One Minute Manager” loved my final draft and took me on as a client. But no publisher would bite. The book was never published.

I have no regrets. I learned a lot-both about the subject and about writing. Among the writing skills I learned, the most valuable is the one that keeps me from having to write six drafts of anything any more.

Rather than scrapping drafts these days, I can fix them. I know how, and as important, I know that I know how, so crappy drafts don’t put me in a panic scrambling for the pristine perfection of a clean slate.

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Last week I wrote about our self-esteem reserves, the way we monitor them unconsciously, avoiding situations that deplete them to dangerous levels. When we resist feedback it could be that the feedback isn’t worth taking in. It could as easily be that we don’t feel our self-esteem reserves could take a hit.

This week I want to suggest another factor that influences our receptivity to feedback. It’s not just how low our reserves are but how fast we can replenish them with genuine improvement.

Like me and writing. News that my writing wasn’t good enough was much harder to take when I didn’t think I could do much about it. Now that I know I can fix it, I can afford to look at its failings.

Before, when someone said, “This whole chapter doesn’t make much sense,” I would think my only choice was to rewrite the entire chapter from scratch, if not the whole book. That’s a high price to pay, so I would avoid the feedback. Now I can take that kind of comment in stride, knowing from experience that bad prose can be turned into good prose.

The same principle applies to any skill. People who doubt their ability to improve can hardly afford to consider the merit of improving.

And it applies to general receptivity about behavior: When you suggest that people consider being more patient, generous, attentive, considerate, or whatever, their receptivity to your suggestion depends largely on their intuition about their prospects of acting successfully upon it. If they don’t think they have it in them, why listen? If taken to heart, advice that can’t be implemented becomes a kind of torture: Yes I should be more like what you suggest. But can I? I only wish, but alas it’s just not in me. To those without confidence that they can change their behavior, it’s like being told over and over that they really ought to consider being taller than they are. Thank you very much for your interest in my case, but please-just shut up.

It applies to social change, too. In my early thirties I co-founded a peace and environmental organization (now in its 24th year) based on this one idea. At that time peace and environmental groups spent most of their energy trying to convince people that the issues were of dire importance. I noticed that importance was only one-third of what people needed to hear. Without evidence of both practical and effective things to do about the issue, they would walk away. None of us can afford to listen to what’s wrong if we don’t see anything we can do about it. What I’m talking about here combines two concepts in general psychology. One is self-efficacy, which is Albert Bandura’s term for a personal sense of being capable of executing certain tasks, acquired largely by having successfully executed similar tasks. Because by now I’ve reliably repaired a lot of crappy prose, I have a high expectation that I can do so again. I have self-efficacy regarding editing.

The other is learned optimism, Martin Seligman’s term for an acquired can-do attitude, which is often taught through the “ABC Change Model”: between A (Adversity) and C (Consequences), learn to insert B (Beliefs), so that disappointing news doesn’t translate instantly into negative consequences but is rather subject to interpretations or beliefs. To apply ABC to my editing challenges, bad prose doesn’t have to mean bad consequences if I can change my beliefs about my ability to fix it.

As an idea, learned optimism needs self-efficacy’s help. Psychotherapy’s most prominent movement promotes the sense that people can change behavior by changing beliefs. That idea has an awful lot to it. But at least for a while and in some circles beliefs have been treated as entirely malleable.

My gut tells me that that’s not quite accurate.

See, I listen to my gut. I don’t see much hope of simply overriding it willy-nilly with any old belief. I can’t help but give it more credit than that.

If my gut has a gut sense that I can’t execute a certain task, I can’t simply override it by officially declaring a belief that I can. With time, training, and-most important-concrete evidence, I can convince my gut that I am capable of executing it. My old gut can learn new tricks. But it won’t simply obey my every wish. A can-do attitude is best built on concrete evidence that one can, in fact, do. Call it fix-it self-efficacy-confidence that you can make things better, born largely of evidence that you can.

I can override my gut for a day, maybe a week if I’m around people who solidly believe what I’m trying to believe, but after that my gut is back full force. So it’s better to train it to interpret accurately than to ignore it and declare, “From now on I’m going to believe this instead of that.”

To be open to criticism you need to know you could do practical, effective things to implement it. To know you could do practical, effective things to implement it, your gut needs to believe it. Unless your gut is a BS artist, it needs real evidence and not just pledges. There’s no substitute for evidence that you can fix things. Once you have it, you can afford to take in evidence that things need fixing.

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