There’s a parable that I’ve heard a few times passed around self improvement seminars and books. It goes like this:
As my friend passed by the elephants, he suddenly stopped, confused by the fact that these huge creatures were being held by only a rope tied to their legs. It was obvious that the elephants could, at any time, break free from the ropes they were tied to, but for some reason they did not. My friend saw the trainer nearby and asked why these beautiful, magnificent animals just stood there and made no attempt to escape.
“Well,” he said, “when they are very young and much smaller we use the same size rope to tie them and at that age it’s enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe that they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.” My friend was amazed. These animals could at any time break free from their bonds but because they believed they couldn’t, they were stuck right where they were. The powerful and gigantic creature limited its present abilities by the limitations of its past. How many of us go through life believing the ropes tied to us?
We all assume we’re right all the time. It’s human nature. If we didn’t think we were right, then we wouldn’t do what we do or think what we think. But the problem with us all believing that we’re right is that we’re not. In fact, most of us are wrong most of the time. All of us.
Whether believing the earth was flat, that man could never fly, that Gods who created the world lived on Mt. Olympus, that masturbation caused one to go blind, that the earth was created in six days six thousand years ago — all of these beliefs were “right” at one time, and were eventually proven wrong. In fact, you could say that almost every single belief held throughout human history has eventually been proven wrong and replaced by a more correct belief. And that most of the beliefs we hold today are probably wrong in some shape or form and will eventually be replaced by more correct versions.
Which begs the question, what do you believe today which will be replaced in the future? And I don’t mean on a philosophical level, but on a personal one. Look into your past, what is something you used to think was “right” but turned out to be wrong? I used to think women would only sleep with a guy who wanted to be their boyfriend. I was horribly wrong. I used to believe that nobody would care about what I wrote and procrastinated starting a blog for over six months as a result. Wrong. I used to believe that I was just genetically weak and would never put on any muscle no matter how hard I tried. Wrong again. I used to believe that hot women were only interested in guys who were buff or had a lot of money. Definitely wrong. These were all ropes tied to my legs and it wasn’t until I considered trying to break them that I realized I could.
That’s the problem with being wrong all the time, we never know that we’re wrong. We wait for something or someone to come along and prove us wrong instead of testing our beliefs out for ourselves. We stand around waiting for someone to untie our ropes for us instead of trying to break free on our own.
The Danger of Limiting Beliefs
Limiting beliefs are beliefs that something we wish to accomplish is not possible for some reason, and therefore they prevent us from taking action or responsibility towards that goal. The elephants believing they were stuck to the ropes was their limiting belief. An example is someone believing he can’t get a job in finance without an Ivy League degree, so he doesn’t even bother applying. Another is the belief that women are only attracted to men of their own race, so a guy doesn’t put in the effort required to find a girl who does like him.
But sometimes limiting beliefs don’t even need to have a reason for them. For instance, someone may believe that he’s simply not talented enough to become a professional musician. Why? Just because. Or someone may believe that he’s unattractive and no woman would ever date him. Why? Just because.
Limiting beliefs are born from rationalizations of previous painful experiences. They’re an adaptive measure by our mind — earlier experiences cause us pain, so we construct beliefs in which to avoid those experiences in the future. Limiting beliefs are also designed to remove responsibility from ourselves. That way we’ll never hurt ourselves again by thinking we can change our situation. It’s not that the elephants believe they’re too weak, it’s that the rope is too strong and therefore they believe there’s nothing they can do about it.
We all get hurt when we’re younger. We all experience some degree of trauma. And to explain away the pain, we construct rationalizations to protect ourselves. If these rationalizations are reinforced enough, they become permanent beliefs.
So, for instance, someone who is bullied in class regularly growing up may rationalize that he’s made fun of because he’s stupid and will never succeed intellectually. This explanation is easier to stomach than the alternative: that people can be cruel and that you must stand up for yourself sometimes.
So as the bullying recurs, like a stream eroding a valley through the earth, each time the event occurs, the rationalization imprints itself deeper and deeper into our brains. Pretty soon, it’s no longer an excuse, but a permanently-held belief. One which we’re unlikely to question at any time in our lives.
Most of us develop beliefs like this unconsciously when we’re young. But sometimes beliefs begin when we’re older. Let’s say when you are 20 years old, you go to a party for the first time. Everyone’s drinking and you’re excited to talk to some girls. You make an awkward and nervous approach and the girl is a real bitch — she makes fun of you and rejects you in front of everyone else. Your self-esteem is shattered and instead of recognizing the situation for what it was — one bitchy girl — you decide the girls at parties are full of themselves and can’t be trusted.
The most unfortunate aspect of limiting beliefs is that our mind is constructed to unconsciously find evidence which already supports our currently-held beliefs. In psychology, this is referred to as the subjective validation bias. Once the belief is adopted, our mind then goes on auto-pilot to continue reinforcing it.
So our poor rejected party-goer will likely begin to perceive bitchy behaviors in all of the girls at the party. Look at how entitled and pushy that girl is when she asks for another beer. Oh, look at that girl, she doesn’t even like the guy she’s dancing with, she’s probably using him for attention to make some other guy jealous. Look at that girl standing by herself, does she think she’s too good for everybody?
Each rationalization reinforces the original excuse, that girls at parties are bitches, deeper entrenching the belief further and further until it goes unquestioned.
Once the limiting belief is solidified, our captivity is completed through self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-fulfilling prophecy is when our beliefs unconsciously alter our actions to reinforce those same beliefs. We all do it. We can’t help it. For instance, in one famous study, psychologists found that giving test-subjects non-alcoholic beer and then giving them a fake breathalyzer telling them that they were drunk, the subjects responded just as poorly to acuity tests as people who actually were drunk. The subjects were lead to believe they were drunk and therefore unconsciously behaved accordingly. Their poor acuity scores only reinforced their belief that they were drunk and most of them refused to believe the psychologists when they were told they were administered non-alcoholic beverages.
In a similar vein, our rejected party-goer’s newly solidified belief that all girls at parties are stuck-up bitches will now influence his behavior in future encounters with girls at parties. At the next party he’s at, each girl he comes in contact with he will treat as if she’s stuck up and full of herself — i.e., he will not exactly be friendly or relaxed around her. This, in turn, is more likely to elicit negative responses from the girls — after all, when you treat a girl like a bitch, she’s likely to act like one — and thus he further solidifies his belief that they’re all stuck-up bitches. He’s now an elephant tied to a rope, which he doesn’t even realize he can break. It’s a vicious cycle, as belief influences behavior which in turn influences results which reinforces the original belief that led to a negative result to begin with.
How to Break Your Ropes
We’re all hindered by many of our own beliefs. The problem, like the elephants, is that we don’t realize which beliefs are hindering us. Here is a step-by-step guide to identifying some of your own limiting beliefs and rewiring them in yourself. It will help to go through this if you first identify an area of your life which you’d like to excel in but feel stuck or held back. The example I will use is someone who wishes he could be a professional musician, but you can apply these principles to just about anything.
1. Self-Skepticism – Since we all believe that we’re always right, and since we know that we’re all sometimes wrong, let’s go ahead and err on the side of being wrong and question everything we believe. Go ahead and assume that everything you know and think is likely wrong or incomplete. This will require a great deal of humility and uncertainty, which is not easy for many to stomach, but it’s necessary.
A man who believes he knows everything is a man who learns nothing. What’s more important: being right, or changing your life?
Our friend who wants to become a professional musician has the following beliefs: that he does not have enough time to practice to play in a band regularly; that he needs to buy some high-quality gear if he’s ever going to attract good people to play with; that he hasn’t written a song in nearly a decade and fears he’s forgotten how; that he’s not a talented singer and can’t be very good at it.
Once he stops and considers (or perhaps assumes) that all of these beliefs are incorrect — that he does have enough time to practice and play in a band, that he’s just not making the time; that he doesn’t need high quality gear right now, he can always buy it later; that if he could do it before he can do it again; that anyone can sing, it simply takes practice — it now not only removes his excuses for failure, but presents him routes to accomplish his goal.
2. Collect Evidence to the Contrary – The second step is to counter-act our subjective validation bias, and instead of recognizing what supports our belief, to consciously look for what goes against our limiting belief. This is particularly easy if you have beliefs about large populations of people — i.e., women never date a guy shorter than them — if you start looking, you’ll find plenty of couples where the guy is shorter. Sure, it’s a minority, but there are millions of men in the world dating women taller than them (I know probably half a dozen myself). Start looking for them. Chances are they’re out there, you were just choosing not to notice them before.
For our musician friend, it’s time for him to start paying attention to evidence that contradicts his beliefs. Perhaps meeting and recognizing gigging musicians who have a day job or who don’t have great equipment, or realizing that a lot of history’s great songwriters didn’t begin composing until their mid-20′s or even early-30′s.
3. Plan on Being the Exception – If you’ve done step two well enough, it will be undeniable to you that there are at least exceptions to your limiting belief. It may not be normal, but women will date a shorter guy. It may not be typical but white women will date minority men. It may not be expected, but a guy with no high school education can get a job at a financial firm. The next step is to plan on being the exception. Ask yourself what this would take? In the cases of height and race with women in the above situation, it probably simply means approaching more women than the next guy and not letting yourself get discouraged. That’s not too hard.
For our musician friend, it would be challenging himself to join a gigging band without the extra time and gear he believes he needs first.
4. Take Full Responsibility for Failures – The most important step to not falling back into your past belief patterns is to take full responsibility for your results. If women who are taller than you or of a different race reject you, don’t blame it on your height or your race, blame it on things you have control of: your style, your ability to connect with them, your nervousness when meeting them.
If our musician friend auditions for a few bands and it doesn’t work out, he should not blame his lack of equipment or his lack of talent, but focus on what he can do better — learn the songs better beforehand, try to relate to the band-members better, display his passion and excitement more, and yes, practice more.
Since we’re all going to be wrong about most of the things we believe, why not choose to overestimate one’s chances rather than underestimate them? Why not assume you’re more than capable rather than less than capable? Why not see yourself as blessed with amazing opportunities instead of a victim who’s been screwed over by the world? Both are inaccurate views — or rather, both are subjective views and neither can ever be proven definitively.
You are capable of so much more than you currently think. Why not find evidence that supports THAT belief? That you live a privileged and blessed life already and don’t need anything to prove it to yourself? That women would be lucky to be with you? That any financial firm or band would be lucky to have you join them?
Why not try on those beliefs and see how they affect your behavior, see how that behavior affects your results and see how those results affect your worldview?
Research has shown that people who overestimate their abilities perform better than those who underestimate their abilities. It’s no coincidence that the most successful people in the world tend to be megalomaniacs. Or as Steve Jobs once said: “It’s the people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world who do.”
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