There's a saying that goes, "Life is twenty percent what you make it and eighty percent how you take it." It's a playful admission that only a small percentage of life happens the way we plan it. Everyday reality is filled with disappointments, setbacks, barriers and frustrations. We don't have nearly the control over events that we'd like to think we have.
What we do enjoy in large measure is the capacity to take life's little surprises in stride, persevere, and turn adversity to our advantage. That is the essence of self-efficacy—the belief that you have both the will and the means to handle pretty much anything that comes your way.
Self-efficacy equips you to bounce back from failures and approach problems as challenges, not tragedies. According to psychologist Albert Bandura, who has devoted much of his career to the study of self-efficacy, an efficacious person believes in her ability to produce a level of performance that allows her to influence the events in her life. In other words, she rarely sees herself as a victim of circumstances. No matter what happens, her sense of self-efficacy leads her to look for viable options and make conscious choices.
Believing in Yourself
Having a sense of self-efficacy contributes to motivation in several ways. It helps to determine the kinds of goals you set for yourself, how much effort you expend in reaching them, how long you persevere in the face of difficulties, and your resilience in the aftermath of failure. Self-efficacy determines how you feel, think, motivate yourself and behave.
How well do these statements describe you? Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most like you.
- I welcome challenges that require new skills because I believe in my ability to master those skills.
- When faced with a difficult situation, I focus my attention and effort on finding a workable solution.
- I am spurred by obstacles to greater efforts.
- When I fail at something, I examine my performance to determine where I could have done better.
- When trying to sell an idea or product, it takes a lot of "no's" to discourage me.
- When a problem arises, I examine all available options and choose a course of action based on sound judgment.
- By evaluating how my choices and actions have worked in previous situations, I avoid making the same mistakes twice.
- I view setbacks and failures as learning experiences, not tragedies.
- I feel confident that I can solve most problems as they come up.
- I recover from disappointments quickly and keep going.
Take a look at low-scoring items and think about how you might improve in those areas. When faced with obstacles and failures people who doubt their capabilities tend to slacken their efforts or give up quickly, while those who believe strongly in their capabilities exert greater effort.
How Is Self-Efficacy Developed?
Bandura identifies four main sources of self-efficacy: personal successes, social models, social persuasion and emotional states.
Every success that you experience contributes to your feelings of self-efficacy, provided that success is realized through your own efforts. Accidental successes (winning the lottery) don't count, and easy successes don't count for much. Obviously, you will give yourself significantly more credit for succeeding at a challenging task than at an easy one. As successes accumulate, your sense of self-efficacy grows proportionately.
A role model—someone you admire and look up to—can also strengthen your belief in yourself, especially if the model is someone your perceive to be very much like yourself. Mentors are a perfect example. When you watch your mentor in action, you picture yourself in her place. When she succeeds, success seems more attainable to you.
Skillful teachers and supervisors develop the self-efficacy of their students and subordinates by presenting them with realistic challenges, offering appropriate doses of coaching and encouragement, recognizing and praising their progress, and celebrating their success. Bandura calls this "social persuasion." Merely being told repeatedly that you are capable and powerful may help build self-efficacy to some extent, but actually mastering a skill or completing a task is much more potent.
Emotional states affect self-efficacy on a daily basis, for better or worse. We all have our ups and downs. We all get discouraged. A long run of bad luck can definitely chip away at your sense of self-efficacy. That's why it's important not to overload yourself with challenges. Devote a significant portion of your time to things you do well. Orchestrate your life so that you always have something to look forward to. And don't wait until the big payoff to pat yourself on the back. Give yourself credit for each modicum of success.
A Word About Self-Efficacy and Stress
It's important to recognize that self-efficacy has limits. Research shows that when facing an overwhelming crisis or emergency, it's better to be able to acknowledge your lack of control than to feel as though you must do something. To believe that you are responsible for resolving impossible situations is not only bad judgment, it's bad for your health. If you can recognize those situations in which you don't actually have any control and step back, your will suffer less damage from stress.
Tips for Improving Your Sense of Self-Efficacy
- Break big projects down into subtasks requiring relatively short time periods. Make your progress tangible and visible.
- Cultivate social relationships that provide good models of success, encouragement and someone to talk with about problems and setbacks.
- Focus on your potential, rather than your limitations.
- Devote yourself to activities that you do well.
- Orchestrate your life so that you always have some event or activity to look forward to.
- Stop defining success in terms of huge breakthroughs and see it in each chunk of progress you make.
- Break away from other people's standards and expectations. Rely on your own definition of success.
- Learn from sports. In baseball, soccer, football, tennis, and other sports, wins and losses are everyday events. Even though you lose today, you show up tomorrow for the next match, ready to give it your best.
- When facing adversity, look for ways to turn the situation around so that you benefit from it. Sometimes it's just a matter of changing your attitude.
- Remember, life is 20 percent what you make it and 80 percent how you take it. You control your reactions and responses.
Take Action Now
Here's a short exercise in self-examination. Think about two or three problems that you are facing now or have faced recently. How did you approach these problems? What were your feelings, thoughts and actions? After you've given some thought to these questions, complete the following sentence-starter with a detailed paragraph or two. Be descriptive. See how much insight you can gain into your usual problem-solving process.
When I'm facing a problem, I…
If possible, discuss the results of this exercise with a friend or colleague. Examine your problem-solving process in relation to some of the main points of this lesson.
About the Author
Dianne Schilling is a writer, editor, graphic artist and instructional designer who specializes in the development of educational materials and customized training programs for business and industry. She holds a masters degree in counseling and is a founding partner of WomensMedia.com Send e-mail to