That pithy advice, usually attributed to Henry Ford, expresses one of the most frequent themes in the vast literature of self-improvement: that self-confidence is an empowering and self-fulfilling means to achievement and happiness, whereas doubting one’s ability is an equally self-fulfilling obstacle to success. Properly understood, both themes are true. But understanding them properly requires that we look past them to the real source of human action.
A belief in one’s efficacy can indeed motivate the drive and endurance that lead to achievement. Scores of movies tell the story of an underdog—a boxer, a bicyclist, a basketball team, a dancer—surmounting one challenge after another in the confidence that victory will be theirs. The pride of accomplishment in our personal lives comes from meeting challenges that stretch our capacities. And human progress across the centuries has always come from thinkers, inventors, explorers, and builders who did what no one else thought possible.
“I can” recognizes what is possible for us. “I will” takes responsibility for living.
Conversely, the feeling “I can’t” is one of the great disablers. What can motivate a person to push beyond the comfort zone—the routine, the conventional, the safe—when he starts with the conviction that it’s impossible for him? “I can’t solve this math problem,” says a frustrated student, and in giving up he misses the opportunity to acquire an important skill. A competent but anxious driver tells her friends “I can’t drive at night,” and gives up the things that used to make her evenings fun. “I can’t make a woman happy,” says a man after a string of failed relationships, deciding to abandon the risk as well as the fulfillment of romance. “I can’t take the chance of failing and getting fired,” says a manager whose idea for reorganizing the work flow in his office might have brought him recognition and promotion.
Henry Ford’s common-sense advice is confirmed by a large body of psychological research on self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to act effectively in pursuit of goals, a field pioneered by Alfred Bandura. Studies comparing people with a high sense of self-efficacy to those with low self-efficacy have found a number of differences. The former tend to set more ambitious goals, have stronger commitments to their goals, recover more quickly after failure, stay more focused on the task in the face of multiple demands on their attention, and are less vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
At the most fundamental level, too, self-confidence is an element in self-esteem, a cardinal value that we need to seek and maintain in the service of our lives. Ayn Rand describes this fundamental level of confidence as the “inviolate certainty that [one’s] mind is competent to think.” Whatever level of confidence one has in regard to specific kinds of activity, confidence in relying on one’s mind to guide his choices, goals, and actions is a fundamental condition for happiness.
For all these reasons, Ford's double-edged statement is good advice. But it is also a double-edged sword. The statement is true within a context of more fundamental philosophical and psychological truths about human action, but dropping that context is a prescription for failure.
The Context of Achievement
The first of these truths is the primacy of existence. Things are what they are—facts are facts—regardless of what we think, believe, feel, or want. What we are capable of is set by the facts of reality, including the reality of human nature and our own specific identities. An inventor who tries to build a perpetual motion machine is going to fail, no matter how passionately he believes he can; his goal is incompatible with the causal laws that govern nature. A student who does not know algebra will not be able to solve calculus problems; the effort is incompatible with the objective hierarchy of mathematics. A basketball team may train with the utmost intensity to raise the level of their game, believing they can win the state championship, but they cannot alter the reality that other teams are doing the same thing to the same end. Recognizing the constraints of reality, including the reality of other people and of their freedom and purposes, is the essence of rationality in general and of goal-setting in particular.
Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged is an interesting fictional example of over-confidence based on a failure to recognize the full reality of others. Dagny holds out the longest before joining John Galt’s strike because she thinks she can still save the Taggart Transcontinental railroad. As Ayn Rand says in her notes for the novel,
Her error—and the cause of her refusal to join the strike—is over-optimism and over-confidence (particularly this last) . . . .
Her over-confidence is in thinking that she can do more than an individual actually can; she thinks she can run a railroad (or the world) single-handed, she can make people do what she wants or needs, what is right, by the sheer force of her own talent, . . . by the sheer over-abundance of her own energy; she will show them how, she can teach them and persuade them, she is so able that they'll catch it from her.
She abandons the railroad only when she sees that her belief was in error.
The second basic truth about human action is the primacy of will. Human action is purposive, and a purpose has efficacy only when we choose to pursue it—when we commit to it, hold it in mind, make it the center of attention, identify the means to achieve it, and then commit to those subordinate steps toward the goal. Confidence that one can achieve the goal may be a great enabler, perhaps even a necessary condition for success, and self-doubt is doubtless a disabler. But the fact of the matter is that we often do not know in advance whether we actually can achieve a goal, especially in the case of major goals we pursue over long stretches of time, involving many interrelated steps, interactions with others, and changing circumstances that we cannot predict in any detail. At most we may have a generalized confidence that we can meet the challenges to come, but what sustains any such initiative is the will to keep moving toward the goal.
Imagine an entrepreneur who has founded a successful company and is now looking back to the beginning. “If I had known then what it would take, would I have taken the plunge?” he wonders with a kind of rueful pride. The pride comes from the memory of all the things he had to learn, all the obstacles he had to overcome, all the venture capitalists who turned him down before he got funding, all the employees who disappointed him before he put together the right team, all the changes in business conditions that forced him to tear up his business plan and adopt a new strategy. The ruefulness comes from the thought that had he known all this in advance, he might not have had the conviction he could pull it off. But he did not know all these specific challenges in advance, and so could not have had confidence in his ability to meet any one of them in particular. At most he could have issued a general promissory note to himself to do whatever he could at each step of the way, based on confidence in his general ability in business and knowledge of his product. But the source of that promise, and the driving force of his success in the new venture, was not “I can” but “I will”— his choice to start the company and his commitment to make it succeed.
The third basic truth is the primacy of value over capacity. Exercising our capacities is a necessary means to achieving our goals, but the worth of the means depends on the worth of the goal.
To be sure, there is pleasure—and often a psychological gain—in the self-expressive act of seeing what we can do. When children play, they often invent challenges to test and expand their powers. Much of education is intended to develop cognitive abilities that prepare us for adult life. We may only use some of them in our work, but having a range of knowledge and skills gives us the chance to choose among the many forms of work we might adopt. Quite apart from that instrumental value, however, the confidence in our cognitive abilities that comes from mastering a range of subjects is inherently gratifying.
There is a long tradition in moral philosophy of claiming that self-realization—exercising, developing, and increasing one’s capacities—is the ultimate end in itself, the primary value in life. Aristotle, for example, held that the primary value is the exercise of reason. Marx, coming from a very different philosophical background, held that the primary value is the collective expression of human productive powers.
But the ethic of self-realization cannot be supported. For one thing, we have capacities for evil as well as good. A terrorist’s ability to destroy is not something to be valued. More fundamentally, as Ayn Rand explains, the ultimate source of value is a living organism’s need to act in the face of the alternative of life or death. For us as human beings, the end-in-itself is living successfully in the world, with component values of production, knowledge, and relationships. We achieve things by an outward focus on how to accomplish such values, not an inward focus on what we are capable of. And the objective needs for a successful life set the bounds of objectively valuable goals. Seeking power over others, for example, is incompatible with the human need to produce, to act independently, and to trade value for value with others. Pursuing power for its own sake will not bring happiness; it probably will not succeed for long, if at all; and great confidence in one’s ability to wield power will only make the consequences worse (as in the case of Gail Wynand in Rand’s The Fountainhead).
These three truths—the primacy of existence, will, and value—are summarized concisely in one of Rand’s most important essays, “Causality Versus Duty”:
In choosing a goal, [a man] considers the means required to achieve it, he weighs the value of the goal against the difficulties of the means and against the full, hierarchical context of all his other values and goals. He does not demand the impossible of himself, and he does not decide too easily which things are impossible . . .
If he becomes discouraged by difficulties, he reminds himself of the goal that requires them, knowing that he is fully free to reconsider—to ask: “Is it worth it?”—and that no punishment is involved except the renunciation of the value he desires.
If one is rational in accepting facts as facts and in choosing one’s goals, then a can-do confidence is a natural ally of the will to act. Confidence is a motivating support for maintaining the ongoing, willing commitment to the goal, and success that comes from that commitment in turn builds confidence. But the will to think and act is the senior partner in the enterprise.
“I Can’t” or “I Won’t”?
What about the other side of Henry Ford’s adage: If you think you can’t, you’re right? To begin with, we should clear the ground of the many cases in which “I can’t” is a disguised way of saying “I won’t.”
Someone turns down an invitation from a friend: “I can’t go to the movies tonight. I have to visit my mother.” This is a case of “have-to” thinking—the first sentence is simply the flip side of the second; the necessity of one action implies the impossibility of the alternative. In fact, he could go to the movies rather than visiting his mother, and recognizing that fact is important. As I have written elsewhere, to say ‘I have to” is to speak the language of compulsion or duty—the language of injunctions imposed on us from without, with the same binding power as a force of nature. The language of values, by contrast, is “I want” and “I will.” Recognizing that the choice is his, to be decided on the basis of how much he values the two uses of his time, is the only way to take full responsibility for his life.
Self-proclaimed inability is a common tool for manipulating others.
To say “I can’t” when the truth is that I won’t is an instance of what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith”: treating ourselves as objects immersed in the flow of causal necessity and failing to take responsibility for our own choices. In effect, it reflects the same victim mentality as the people blaming McDonald’s fast food for the obesity that results from their own lack of control. The difference is that we are treating ourselves as victims of our own selves. But it is often an instance of the same kind of irresponsibility.
Self-proclaimed inability is also a common tool for manipulating others. A wife who resents her husband’s frequent business trips says she can’t drive, ensuring that he will feel guilty about leaving her home to cope with the kids and errands. “I can’t keep track of details,” says a professor who has never volunteered for administrative chores in his department—and whose resentful colleagues no longer bother to ask.
Women of an earlier generation were often taught that it was unfeminine to be good at fixing cars, playing baseball, or understanding math and science. In part this reflected a conception of male and female roles—under the same conception men were taught that it isn’t manly to be talkative or emotionally sensitive—and in part it reflected the view that weakness in a woman was a means of attracting men. We can be thankful that attitudes have changed on this score. But it is still common for people to take pride in certain inabilities. Intellectuals take perverse pride in being absent-minded—it’s a mark of their absorption in deep issues. Artists take pride in being messy and irresponsible—it’s a mark of their creativity. Businessmen take pride in not understanding art or ideas—it’s a mark of their hard-headed realism. But inability per se is nothing to be proud of. In these cases, it is a mark of pseudo-self-esteem. And, like the other cases, it is a way of shifting responsibility onto others.
The most honorable form of “I can’t,” though still a mistaken one, is that of someone who says he can’t do something because it would be immoral. “I can’t lie about it, I can’t ignore this fact, I can’t compromise on this principle.” The response is honorable but the formula is disabling. Morality is a code of values and principles of action accepted by choice. It is not a matter of duty or constraint but of value-seeking through the use of one’s mind. Recognizing that our commitment to values and principles is volitional is important for two reasons.
First, it is important for the proper application of principles. Recognizing that principled action is a means to achieving the things we value puts the principle in the necessary context and makes it easier to avoid applying the principle mechanically. A friend asks me to tell a lie on his behalf. I can’t in good conscience do what he is asking. But the reason is not that I accept “Thou shalt not lie” as a moral injunction prohibiting an action I would otherwise like to take for my friend. The reason is that I understand why trying to gain a value by faking reality is ultimately self-defeating. It would undermine the value, undermine my commitment to grasping reality—and undermine our friendship, too. Understanding the principle in this form, I can apply it reasonably to the situation. I can ask what value he hopes to gain. I can explain why lying is not a viable way to achieve the value, and perhaps help him find an honest way to achieve it. In short, recognizing the moral principle as a guide to creating value is a more productive way to deal with situations like this than is simply saying “I can’t.”
Second, awareness of the volitional nature of morality maintains one’s sense of control. It allows us to recognize that in acting as we should we are being true to ourselves. We are doing something worthy, something we can take credit for and feel pride about, rather than taking it as an external constraint. Such pride is a source of self-esteem, which gives us the courage to deal with risk, failure, and conflict with others.
The psychological research on self-efficacy shows that people who are low on that personality dimension tend to set low aspirations for themselves, with relatively weak degrees of commitment to their goals. They see difficult tasks as threats rather than challenges, and typically dwell on their own deficiencies, on the magnitude of obstacles, and on the possibilities for bad outcomes rather than on the prospects for success. They tend to attribute failure to an inherent lack of their own ability rather than to factors they can control, such as exerting more effort or acquiring more knowledge. They are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression, which interfere with the cognitive functioning required for success. In all these ways, lack of confidence in one’s ability interferes with the ability to perform, and the resulting failure reinforces tone's self-doubt.
Recognizing that the choice is yours is the only way to take full responsibility for your life.
In this respect, the psychological research confirms the negative side of Henry Ford’s common-sense adage: thinking “I can't” is a formula for self-defeat. But it also confirms common sense in showing that the single most important source of self-efficacy is success in achieving goals. Good parents know this: they give their children scope to challenge themselves in ways that stretch their abilities without giving them tasks at which they are bound to fail. Good teachers give their students exercises and tests geared to the level of knowledge the students have acquired. Good bosses in business delegate assignments at which employees can succeed, building confidence to take on higher levels of responsibility. And adults struggling with self-doubt can, if they are self-conscious and rational, manage their aspirations to set reasonable goals and exercise conscious control over their inhibiting fears.
Nevertheless, some inner obstacles are resistant to direct control of that sort. Such inner obstacles have the structure of believing that I want to do this, I should be able to do it, but I can’t. It is too hard for me, it is too risky, I can’t do it well enough, failure would be too shameful, or success too threatening. We experience these obstacles as doors locked shut, forbidding passage down a possible course of action, a route we envision as leading somewhere desirable. It’s that combination that makes “I can’t” a negative perspective on our lives. On the one hand, we envision something good, desirable, worthy: a value; and we envision a means of achieving it. On the other hand, we believe that the means is not available to us.
A preacher in the early 1800s penned a bit of doggerel to mock the contradiction in Calvinist theology, which tells us to do what God commands and strive for salvation even though God has predestined our every action and has already chosen who will be saved and who will be damned.
You can and you can’t,
You will and you won’t.
You’re damned if you do,
And you’re damned if you don’t.
But the verse can be given a secular meaning as well. It captures the psychological experience of a divided will, the sense of being blocked by some amorphous obstacle from taking the actions we wish and living up to our expectations. I can’t take the action I want, and I can’t change the feeling that gets in the way.
Such inner obstacles are real. Fears have causes, and as emotions they are not necessarily amenable to overcoming by direct force of will. Just as goals have a positive structure of increasing fundamentality—we seek certain things as means to more fundamental values—so fears have a negative structure of fundamentality. A man fears failure. Why? Perhaps because it threatens his sense of identity. Why the threat? Perhaps he embraced his father’s injunction that succeeding is essential to being a real man. Why did he accept his father’s injunction? Does he have to accept it now, as an adult? Such questions can lead one to the bottom line fear, and dealing with that fear may be a necessary step in overcoming the surface obstacle.
Beating one’s head against a well-anchored wall of fear is a prescription for meta-level anxiety: anxiety about the fact that one feels anxious in the face of challenging tasks. The answer, as in any other case, lies in a focus on “I will.” In this case: I will acknowledge the obstacle, I will try to identify the causes, I will search for a way to overcome them. I will not try to overcome them by the sheer exercise of will, continually beating my head against the obstacle, making it the center of my attention, because that is not effective. Rejecting have-to for want-to, I-can’t for I-will, puts me back in charge of the goal. “I will” frees one to explore the range of possible actions and decide on the basis of what one wants. Perhaps the problem is a biochemical vulnerability to depression. Then the solution may be medication. Perhaps, as in the example above, the problem is a fear of shame over failure, rooted in childhood experiences. Then the rational course may be therapy. The point is that the attitude “I will find a solution” is empowering, whereas the feeling “I can’t” is disabling, and the attitude “I can,” if it means trying to act for a goal in the face of deep-seated fears, is bound to fail and only reinforce the sense of inefficacy.
“I can” recognizes what is possible for us. “I will” takes responsibility for living. These affirmations are at the heart of living as the agent of one's life, as an ardent pursuer of happiness.