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This Study of 7th Graders Reveals One Secret to Taking Smarter Risks

Fellow Riskologist,

Would you ever believe you could learn much about successful risk-taking from a seventh grader?

Everywhere on the Internet, you’ll find people talking about the “power of positive thinking.” You’ll be lead to believe your thoughts and what you tell yourself will have a profound impact on how successful you are in your life.

Most of it is anecdotal:

  • A blogger tells the story of how she grew famous by believing she always would.
  • An athlete talks about how he won his sport by visualizing winning every night before he went to bed.
  • An entrepreneur explains how relentlessly believing she could build a successful business lead her to actually do it.

The prescription is obvious: If you want to succeed at something that’s difficult to achieve, tell yourself over and over you’re capable of doing it. Eventually, you will.

But will telling yourself something that may not be true actually help you? I believe it will. But that’s just my own anecdotal evidence talking. It could all be a lot of snake oil and misattributions of success.

Is it? Keep reading to find out.

The Science of Positive Thinking and Smart Risk-Taking

Education is an enormous business. In the U.S. alone, more than $107 billion is spent each year to keep the minds of young Americans well-greased. And that’s just the money the government spends!

So, it stands to reason that, where a lot of money is spent, you’d want to know how it’s being used is effective. One place money is spent is in educating teachers about how to educate students. What are the best ways to teach a kid something and get them to succeed with that knowledge?

Millions are spent every year answering that question through rigorous scientific research. I went on a deep exploration through Google Scholar and, to my (honest) surprise, found exactly what I was looking for: study upon study finding that the most successful students are the ones who believe they’re capable of learning something before they ever learn it.

Positive thinking! Or, delusional thinking. Call it what you want, the research tells us it works.

A study performed by Pintrich and de Groot of 173 seventh graders tested for academic performance revealed the best of the best students had high marks in these categories:

  • Self-regulation (the internal motivation to achieve)
  • Self-efficacy (the belief that you’re capable of something)
  • Test anxiety (stress related to test-taking)

Now, the skeptic in me immediately thought, “Just because they had high marks in those three areas doesn’t mean all three affect achievement. Just one or two could be responsible.”

But Pintrich and de Groot thought of that too, and they tested each trait individually. Turns out, each one of them—alone—is a strong predictor of academic achievement.

Side note: What I’d like to know is if high self-efficacy will also raise self-regulation and lower test anxiety. I suspect it would.

Even more interesting, a study of college students by Cassidy and Eachus went even further to show that students given different styles of instruction on the same topic also had different levels of self-efficacy at the beginning and end of the study.

Since that study, a handful more have confirmed the findings. Basically, here’s what you need to know:

  1. If you want to succeed in a risk, believing that you’re capable is one of the most important things you can do to prepare.
  2. The way you prepare yourself for a risk will raise (or lower) your ability to believe you’re capable of succeeding.

But how do you raise your self-efficacy if you don’t have it already?

How to Force Yourself to Succeed at a Risk

Psyching myself up for the big risks of my life is something I work hard at every day. I know that to accomplish them I have to actually believe I can.

But how do I do that and know it’s going to work? A lot of practice (hit and miss) along with some real, verified research has lead me to three tactics that don’t just work for me but have been proven to work for almost everyone.

If you want to force yourself to succeed at a risk, here’s what you need to do:

1. Build on top of smaller successes.

The very best way to raise your “can do” attitude when you’re about to take on something unfamiliar is to remind yourself of the times you did other unfamiliar things and succeeded.

Your own, personal experience is the best motivator you have in your tool box. Remember, though, that the risks you take should be logical jumps from earlier successes. If you’re a golfer, you’ll struggle to believe in your ability to sink a put from 40 feet if you’ve only perfected your stroke from one foot away.

If 40 feet is the goal, then there’s a lot of work still to be done between one and 39.

2. Devour case studies.

If you’re a new entrepreneur, and you want your business to succeed, a great tactic to use is to devour all the information you can about other entrepreneurs who’ve achieved what you’re trying to do.

While it’s important not to get lost in survivorship bias—forgetting the lessons of others who failed—studying and mimicking the mechanics of someone who’s succeeded in a similar way will strongly affect your ability to believe in yourself.

Again, I caution the importance of making a logical jump, just like when building on smaller successes. You’ll have better results mimicking the success of a friend a step or two ahead of you than a famous entrepreneur many steps ahead.

Think of a young girl learning gymnastics. Watching her instructor do a double backflip over and over is not going to instill any confidence that she will also be able to do a double backflip. But, if she watches one of her more advanced classmates do a perfect cartwheel, she’ll increase her own cartwheel confidence.

3. Find a knowledgeable coach who can give specific, positive feedback.

Emphasis on specific and knowledgeable. Having someone in your corner who reinforces that you can succeed at what you’ve set out to do can be very motivating and raise a lot of confidence. But that person should be chosen with care.

First, they should be truly knowledgeable about what you’re trying to do. If they aren’t, you won’t have confidence in them. If you don’t have confidence in them, there’s none to transfer to yourself.

Second, the feedback your coach offers needs to be specific. Generic motivation like, “You can do it!” inspires little confidence. Instead, you need to find someone who can offer more specific feedback, preferably based on your own earlier accomplishments: “You can do X because I’ve already seen you do Y.”

***

So, how about that? The power of positive thinking and taking smarter risks actually backed by real science. And you can harness it for yourself with a few simple tactics:

  1. Build on top of smaller successes.
  2. Devour case studies.
  3. Find a knowledgeable coach who can give specific, positive feedback.

Good luck. I know that, whatever risk you’re working on, you’ll succeed because you already read the best website on the Internet for Smart Riskologists.

Yours in risk-taking,
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Founder, Riskology.co