When it comes down to it, I’m mostly okay with failure. Sometimes I do my best, and things don’t work out, and there isn’t anything that I can do about it. I’m less okay with being bad at something. Being bad at something will often keep me from participating. I’m cool with the idea that I may not win, I just really don’t want to suck. I’d guess that this isn’t unique to me. You probably feel the same way, right?
This is a problem. Because ninety percent of the time being good at something comes after a long period of being bad at it.
There’s a lot of things that I learned from seminary, about the Bible, church history and the like, but I also learned a lot about myself and about others. One of my professors said something that stuck with me. He said, “The best way to motivate someone is to catch them trying to doing good, and praise them for it, the best way to demotivate someone is to catch someone trying to do good, and berate them because they didn’t do good enough”
I recently read the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a great book about making change in both personal and organizational contexts. In this book, Chip and Dan tell the story of what happened when researchers told a group of hotel maids about the benefits of exercise, half of these maids they just told about the benefits of particular types of exercise, the other half received the information, but were also told that by doing all the physical labor they were doing (the bending, pushing, walking and lifting that comes with cleaning several hotel rooms a day) that they were already doing pretty well at exercise. They came back a month later and found that the second group had lost an average of 1.8 pounds. The first group hadn’t lost anything.
This story has something in common with the story that David Kelley tells in the video embedded above, of the patients who after successfully confronting and overcoming their fear of snakes begin to have less anxiety in other areas of their lives. They work harder and perform better.
These stories illustrate the power that small victories (and sometimes defeats) can have on our self-perceptions and how those self perceptions can help us to do better. If we see ourselves as exercisers, we’ll probably exercise some more. If we see ourselves as people who can face our fears and come out better, then we’ll face our fears more.
If you are reading this, you probably care about changing the world. You’re probably some sort of activist or advocate and you are passionate about your cause. The big problem that I’ve often seen with those passionate about their causes is that there is a lot of good that simply isn’t good enough. Somebody wears a pink ribbon, or tweets a link to a video and we berate them because they don’t know that the organizations that they have supported don’t actually do as much good as they think they do. The problem is that we do two things when we do that. First of all we present the idea in their mind that they aren’t activists. Secondly we place the goal for doing good so far over there that the journey from here to there is overwhelming.
Maybe you should consider where in your advocacy, activism, development and ministry you can create the opportunity for small victories. Where can you build in places where people can begin to see themselves as world changers, as advocates, as ministers, and as activists. Those small victories can lay the foundation for significant victories later on.