This subject is hard.
But only because it comes with baggage. This subject has the misfortune of being buried under a mountain of cliches. You already know the wrong lesson, so attempting to grasp the actual topic, instead of the false image of it that we have all been taught, naturally requires a bit of deconstruction.
And even with an open mind, free from preconceptions, there is still lots of room for misunderstanding. So this is me, gently and carefully trying to explain a subject that is dear to my heart.
And that subject is the power of belief.
Where Everyone goes Wrong
It has become a platitude and a cartoon catch phrase: “Believe in yourself, and you can do ANYTHING!”
It’s the kind of trite statement you would expect to find on a workplace motivational poster.
And it’s this kind of storybook moralizing that robs all power from real-world virtues. In the cartoon world, believing you can do a thing is enough to vanquish any enemy and disregard all other considerations, such as strategy, force of numbers, firepower, experience, skill, and deservedness. Self-belief wins all awards, finishes first in every competition, and justifies any amount of faults or horrendous missteps.
And it’s a lie. To begin with, you might not be someone worth believing in. The world’s great autocrats certainly believe in themselves and their vision, but that does not mean they are to be celebrated. Nor does it mean they triumph in every situation. We have seen this with the fall of empire after empire down to the beginning of history.
Furthermore, belief does not bring immunity from all the opposition that the world can throw against you, and it definitely is no bulwark against the truth. The truth is crushing and debilitating, and it cannot be believed away. When fighting the truth, believing in yourself is a weakness and a vice.
Okay, Lesson Learned: Belief is Powerless
No, don’t put words in my mouth. I did not say that belief is useless or powerless. I also did not say that it should not be used.
Because belief can be used, can be learned, and does have an effect.
Unwrapping a Secret
The power of belief is not a pretty thing. It is not proof of your own rightness. It is not a moral dessert you are entitled to.
Belief is a practical skill, much like woodworking, or swimming, or driving a car. The power that results from belief is not a Deus ex Machina solution to be arrived at during the last minute, which instantly turns the tables and wins the day. It is an incremental system of improving competency, achieved through years of practice.
And the primary use of this power, once achieved, is the disruption of people who cannot believe.
The Magic is actually Science
The unbelieving must yield to anyone empowered with belief, in the same way that darkness must yield to even the smallest of lights.
But saying it that way makes it sound like some ethereal razmataz, locked behind the gossamer curtains of mysticism. It’s actually something much more down to Earth—the stuff of human material, even.
Say you encounter someone who is skeptical, or even hostile, toward something you know to be true. For this example, let’s say you’re a basketball player and the doubter is someone who insists that it is impossible to score a 3-point shot in basketball.
Now, if you are a professional basketball player who has scored many three-pointers throughout his career, proving the doubters wrong is only mildly helpful. You immediately demonstrate a 3-point shot, thus visually stating the obvious.
But suppose you are not a professional. Instead, let’s pretend you are merely a beginner—someone who has seen three-pointers done, but never accomplished it himself. If you then score a three-pointer to spite the doubter, you are not merely answering the question of whether it is possible, you are defining something about yourself in a way that changes your nature.
But let’s make it even more interesting: suppose you are in a universe where basketball is something new, and the idea of a 3-point shot is still just an idea. It’s hypothetically possible, but no one knows for sure whether it really can be done. And there are many, many doubters.
Believing in the existence of 3-point shots is, in this situation, a risky decision. Putting in the effort to make that first three-pointer could well be a waste of energy, and leave you at the mercy of those who say it cannot be done.
And for all I know, it actually is impossible. Though I am aware that three-pointers exist in the real world, I can’t promise that this isn’t merely a fluke. There is no way to prove that, in all other realities, 3-point shots can be achieved.
But the question will never be answered until someone believes in the possibility.
And that’s what the power of belief really does—it is the great revelator, tearing off the illusion of ambivalence and answering, once and for all, whether you really have what it takes.
And sometimes the answer is “No”. Your belief only serves to prove you wrong. But, even then, it has fulfilled its purpose. It has shown you where not to put your trust.
And when, at other times, you are proven right, it is proven beyond all doubt, for you have overcome the doubters. In this, you are not only defining a truth about yourself, but about the entire game. Three-pointers are now possible in basketball, and the rules must be adjusted to account for that new and exciting possibility.
And in all cases, the doubter is putting control of their doubt into the hands of the one actually making the attempt. They yield the final decision to the believer, as the one actually running this scientific assay.
It’s not exactly the fairy tale ending you were promised. It is something even more meaningful.
Applying it to Your own Life
Belief is a practical skill, used for achieving practical ends. Whether it’s in sports, business, or making a difference in the nature of the world.
When someone says, “You can’t do that.”
You say, “Watch me.”
And if you pull it off, either on the first try or with practice, you answer the question of what is possible.
This has particular application to me, as someone who has written books, and is now seeking a way to deliver them to the world. It may seem, at times, that all the power is in the hands of the gatekeepers—those whose job it is to doubt every claim. But those same doubters depend on the believers to define what is possible.
I know what I am capable of. And I know the value of what I am offering. Though I cannot control every aspect of the process, the process only exists due to my efforts. I’m the one who sets it in motion. And if I am disproven, then I was disproven by myself, not by the others.
But I am fortunate, in that I am not the first person to attempt this effort. I’ve seen books get published, including some much less worthy than my own. As far as belief is concerned, my efforts are plausible and demonstrably worthwhile.
That’s enough to keep me going.