Excerpt from Perfectly Confident
In 1878, William James wrote about the power of positive visualization. He imagined himself climbing in the mountains and getting stuck at a spot from which he must take a “bold dangerous leap.” He wrote, “I may wish to make the leap, but I am ignorant from lack of experience whether I have the strength for it.” James describes two possible outcomes. In the first, he believes what he desires. He imagines that his confidence gives him strength to make the leap successfully. The confident James believes in himself, he jumps, and he makes it.
The second outcome imagines self-doubt. This doubting James hesitates, wavers, and then, “weakened and trembling, compelled to take the leap by sheer despair, I miss my aim and fall into the crevasse.” James concludes that in a situation like this, “I should be a fool if I did not believe what I wished, as my belief happens to be a preliminary condition which is essential to the accomplishment of the end which it affirms.” In other words, James imagines a situation in which his beliefs make themselves come true. As such, a wise person would have faith, and his faith would bring him success.
When I first read James’s account, I took it as a persuasive argument for the benefits of optimism. There are undeniably situations in which the belief in a positive outcome increases the chances that one will choose to go for it, and thereby increase the opportunity for the positive outcome one expects. If believing you can leap the crevasse increases the chance you jump, it must also increase the chance you make it. On the other hand, the fear of failure can easily scare you off from the attempt. One implication you might be tempted to take away is that positive visualization leads to good outcomes in life. You would not be the first to think so.
However, there is also good reason to be skeptical. While simply imagining your company’s success may be pleasurable, it will not bring about success any more than visualizing yourself as the Pope will transport you to Rome. Further reflection on William James’s story raised additional concerns that I had failed to consider the first time. If the doubting James really expected to fall into the crevasse, making the jump seems like a bad call. If it were me, I’d like to think I would explore other ways out of the predicament that were less likely to end in my death. But more important than that, if the moral of his story is that it’s always better to believe that you can jump the crevasse, that seems wrong. Sometimes you cannot jump the crevasse. Sometimes it is just too wide.
How wide is too wide? Perhaps the doubting James could jump a five-foot crevasse. Let’s say that believing in himself could get him up to another foot. Then if the crevasse were less than six feet across, James should repeat some empowering self-affirmations and go for it. But if the chasm were twenty feet wide, no amount of positive self-talk would get him across. Believing in yourself, if it prompts you to jump to your death, would qualify as a mistake—however much it displays an admirable confidence in your capabilities.