In science, I’ve increasingly come to realize that the currency and measure of one’s competency lie in numbers of peer-reviewed publications and funded grants. With the scrutiny we go through, from ‘extremely thorough’ reviewers to the expert at the back of the room asking a four-part question, we have to have titanium spines… Right? Not always. Sometimes highly competent people doubt themselves far too often. And too often, that doubt holds them back from succeeding.

Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.” – Katty Kay & Claire Shipman, The Atlantic 

As a female training in a competitive field, talking about this self-doubt resonated with me. I was strong. I would apologize profusely whenever I was too sick to come to lab. I avoided the word “vacation” like a plague. Even when I was productive, I doubted it was enough to warrant my belonging in science. The looming fact that my performance is being evaluated every single step of the way made me want to hide under a rock. Eventually, I overcame this self-doubt and fear but I thought that the exercises Bernard Roth, author of The Achievement Habit put forth in his new book were powerful ways to speed up this process.

For example:
Think back to when you were in grade school. Have you ever created something or completed a project that you had fun doing? Have you ever been on the playground playing make-believe War General in defend-the-fort or making up choreography to your favorite song? At that moment, in your joy of doing something you wanted to do – that you were proud of doing- did you honestly care about evaluating your performance?

Bernard Roth explores the behaviors that limit people with high aspirations (particularly those who have the means to achieve them) from meeting their goals. He draws from experiences from his own life and also from his colleagues and students in a course that he teaches at the “” at Stanford University. Among the most unabashed, unapologetic chapters in the book highlights that “Reasons are b.s.”. Think of a time you failed to get to a meeting on time. What was your reason? When it comes down to it, says the author, reasons are merely excuses. When one fails to be on time, no matter the reason, one has failed to make the meeting/class/deadline enough of a priority. Obviously, some aspects of life like personal health, family, etc are higher priority than other things. However, if you want to achieve something (landing a job, starting a business, etc), make the things that will get you there a priority. If you don’t, you are only limiting yourself.

Once you realize the problem, Roth gives great advice on how to get on track with meeting your goals. There are various tools and techniques that help you get organized and get motivated. Many of these are delightfully in an interactive app called “Unstuck” that you can download via iTunes and Android. I gave this app a try back when I was in the midst of qual-induced anxiety (that petrifying feeling of I’m going to fail the qual anyway so why study. Makes total sense, yeah?). “Unstuck” got me on track by identifying the problem (no it wasn’t “the qual”) by first asking questions such as “How do I feel at the present moment,” and “What are my major roadblocks.” From there, the problem was identified as “I feel like studying is too big of a hurdle, which already makes me feel defeated.” The solution was simple: break up the massive obstacle into baby steps by making a Meta-List (a broad list that can be broken up into more detailed lists) and assigning realistic time-frames in which to study the parts.

Planning to get on track is one thing, getting motivated to get on track is another. Roth outlines a way to change your perspective by getting into the habit of watching your language. Instead of saying, “try” say “do”. Instead of “can’t” say “won’t”. Instead of “need to” say “want to”. Switching your word usage with these examples inherently gives you power – you end up taking responsibility for your actions and goals. Roth also makes a good point: Too often the fear of failure itself limits you from achieving your goals. The solution is to get cozy with failure. It will happen, and you will get up and fail again. Gloriously. Each time you will learn something from the failure and will be a better person for it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and if I had to add in my two cents to it, I would add  “Your Turn” prompt that the author includes after each chapter.

Think of the thing you are in the process of accomplishing and ask yourself these questions:

  1. When no one is watching, do you enjoy what you do?
  2. Do you tend not to care what others will think about you when they do watch?

If the answers to those are yes, then great! Go do you, friend. And don’t let yourself stop you.


“The Confidence Gap” article:
“The Achievement Habit” :

Britney Lizama Manibusan is a fifth-year predoctoral candidate in neuroscience at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. She is not a slacker.

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