Steps to greatness

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Our tendency to focus on outcome also narrows our self-image. When we envy other people's assets, accomplishments, or characteristics, it is often because we are making a faulty comparison. We may be looking at the results of their efforts rather than the process they went through on the way.

For example, imagine while talking to a professor in her office, you hear her use a word that you do not understand. You may feel intimidated and stupid. Now imagine that the same professor is sitting at her desk with an open dictionary. You would probably conclude that she knew that strange word because she spends time looking up words, finding them in books she reads, or learning them in some other straightforward way. You too could look up words, if you wanted to.

A true process orientation also means being aware that every outcome is preceded by a process. Keeping an eye on process, on the steps anyone must take to become expert, keeps us from disparaging ourselves.

Graduate students forget this all the time. They begin their dissertations with inordinate anxiety because they have seen other people's completed and polished work and mistakenly compare it to their own first tentative steps. With their noses deep in file cards and half-baked hypotheses, they look in awe at Dr. So-and-so's published book as if it had been born without effort or false starts, directly from brain to printed page.

By investigating how someone got somewhere, we are more likely to see the achievement as hard-won and our own chances as more plausible.

People can imagine themselves as taking steps, while great heights seem entirely forbidding.


[Ellen Langer]
Mindfulness, p.46, 75, 76


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