How many of us ever really come to know the true limits of our capability?  How often do we test those limits?  How many of us take our potential to the grave? The often-touted claim that we only use ten per cent of our brain may in fact be a myth.  However, many of us will admit that at some time in our lives, we’ve passed on opportunities for extension; opportunities that would challenge us and push us beyond the edge of our comfort zone, but on the positive side, lift us to new heights, lead us to resist defeat, to discover new capabilities, to excel or just capture a bigger piece of the action.

Our willingness to step up to a challenge, according to Albert Bandura who studied academic efficacy in children and adolescents, is directly linked to self-efficacy or the belief that one can produce the desired effect as a result of one’s actions.  Without that belief, there is little incentive or motivation to take action.  Bandura claims that self-efficacy, and its underlying belief system, influences our “aspirations and strength of goal commitments, level of motivation and perseverance in the face of difficulties and setbacks, resilience to adversity, quality of analytic thinking, causal attributes for successes and failures, and vulnerability to stress and depression”.[1]

There are always a few rumblings about the factors that negatively impact the development of self-efficacy: the flawed education system, the teachers who beat or humiliated us or parents who didn’t understand the power of positive reinforcement. Or perhaps our biological or physiological make-up is flawed.  Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to support the link between early socialisation and efficacy in adults.  And no-one would dispute the physiological component of depression or the severe impact of physical, psychological and emotional abuse or trauma.

Speaking generally, as John Powell claims in one of his books (Why am I afraid to love? or Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?), there is no such thing as a happy childhood.  While there are as many childhood experiences as there are people, I personally have yet to meet someone that lays claim to a perfectly happy childhood.  On the other side of the coin, there is also a great deal of evidence to show that children who are survivors, for example, of domestic violence, natural disasters or horrific events and loss associated with war, with appropriate intervention, are capable of developing into competent, confident, empathic adults.

While it might be necessary to understand the origins of what holds us back academically or professionally, or limits our ability to cope with adversity, it is essential that we, as adults, assume responsibility for the rest of our lives, for our success or failure, regardless of past experience and become active agents in choosing to be the best that we can be.  Conscious choice and the ability to change are distinguishing factors of what it means to be human.  Whatever we choose, there is a pay-off, negative or positive.  Perhaps the more pertinent question is “what do we stand to lose by sitting on the sidelines or taking the soft or safe option of by holding someone or something else responsible for our truncated lives?”  Conversely, what do we stand to gain by embracing life as Helen Keller did, as “either a daring adventure or nothing”?  At any moment, we can choose to change, to get up off the sidelines, to apply for that promotion, to write that book, to try that activity or hobby that we profess ad nauseum to have interest in but never dare explore, to approach someone we’d like to get to know better or take a risk and do something differently.


[1] Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara and Pastorelli (1996) “Multifaceted Impact of Self-Efficacy Beliefs on Academic Functioning”, Child Development, 1206-1222.