“Whether you think you can. Or think you can’t. You’re right.” ~ Henry Ford
“Our lives are not defined by what happens to us, but by how we react to what happens. A positive attitude is a catalyst — a spark that creates extraordinary results.” ~ unknown
“A PESSIMIST is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an OPTIMIST is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.” ~ Harry Truman
I have been thinking about self-fulfilling prophecies lately…
Those are three favorites from among my collection of quotes. Each sums up an important concept in just a few words. In today’s vernacular, they would be considered sound bites. Clear, concise statements often go farther than long, complex explanations. One might say these three quotes relate to optimism vs. pessimism and that is correct, as far as it goes, but might they also be telling us something about self-fulfilling prophecy?
Lately, I have been reading a book titled, “The Art of Aging” by Sherwin B. Nuland, MD. If you are aging, or think you might someday, I highly recommend you read it. I became curious about this author after reading about his death in Time Magazine a couple of months ago. It’s not uncommon for me to get curious about some little tidbit I read and then to follow that curiosity to its source. Getting a couple of books to read by Dr. Nuland has reinforced that habit.
I am only about halfway through “The Art of Aging”, but already, I am aware of a recurring theme — that of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The author spends some time discussing the physical symptoms of aging, but he also spends a great deal of time discussing aging with some people who have aged well, looking for behaviors or beliefs they share. Some people are religious, some are not. Some are in good physical condition, others not so much. What they do have in common is a way of viewing themselves and their future in ways that may seem different on the surface, but underneath, are very much alike.
… and the reason for that is the common threads I picked up from Dr. Nuland’s observations and writing.
The sociologist, Robert K. Merton, developed a concept to explain how a belief or expectation directly affects an outcome. This is nothing new, however. Ever heard the saying, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”? The truth of that idiom has been known for a long, long time, but Merton formalized the concept in modern sociology. It is summed up in this diagram of the Pygmalion Effect or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy:
The diagram is pretty straight-forward, but when I first saw it, I thought, “Okay, yeah, maybe sometimes.” But others aren’t always involved with me. For example, when I first began to learn about photography, I had trouble grappling with apertures and F-stops and ISOs and shutter speeds to the point where I started to question my ability to learn something new, which lead to other self-doubts seemingly confirming my inability to learn, which lead to low self-esteem, which lead to me giving up, and naturally, I wasn’t able to learn. Finally, thankfully, I took a step back to have a look at the forest instead of those four frustrating trees. I forgot about photography and went out to the garden to pull weeds and harvest beans and soon became aware of what a wonderful garden I had. Now, with a source of pride and a feeling of success, my mind started working subconsciously on the photography puzzle and I discovered a way that I could learn and grasp the technical issues that had previously frustrated me. So in the diagram above, I can also substitute “Me and My” for “Our and Others” and find it to be just as valid.
In the example of the square flow-chart above, sometimes I might be the “boss” and in other cases I might be “Laci”. And now, I “get it” both diagrams are saying the same thing.
I was a well-behaved kid until my parents started treating me in a distrustful manner. Looking back, I understand their concerns for a teenage daughter, but at the time, I started misbehaving in reaction. I remember my thoughts at the time, “If they are not going to trust me and my judgment, I might as well do something to deserve that treatment and have some fun while I’m at it.” What followed that is a period of years that I wish I could do over, but I mention it here to make a point.
Quoting from the Psychology Today article:
“Let’s say, for example, that I’m going to a party where I don’t know many people. If I believe I don’t make a good first impression, or I worry that nobody will talk to me, I will probably enter the party acting awkward, anxious, and standoffish. In turn, people are likely to interact with me with less enthusiasm, or they may ignore or shun me. Which only reinforces my belief that I’m not good with people I don’t know.
“If, by contrast, I enter the party believing that I’m good with people I don’t know and expecting to make new friends, I’m likely to be outgoing, engaging, and less apt to take a cold shoulder personally. As a result, people will likely respond amiably to my friendliness and I may indeed make new friends.”
When I first read that, I had an “Ah ha!” moment, because that first paragraph is describing me in social situations. And, I thought, how may other people does that also describe? I suspect we are all guilty of negative self-fulfilling prophecies at various times in our lives. “I’m no good at ______.” “I can’t ______.” I know I’ve done my share of that sort of negative self-talk.
In the book, “The Art of Aging”, Dr. Nuland talks about physical and mental declines in terms of averages and extremes. It is possible, and a few people do, live into their 90s and 100s and remain mentally and physically able to do as much as people 30 years their junior. There are a few people who suffer severe mental and/or physical decline in their 50s or 40s or even younger. Most of us, however, fall somewhere in between those two extremes. By the same token, some people who suffer a severe stroke never recover while others manage to rebuild themselves and resume a full and active life.
Illness and injury can deal us a bad hand, but that doesn’t mean we should throw in our cards. A prime example comes to mind and that is Stephen Hawking. He was diagnosed with ALS when he was only 21 years old. Few who contract this terminal disease live more than ten years, yet Hawking has lived more than 50 so far. He married twice, fathered three children, and has been one of the most brilliant and accomplished physicists in history. I somehow think he set his own self-fulfilling prophecy in motion half a century ago and it has carried him through an amazing life. He is now 72 years old — remarkably close to the average life expectancy of 76 for men in the U.S. today. He has had a very difficult and challenging life, yet he managed to have an amazingly full life despite being paralyzed and eventually even unable to talk.
One thing Dr. Nuland wrote, which really struck me is that (and I am paraphrasing here) there are no absolutes or guarantees but he has observed that:
- more often than not when a person does not work at being all they can be throughout the aging process, his or her final decline is likely to be slow and difficult and:
- more often than not when a person works hard at remaining physically and mentally active while being aware of their limitations, his or her final decline is likely to be of short duration.
“Life isn’t about how you survived the storm. It’s about how you danced in the rain.” ~ unknown
So, it would seem that the key to success in life and the key to aging “gracefully” are one and the same. Life will throw some number of challenges in front of us — some mere speed bumps and others might be car-swallowing potholes. How we choose to deal with those challenges will become our own self-fulfilling prophecies. Knowing that how I choose to respond to aging, as well as life’s challenges, will have an impact on how long I live and how I die… Well, that is pretty motivating, isn’t it?
Or maybe the best thing is to sum it up in another sound bite:
Do the best you can with what you’ve got.
The Art of Aging, by Sherwin B. Nuland, 2008 Random House Trade Paperback Edition
The Psychology of a Self Fulfilling Prophesy, by Tim, Mind Science 101
Using Self-Fulfilling Prophecies to Your Advantage, by Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., Psychology Today blog