A few weeks ago, I read about a research project conducted by a marine biologist in which he put a barracuda in a large tank with a school of baitfish. As expected, the barracuda attacked and ate the smaller fish.

Then the researcher inserted a piece of glass into the tank, creating two separate chambers. He put the barracuda in one chamber and new baitfish in the other. Once again, the barracuda attacked in anticipation of a meal. This time, however, it hit the glass and bounced off.

Undaunted, the barracuda slammed into the glass repeatedly in pursuit of the baitfish while they swam unharmed in the second chamber. As the experiment continued, however, the barracuda gradually became less aggressive. After a while, it got tired of hitting the glass and stopped striking altogether.

In other words, the barracuda gave up.

Then the researcher removed the glass. The barracuda, now trained to believe a barrier existed between it and the baitfish, didn’t even try to pursue them. Instead, it let the baitfish swim unmolested.


Are you that barracuda?

Oftentimes, we’re like that barracuda. We take chances and work hard pursuing a goal only to slam into some transparent, unyielding barrier. We may strengthen our resolve and redouble our effort only to slam into the same barrier repeatedly.

Eventually, we give up.

Confusion, frustration, and resentment undermine our determination and self-efficacy and we gradually lose heart.

We’ve all experienced at least one situation where we’ve resigned ourselves to defeat. But every so often, we need to check ourselves to make sure we don’t allow temporary setbacks to become self-imposed restraints. Just like the example above, many times barriers are only situational.

Therefore, they disappear.

If we’re not careful, we’ll build inaccurate assumptions regarding our potential based on temporary obstacles. Once these barriers are internalized, we’ll miss open opportunities based solely on our assumptions, just like the barracuda.

Be your own fish!

Surprisingly, self-imposed limitations are often widely assumed. This can make keeping our assumptions in check tricky because many others are in agreement. Here are a few famous examples of barriers that turned out to be mere self-imposed, mental obstacles:

  • The sound barrier – Pilots didn’t think it was possible to fly faster than 768 miles an hour (the speed of sound at sea level). Then Chuck Yeager officially broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947.
  • The four-minute mile – Runners didn’t think it was possible to run a mile in less than four minutes. Then, in 1954, Roger Bannister ran it in 3:59.4.
  • The two-hour marathon – Endurance athletes didn’t think it was possible to run a marathon in less than two hours. Now several athletes are on the verge of breaking Geoffrey Mutai’s world-record of 2:03.02.

Are you holding yourself back?

Take a moment to check yourself. Are you holding yourself back? Has there been a period where you experienced failure that might have resulted in negative internalization? If so, you owe it to yourself to ensure that you’re not building inaccurate assumptions regarding your potential based on temporary obstacles.

Do so by working through the following framework:

First, think of a major disappointment. I’ve experienced broken relationships, bad grades, one horrible job situation, and disappointment in business, and I’ve been tempted to draw inaccurate assumptions in each of these situations.

Second, take your temperature. What did you feel in that situation? What did you think in that situation? It’s very important to recognize that these are different questions. When I got my butt kicked academically during my first semester of law school, I felt frustrated, disappointed, alarmed, and resentful. But I thought, “I guess I’m not intelligent;” “Attempting this was a mistake;” “Maybe I don’t have what it takes;” “I’m not sure I can recover from this;” and, “Maybe I should drop out.” The feelings passed relatively quickly, but those thoughts lingered. It required sustained effort to silence them, especially as I prepared for final exams my second semester.

Third, determine whether any of those thoughts have become patterns of thinking. If you didn’t stomp them out in the very beginning, there’s a good chance they are still hanging around. If they have not coalesced into inaccurate assumptions at this point, they will soon. I’d love to tell you that I knocked it out of the park during my second semester of law school, but that’s not true. However, I did improve enough to know that the thoughts I noted above were not accurate. Silencing them made all the difference the following year and when I was studying for the California Bar Exam.

Finally, determine whether any of those assumptions have influenced patterns of behavior. This may be obvious. For example, if I had dropped out of law school (and I did talk with a dean about doing exactly that), my negative thoughts turned inaccurate assumptions would have dictated that decision. However, if your experience was less dramatic, this may be subtle. In such case, you may have to be more introspective in order to make an honest assessment. It may help to identify whether there are any opportunities that you’ve simply dismissed by default despite the fact that they interested you.

Leave a Comment: Do any inaccurate assumptions come to mind? How have they influenced your choices?

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