The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy — Why You Make Them and How to Stop

I was talking with a friend about his business the other day. He’s wanting to scale things up and make a little more income. I suggested he try something he hadn’t done before. It would be a bold move on his part, but it would be unlike anything else in his field.

He bristled and went on to tell me that he couldn’t do that and all the reasons he had for it.

I wasn’t going to push him further than he wanted to go (this was just a friendly conversation after all), but he left the conversation just as stuck as he was before.

I left feeling frustrated. If you ask me for my opinion and ideas, don’t blame me if they’re too hard or scary for you. (After all, if you want to go places that other people are not going, you may have to take a different path to get there.)

I was annoyed that there were options right there in front of him, but he wouldn’t take them.

It’s easier to stay stuck than it is to take action.

(Which is why we get stuck and stay stuck.  Being stuck is the more comfortable option, even if you don’t like it.  Stuck is what happens when taking action is too personally costly.)

Then I realized something about my frustration— I do this exact same thing all the time. In fact, we all do it!

How often have you looked at something someone else is doing and said, “I could never do that…” How often have you credited the exceptional work of other people to some intrinsic skill or ability that they have? ”Of course they get to do that…”

In a pang of jealousy, we’re quick to make judgements about the work of other people. We’re quick to write off their success as if it came easily. As if an extraordinary feat comes simply and without struggle to others.

With every judgement we cast on the work of someone else, we’re equally judging ourselves for not having the guts to stand up and take a risk.

When you hear the success stories of others, how do you respond? Do you give them excuses for being lucky and/or exceptional? Because when you do, you have to realize that you’re the only one you’re excusing.

You’re excusing yourself from having a higher standard, from taking a bigger risk, from speaking your truth, from putting yourself out there.

When you say “I could never do that” you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The moment you believe it is the moment it comes true.

You won’t attempt something that you believe to be impossible.

Want a sure fire way to stay stuck? Make up a reason why every course of action is impossible for you.  It might sound ridiculous at first, but pay attention and you’ll catch yourself doing it.

When someone suggest you stretch beyond your comfort zone, or you see someone charting new territory beyond your comfort zone, the choice is not whether or not you could ever do it. The choice is, do you want to put in the work to do something similar?

Instead of saying “I could never do that”, wonder why you feel that way.  Ask yourself: What are the stories that you’re telling yourself to support that idea?  What other stance could be more productive?  What would it take for you to instead choose to say “that would be a risky thing for me to do”?

The first step to overcome your self-fulfilling prophecies is to realize when you make them and why. The more aware we can be, the more we can avoid getting and staying stuck— like my friend in his business.

What other self-fulfilling prophecies do you catch yourself saying?  Share in the comments.

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6 Comments

  1. Joel Mengarelli August 25, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    i’ve heard stories like that before. one time, i was watching Joel Osteen who was giving a sermon on self-fullfilling prophecies. He was talking about a pitcher for a major league baseball team. Anyway, the playing field where the team played had been shortened by several feet. The pitcher took one look at the new playing field, and said, “I’ll NEVER be able to pitch in here.” As a result of that, over the course of one season, he went from a 20 game winner to a 16 game loser.

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland August 26, 2015 at 8:57 am

      What a great story, Joel! That’s exactly the kind of thinking that I’m talking about! Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  2. Paul August 27, 2015 at 6:25 am

    This is one of my favorite posts of yours…ever. It combines who you are and what you do in a post that is sharper and edgier than what I’ve read of yours before. The ideas you do present ARE scary and risky to confront.

    I love the line “If you ask me for my opinion and ideas, don’t blame me if they’re too hard or scary for you. (After all, if you want to go places that other people are not going, you may have to take a different path to get there.)” I’ve definitely caught myself in the past being intimidated or event resentful of the ideas or concepts you’ve challenged/presented with me. But I go to you SPECIFICALLY for those ideas – because no one else is addressing the risk and fear and internal quarreling like you do.

    Lastly, I appreciate your call to action here. Reframing the thought, “I could never do that” to “That would be risky for me to pursue” is probably one of the more valuable things I’ll take away from your blog moving forward. It’s a reframing of the expectation, the interpretation of a particular situation or event – and that’s it. The situation doesn’t change, but my perspective does – and that will be enough to change my own self-fulfilling prophesies in the future.

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland August 27, 2015 at 10:55 am

      Thanks for this comment Paul. It means so much to hear. I’m grateful to be the voice of positive challenge in your life— even if you get mad at me for it now and then 😉 .

      I felt a little edgy and charged with this one. It felt like a new part of my voice that I haven’t put in writing much. Thanks for affirming that.

      I’m going to quote you on this one sometime: “no one else is addressing the risk and fear and internal quarreling like you do.”

      Reply
  3. Graham September 6, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    Where do I start? I stand at the edge looking down into the abyss; what do I do with my next step? I am halted by overwhelming fear and guilt, visions of lost opportunity and the nagging regret of bad decisions. I can’t stay here any longer. I am searching for the strength to rise out of this barren landscape. My life has to have an impact to this hurting, hopeless world. The step I need to make is one of confidence; to accept that opportunities have passed but welcome the new ones waiting for my attention and commitment. I have been very accustomed to living a mediocre life filled by one bad habit after another. I am very good at this, I am an expert in my field. If carry on I will reach the end of my time here with nothing to show except demonstrating how to bring the worst out of your life. I don’t want to continue on this journey, a journey that has one destination: disaster. It seems very depressing to write these words but this is what is going on in my mind on a daily basis. Why do I stay rooted in this mindset? Fear of failure? Missing out? Whatever it is, it needs to be addressed and overcome, now. I mean now, in this very moment. How do I go about that? Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. My mind was once a beautiful garden, untouched in the depths of my mothers womb, yet now it resembles an overgrown, chaotic space, full of weeds that have grown and taken root in full dominance of this fragile environment. The cries from within that yearn for change seem to be silenced by the ongoing chanting of the self critic: you can’t, you’ve lost, you’ve wasted your life, just give up, you’re a failure. Well, you know what? I am not giving up. Period. Maybe all it takes is the gentle whisper of, ‘you can do it’, ‘I believe in you’. I believe that encouragement is a long lost characteristic that has been forgotten in the pursuit of self-centred goals and ambition. I know I can do it, just, but maybe, just maybe, that one word of encouragement would be all it takes to make the difference; the difference between giving up and carrying on. I know I am not alone on this journey so if you read this and discover, ‘this is me’, then my words of encouragement are, ‘you can do it and I believe in you’.

    Reply
    1. Dan September 7, 2015 at 11:41 am

      Hey Graham! It seems like you’re processing a lot. What I want to say is that you’re already doing good work by asking the hard questions and staying in the tension. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

      You’re also not alone in your fear or missing our or failure. Those are fears we all face.

      You can do it. I believe in you.

      Reply

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