• Jon D'Alessandro

How to Develop Self-Efficacy, Part 1: Enactive Mastery Experiences

Proven strategies for building an unshakeable belief in your effectiveness, competence, and capabilities [Part 2 of 3 in our self-efficacy series].

Previously, we introduced the concept of self-efficacy, or the level of belief you have in your capabilities, competence, effectiveness, and ability to get things done. We discussed how confidence and self-esteem are nice, but self-efficacy is instrumental to optimal performance, and will have a much greater influence on your success and resilience.


Higher self-efficacy predicts not only better personal performance and accomplishment, but also:

  • The tendency to choose more challenging, meaningful goals

  • Higher resilience in the face of obstacles and failure

  • Reductions in undesirable emotions (e.g. anxiety, fear), and

  • Increased interest and engrossment in activities, and satisfaction from overcoming personal challenges.

Self-efficacy was theorized by Albert Bandura, one of history's most influential psychologists. Research on self-efficacy has spanned various contexts (commerce and business, athletics, academics, etc.) and focused on an array of specific behaviors (goal achievement, smoking cessation, pain control, exercise, etc.), all with surprisingly consistent results.


But where does our self-efficacy come from? How can we reliably find or create the circumstances to build it?


Bandura proposes four sources of self-efficacy:

  • Enactive mastery experiences

  • Vicarious experiences

  • Verbal persuasion and social influence, and

  • Physiological and affective states.


Today we're focusing on enactive mastery experiences, which, according to Bandura, are the most pertinent sources of efficacy information.


Making it real

Before we dive in, think about an area in your life where you feel it's important to perform or behave at your best. It could be your career, business, or investment activity. It could relate to fitness, health, or athletics. It might be an academic or creative pursuit. Maybe it's more personal, like your relationships, improving your financial situation, or eliminating bad habits.

Psychological concepts like self-efficacy can sometimes feel a bit academic or theoretical. To make this real for you, keep this "performance area" at the forefront of your mind as you read this article. Think about your goals in this area, obstacles you've encountered, and specific, targeted actions you can take with this information.


No matter what you choose, self-efficacy will play a vital role in ensuring you perform optimally.


Enactive mastery experiences

We’re always watching ourselves. We constantly monitor how our behavior mediates our environment and circumstances, watching for cause and effect. We observe our experiences, accomplishments, and failures, and then organize this information into a set of efficacy beliefs.

Enactive mastery experiences are situations where you take action intending to create a desired outcome. It's learning by doing, then observing what happens, and mining that information for clues to help judge your personal capabilities.


According to Bandura, enactive mastery experiences are the most salient sources of efficacy information “because they provide the most authentic evidence of whether one can muster whatever it takes to succeed. Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy. Failures undermine it.”


The “deviation-amplifying” nature of the relationship between self-efficacy and performance can create positive or negative feedback loops — in sport as well as business, individuals can experience “momentum” and “hot streaks,” just as they can go through “slumps,” or like Austin Powers, “lose their mojo.”

In short, winners win, and losers lose. But even more importantly, cheaters never win.


Perserverant effort

Bandura highlights that experiencing success is not enough. We must recognize what it took to win, what we had to overcome, what sacrifices we had to make. This is key to building resilient self-efficacy:


“A resilient sense of efficacy requires experience in overcoming obstacles through perseverant effort. Some difficulties and setbacks in human pursuits serve a beneficial purpose in teaching that success usually requires sustained effort. Difficulties provide opportunities to learn how to turn failure into success by honing one’s capabilities to exercise better control over events.”

We can’t swindle our way to success, or rely on luck, or coast by on our talents alone. Our self-efficacy improves only through perseverant effort.

So we need to purposefully find or create opportunities to perform, persevere, and learn.

Of course, you can leverage deliberate practice and repeat exposure. For example: Improving your golf game by getting reps in at the driving range. Becoming a better salesperson by practicing your pitch or cold call scripts. Learning a new language by listening to an audio program.


Practice is a fundamental and necessary lever. But it's only one piece of the puzzle.


Hormesis and stretch goals

There is a phenomenon in pharmacology and toxicology called hormesis where, counterintuitively, exposure to low doses of harmful agents can result in a positive physiological effect. The idea originated in science but applies just as well to learning, performance, and developing self-efficacy. A hormetic response is one where acute stress helps you adapt and become stronger. This "beneficial stress," referred to as eustress, is instrumental to not only self-efficacy, but flow states, performance improvement, exercise, and workplace productivity.


To really grow both your capabilities and your self-efficacy, you need to supplement practice by stepping out of your comfort zone, and mindfully exposing yourself to challenging performance experiences.


To refer back to the aforementioned examples: Signing up for a golf tournament. Asking your boss if you can take the lead on the next sales call. Living in Mexico for six months to learn Spanish.


You can leverage hormesis and create eustress by stepping out of your comfort zone, and creating stretch goals, or goals that feel just a little bit out of reach. The point is to risk the possibility of experiencing momentum-sapping failure, to pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient, to be a little more ambitious, to expose yourself to pressure and trust in its capacity to create diamonds.


The hormetic process can expand our capabilities. We can surprise ourselves, tapping on previously unknown reserves, and in turn increase our perceived self-efficacy.


In turn, this growth enables us to do more, to overcome previously insurmountable obstacles, to grow our reservoir of potential, to take on even more responsibility, to tackle even larger challenges.


Pressure and performance

Remember, we're talking about a step out of our comfort zone, not a leap. Stretching, not snapping.


As we've explored, success can bolster our efficacy beliefs. Minor failures and setbacks can even be beneficial so long as we demonstrate grit and perseverant effort. But a major failure, especially early on, can prematurely or even permanently throw you off track.


Hormesis is not an extreme shock, but a gradual process. Through a series of small wins, you build your abilities in-step with your self-efficacy. The intention is to be uncomfortable, not to get crushed.


The Yerkes-Dodson law demonstrates the relationship between pressure and performance. Performance increases with perceived stress in the form of physiological or mental arousal — but only to a point. When stress and arousal becomes to great, performance suffers. Generally we can visualize the effect as a bell curve:

Empirical evidence demonstrates that challenge and eustress can have a positive impact on performance and self-efficacy. So don't shy away at the first sign of stress or fear — they can serve as powerful fuel for peak performance.


For example, Cus D'Amato, Mike Tyson's legendary manager and boxing trainer, often educated his fighters on the great power and potential of fear:


"Nature gave us fear in order to survive... I always compare it to fire. Fear, like fire, must be controlled and, once it gets out of control, like fire, could destroy everything around, not only the individual—everything around you. So once you control fear like fire, you could make it work for you... The fighter who controls his fear can now function in a manner far over and beyond anything he was capable of before."

Elite performers, no matter their area of expertise, not only perform in spite of stress, adversity, and discomfort, but actually helps them. They perform even better, and in the process, exceed expectations, grow capabilities, and further develop their self-efficacy.


However, be conscious about when you're in over your head. It's when arousal and stress cross from eustress to distress that performance starts to suffer. Distressed performers are more easily fatigued. They become beset by panic and anxiety. Their performance breaks down, and they leave feeling defeated, ineffective, and burnt out.


The sheer intensity of the sensations might cause the breakdown, or it could simply be an inability to process and handle them appropriately. At the first sign of stress, they think "something is wrong," and the vicious cycle begins. They choke, deflating their efficacy beliefs in the process.


What do you do?

So how do you find the right balance between too little and too much stress? How do you manage your emotions and pre-performance jitters? What role do others play in helping us deal with stress, and develop our efficacy beliefs?


As you can imagine, as you navigate repetitive practice sessions, difficult stretch goals, and stressful experiences, it helps to have others to lean on. Peers or mentors who can offer outside perspectives. Experienced allies who can help identify, create, interpret, and learn from these enactive mastery experiences. It also helps to have proven strategies to deal with your emotions, and channel them into peak performance.


Stay tuned, because we'll be exploring these topics and much more in Part 3 of our series on self-efficacy [COMING SOON!].

P.S. — If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to our newsletter below or via substack for more on the psychology of peak performance, advice on creating inspiring, actionable goals, and tactics for improving performance and accelerating your career!

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