Self-belief vs. the odds

Of the 49,000 members of the Actors’ Equity Association, the national union of stage actors, about 17,000 work at a median income of $7,500 in 2013. That’s not considering actors who don’t qualify for or participate in the union, who are likely paid less or working less. The conventional path of an actor is built on a structurally difficult business model.

Julia Galef was considering a career in theater and wanted to know how experienced stage actors thought about the odds. One successful actor told her, “Screw the odds. Everything in life is a risk, but if you want it, you should go for it. If you worry about failing, that’s just going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

There is a kernel of truth in what the successful actor was saying. After all, if you don’t play, you’re never going to win. If you don’t try acting, you’re never going to be an actor. If you do act, and you go into your work believing that you’re not going to succeed, then you will behave that way and slightly make your own odds worse—your setbacks will feel worse, your negative predictions will come true, and you won’t have the energy that your competition—who isn’t worried about failing—does.

In The Scout Mindset, Julia calls this the self-belief model of success, describing it as, “If you convince yourself that you will succeed, you’ll be motivated to attempt hard things and persist in the face of setbacks, such that eventually your optimism will be self-fulfilling.” 

Julia also points out a couple of drawbacks to this model:

  • It doesn’t consider decisions and weighing risk—the odds that you’ll succeed or fail.
  • It closes your mind off to other possible options that could create a better outcome for you.

So if you were committed to already being an actor, and for some reason there was no turning back—then certainly, the self-belief model of success is the most useful thing to believe. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic derailed recording artist Reggie DeVore’s career, he needed to regroup. In an episode of Queer Eye, he talks about how dreaming big has hurt him, even though he was still trying to make music. Co-host Karamo asks Reggie what his family will see and learn if he keeps working but doesn’t believe in what he’s doing. For example, Karamo says, “You can keep cooking, but don’t believe you’ll ever have your own restaurant one day.” In other words, the approach was, “Work hard, but don’t believe anything is ever going to come of it.” 

The self-belief model of success creates better odds and personal energy after you’ve committed. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman writes, “Managing your own morale—and your team’s morale—is one of the greatest challenges of most endeavors. It’s almost impossible without a lot of self-belief. And unfortunately, the more ambitious you are, the more the world will try to tear you down.”

However, if you haven’t committed to being an actor yet—or if your goals have changed since you committed and you need to pivot—you need to shift your perspective, like Julia did. You need to explore different possibilities, or adapt to a changing life situation and reinvent yourself. 

In 1999, music sales generated $14.6 billion for the recording industry. Curtis Jackson made his debut in 2003, selling tens of millions of records. In 2009, that number plummeted to $6.3 billion, and Curtis was seeing his sales also decline. He assessed that his odds of continuing as a successful recording artist were getting worse, and he decided to pivot out of music. He started different businesses, such as SMS Audio headphones, Effen Vodka, and a TV show called Power with Starz. While the initial paychecks for Power were relatively small for Curtis, he bet big on the show—and it paid off with a $150 million deal.

When Julia asked another friend in show business, her friend gave her a different perspective, “Look, it’s really tough out here. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t do it, but ask yourself: Are you sure acting is the only career you could be excited about?”

Julia realized she was open to many possibilities outside of acting, and also that she was certain she’d learn more about them in college. She writes, “For someone else with a more singular passion for acting, or more talent than me, the long odds might be worth it. But to weigh these factors successfully, you need an accurate picture of what the odds actually are.”

In her book, Julia covers Elon Musk as an example of someone who had a clear picture of the odds—even though Elon had Tesla’s likelihood of success with Tesla and SpaceX were both 10%, he still thought it was important enough to try. He made a clear judgment, and then he built conviction. Sam Altman writes:

“I remember when Elon Musk took me on a tour of the SpaceX factory many years ago. He talked in detail about manufacturing every part of the rocket, but the thing that sticks in memory was the look of absolute certainty on his face when he talked about sending large rockets to Mars. I left thinking ‘huh, so that’s the benchmark for what conviction looks like.’”

Sometimes, the line between this self-belief and self-delusion is very thin. Your sense of judgment, reasoning, and wisdom will help you distinguish between what’s feasible and what’s not. Sam writes:

“Self-belief must be balanced with self-awareness. I used to hate criticism of any sort and actively avoided it. Now I try to always listen to it with the assumption that it’s true, and then decide if I want to act on it or not. Truth-seeking is hard and often painful, but it is what separates self-belief from self-delusion.”

You don’t need to look far to see self-delusion crashing into reality—WeWork, Theranos, and Nikola are all examples.

The thing is, the odds are always changing, and so are you. Seek out new information, talk to people, and apply it to your life. Self-belief is useful as you execute, and for believing in your clear thoughts, as well as trusting yourself to figure new situations out. You can believe because you know something that the rest of the world doesn’t—because you’ve figured a secret out. But you need a clear sense of the information and the odds, so you can make an informed decision in the first place.

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