Oliver Gilan

Believing is the Difference

I have a joke that goes something along the lines of “my character flaw is genuinely believing I could do [insert highly improbable feat]”. For example I truly believe that should the need arise I could land a commercial 747 airline with no training. Except the joke isn’t that I think I can land a giant commercial aircraft with no training or expertise it’s that I am pointing out the belief as a flaw when in reality it has probably been among my greatest strengths historically. The act of believing in your ability to do something increases the odds of your success in doing said thing. I don’t quite know why that is the case but I’d like to share a few moments in my own life that highlight this phenomenon and provide some clues as to why believing can be the difference between succeeding and failing.

Early into my high school days I became fascinated with programming. I had been playing around with the basics of html and css at that point but I wanted to build bigger and better things than static sites. I started by learning Java but even before I got to anything interesting I needed to learn how to think like a programmer and that proved far more difficult than I anticipated. The simplest problems on Project Euler were too difficult for me and I couldn’t wrap my head around solutions that were completely obvious because I couldn’t logically figure out how to apply loops and conditionals in the correct manner for the given problem.

For 3 months every day after school I’d go home, open up one of these basic problems and then try to solve it for 30 minutes before giving up and studying the solution to try and reverse engineer the correct thought processes required. Then one day, sitting in math class absent-mindedly thinking about one of these problems, it clicked. I quite literally felt the neurons in my brain firing in a whole new pattern and programming has felt like a native ability ever since.

Looking back on it, a more sane individual would have stopped trying in the face of seemingly zero progress far earlier than I did. Three months of banging your head against a wall at the very beginning of a new skill is not a recipe for a new career path but I kept going only because I knew my older brother was already studying CS in college and if he could figure it out then so could I. The reason I’m a programmer today is because I believed (quite stubbornly) that I could be even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. That seemingly irrational belief became my reality.

Another profound instance happened in my second semester of college while studying Calculus II. I had taken a bit of calculus my senior year of high school but it mostly encompassed Calculus I and the little Calculus II we did cover I found incomprehensible. Meanwhile at Rutgers University our Calculus II course is notoriously difficult with a high failure rate and it was common practice for students to take it over the summer at an easier community college then transfer the credits just to avoid taking it at Rutgers.

So there I am, having heard all the rumors, breezing through the course along with a growing apprehension waiting for the other shoe to drop when we start the chapter on Sequences & Series. For the first time that semester I cannot make heads or tails of the material and all the fears and apprehensions crash down in what I thought was the dreaded fate of all Calculus II students. For 2 days I frantically try to see the patterns—to understand the problems and their solutions—in my weekly assignments. Then on a Thursday night at 11pm with one hour before my weekly assignment deadline and on the verge of a breakdown it all changed when I asked myself a question: what if I was really good at this? What if Sequences & Series were actually really easy to understand? What would such a world look like and how would the me in that world solve these problems? When I looked back at my paper I was staring at a different language—one I could comprehend and understand with ease. The patterns composed easily before me and I began to look at Sequences & Series—and later all of Calculus II—from a different perspective.

It feels cliché to write these words. These are the type of corny feel-good dramatizations about confidence and the power of belief usually intended for a target audience of 10 and under but I’ve truly experienced these moments and they weren’t the only time. Sitting in my dorm and grasping Sequences just minutes after not understanding any of it was the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon I’ve ever experienced but it’s happened so many times to varying degrees that I cannot discount its existence. Over short time periods like this one and longer ones over months and years, in academic subjects and athletic endeavors, in side projects and personal goals, this phenomenon of belief altering my performance continues to come up.

Throughout my life I would claim my defining differentiator from my peers is my ability to learn new things rapidly and with ease and I believe my confidence in my ability to do so plays a large role in that. The more confident you are the less stressed you will be and the less stress you experience the more elastic your brain will be and the more elastic your brain is the faster you will learn. Whether or not that is the actual mechanism at work is irrelevant to me, however. I’ve never doubted my ability to learn something and then found it easy but every time I internalize a confidence in myself for a coming task I accomplish it with a high probability of ease and these experiences over time has cemented this as fact to me. Whether I’m under pressure (trying to land a 747 with no experience), in a totally new domain, trying to achieve something ambitious, or all of the above quickly acquiring and learning new skills is essential and believing in your ability to do that accelerates the process.

There’s an unfortunate caveat I’ve learned which is that this doesn’t work without internalized belief. There are times when I consciously tell myself something but I do not believe it in my gut; I do not believe it unconsiously. In those cases conscious reinforcement hasn’t been enough. This means it can be hard to put into practice the process of belief and benefit from the subsequent boost in performance which can be needed the most when you’re at your lowest. When you are beaten down and worn out—when it feels like the world is against you and the walls of depression are closing in—you can find yourself without the conscious power to override the defeat within your own soul. I have yet to find a reliable and deterministic method for turning conscious belief into internalized belief but I’ve compiled two broad heuristics that can be useful.

The first is to start with a question. When your gut says “I can’t do this” no amount of gaslighting by your prefrontal cortex will convince it. If you instead pose simple questions you have a chance: “what if I could do this? What would a world where I can do this look like?”

We become the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and by asking questions you give permission to the deepest parts of your soul to acknowledge its current beliefs yet also to imagine alternate narratives about itself. These narratives over time can become desires and then beliefs and then realities. When I was at my lowest point as a teenager and debating whether I should even continue the dance of life the turnaround all started with a question. By giving myself permission to imagine a better future even if that felt impossible in the moment I was able to craft a new roadmap for myself and change my reality. This does not happen always but it happens enough to make this a usable strategy. Start with a hypothetical and see where it takes you.

The second strategy is to start with small wins. Jordan Peterson has a now famous recommendation to start the long journey of self improvement by cleaning your room. It’s great advice. Your brain is a prediction machine and it learns via reinforcement over millions of unconscious and conscious predictions about the future and then subsequent interactions with reality. When you start with a small win it subtly strengthens the connections in your brain that say I can do this and in time it can give you the conditioning required to believe in yourself even when tackling far greater tasks than you can imagine. I have such a strong confidence in my own ability to learn new things not because I wake up and tell myself every morning that I can do it but because my brain has hundreds of thousands of experiences to draw upon where I was able to learn something new stretching all the way back to when I first learned something as basic as talking. The winner effect is real and it’s because the body operates on these subconscious internalizations more than we realize so small wins become big wins and similarly small wins become new beliefs and those beliefs lead to better performance.

I find myself in an increasingly rationalist world that attempts to quantify everything. At a societal level this obviously has advantages but I find myself increasingly trying to surround myself with individuals that go beyond rationalism. I want to be friends with, work with, and invest in individuals who say I know the odds but I will win anyway because I think those people are more compelling and more likely to win. To put it simply: when two individuals with equal ability compete head-to-head the one who believes in themself will have an advantage over the one who doesn’t. If you want to achieve great things, be a great partner, a great competitor, a great founder, etc. you need some level of delusion. You need some level of blind faith in your ability to achieve what you desire because it is this blind faith that will keep you going longer than the rational individual in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It is this blind faith that will keep you relaxed and adaptable in the presence of pressure. It is this blind faith that will be the difference between success and everything else.