“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford (inventor of the first mass-produced car).
Many years ago, when I was a new and inexperienced teacher, I learned a lesson about students that has never left me. A colleague used to tell me about one of his Level 2 students, we’ll call her Millie. Each week my colleague used to shake his head about Millie because she was finding the course so difficult. She never gave up, but he was afraid that she would not be able to pass the course. He was surprised but delighted when she did pass the Level 2 course and progressed to Level 3. The situation was repeated at this level, with my colleague regularly shaking his head but Millie continuing to struggle her way through the course. Again, we were surprised and delighted when she passed Level 3.
Millie progressed to Level 4 and everything changed. My colleague never had to shake his head. Millie blossomed. Her confidence soared and she sailed through every exam. Why? Why was this same struggling student so different at Level 4?
What I learned from Millie was one of the most important lessons that any student can learn. The biggest barrier to your success is you! This is what Henry Ford is talking about in the quote at the start of this article. If you have self-belief, like Millie at Level 4, you can move mountains. Millie had completed two levels of the AAT qualification successfully. She had passed exams, she had completed skills tests, she had proved, to herself and to the world at large, that she was a competent accountant. This knowledge unlocked something inside her and gave her the freedom to succeed. This may sound unlikely but I have seen it so many times that I know it is the truth. A lack of self belief, self esteem, self confidence, call it what you wish, acts like a ball and chain around your ankles, stopping you from moving forward.
This lack of self-belief arises in many ways. Perhaps it comes from struggles at school, or doubting family members, or bullying, even discrimination. Wherever it comes from, it is very hard to recognise and very hard to let go.
It is extremely common for adult students to ‘do themselves down’. They both expect and dread to fail, because they have felt like failures, or been made to feel so, at other times in their lives. But is failure so bad? Yes, if it is seen as a final outcome and all that a student is capable of. No, if it is seen as part of a process of learning that can lead to improvement and success. To quote Henry Ford again (he said some good stuff) ‘Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently’.
If you have self-belief, you have the resilience to move past failure. Sir James Dyson famously produced over 5,000 prototypes before he arrived at his cyclone vacuum cleaner. Clearly, he had both self-belief and resilience. So, here are some ways to develop self-belief.
Recognise that mistakes are helpful.
If you make a mistake and put it right, you remember the lesson much more than getting everything right first time.
Recognise that self-belief can be learned
When you were asked as a small child what you wanted to do when you grew up, you could do anything! Doctor, astronaut, teacher, firefighter – anything! Try to put aside the restrictions you have placed on yourself and work out why they are there.
Set ambitious but realistic goals
The key word here is ‘realistic’. If you try to achieve too much in one go, you are far less likely to succeed, reinforcing the idea that you are a failure and further knocking your self-belief. Work out your ultimate goal – for example, to become an AAT Member in Practice. Then set a series of smaller goals or targets that will lead you to your final big goal. For example, enrol on Level 2 course, pass my Bookkeeping Transactions with a grade of at least 90%. Each small goal is just as important as your final goal but should be easier to achieve. Don’t be afraid to review and change your goals. Perhaps you decide that instead of becoming a member in practice, you want to go on to become a chartered accountant. Great, but don’t forget to keep setting lots of small but ambitious targets to get you to your new end point.
Recognise your achievements
Don’t be afraid to be proud of your strengths. If you are good at something, recognise it in yourself. Equally, identify your weaknesses and think about how you can improve them. If you achieve something, celebrate it. Passing an AAT exam is a big deal. The vast majority of the population is in awe of anyone who understands finance and you have proved that you do! So reward yourself (chocolate ice-cream works for me!)
Stop comparing yourself to others
We have all met people who seem to be good at everything, those who sail through life passing exams with just 10 minutes revision, winning the 100 metres in the school sports day, getting a First at university. If you try to compare yourself to them, you will just end up feeling bad about yourself. So don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself to yourself. What can you do now that you couldn’t do a year ago? I recently had a go at knitting a lace scarf for the first time. I found the easiest pattern I could, but lace is difficult to knit and I had to undo it several times. In the end I got there, having learned a lot about how to knit lace from the repeated undoing (see first point above). I can now do something that I couldn’t do a year ago. What about you?
Build your skills
To succeed in life we need skills. These will include skills gained from learning, such as an AAT qualification and personal, or ‘soft’ skills, such as the ability to communicate clearly on the phone. Try to identify the skills you need now and think you will need in the future and then work at strengthening the weaker skills. Strong skills will increase your confidence and self-belief, building your skills through your career and life.
The lesson I learned from Millie all those years ago was, never under-estimate students and never make assumptions about their future success, or lack of it. We all learn in different ways, at different paces, and with different obstacles in our way. Having self- belief allows us to overcome obstacles, allowing us to unlock those chains round our ankles and finally achieving our full potential.