Tag Archives: Success

Why do I not celebrate my own successes?

“Do you know there are rumours about you at work?” Chills down my spine: what is this about? Then I spot the look in his eyes and understand he is kidding me. Well, he is and he isn’t.

“Rumour says you won a research award of the year in the county? What the f… were you thinking not telling us all about it? How bad can you get at promoting yourself?” He laughs and shakes his head in disbelief. “Seriously, this is big, isn’t it? Like, you make a huge fuss about someone in the group winning an award for best poster at a national conference, but you don’t think this is even worth mentioning?”

Well, to be truthful, I did mention it to the two PhD students who were still at work when I got the message about the award. A couple of others had seen the press release the day after and there was some talk about it during coffee, especially since my husband sent me flowers to work! He clearly knows more about celebrating success…

But then I never really thought to bring it up at the team meeting, maybe because the official prize ceremony will not take place until another month. And there were lots to do and all that. But maybe considering my PhD student’s question is worth the while. Just because he is American doesn’t mean he cannot have a point…

I often tell my PhD students how important it is to always celebrate small successes and it’s true, I am quick to celebrate theirs. So why don’t I follow my own advice?

The standard joke in my family of origin is that when someone gets an award – and my parents often do – the question asked is: Is it just the humiliation or is there some cash involved? This irony does not mean we are not proud, but it is kind of part of the expectation to excel. There is no fanfare and certainly no bragging about that prize or award. And to distance oneself and show humility is more important than anything else. But I am afraid we might be missing an important point here.


Only judging people on what they achieve is of course very dangerous and no child in the world should have to feel that not succeeding with something takes away their worth as a person. Nevertheless, an important driver for people is mastery and achieving something in the face of effort is truly rewarding per se.

Think of the child who finally succeeds going up the steps, finishing a puzzle, solving a maths problem or getting a 100 likes on Instagram for a photo they have worked on! Achieving results through effort is good for children’s self-esteem and builds resilience. So we should probably not shy away from expecting both effort and certain results from our children.

But even if there is an intrinsic reward of flow there, is it wrong to celebrate when an effort is successful? I think I could do more of that. Even if the phrase “promoting yourself” still makes me genuinely uncomfortable.

But there is change about to happen! Today I got an e-mail summarising the evaluation of a seminar I have participated in at the national meeting of our governing political party. We got 3.91 on a 4-point scale as presenters (with a high response rate) and the seminar as a whole got 3.85. Someone even wrote that my presentation was best. So I bought an ice cream and gave myself two extra minutes in the sunshine. And I will probably tell my colleagues about it at the next team meeting.

In fact, I will post those results right here, right now, as a later e-mail I just received put us as the top-ranked seminar of the 28 that whole day, in front of seminars with ministers and other high-profile politicians. The average score for the day was 3.34 so the general quality was pretty good, as well! I am not sure if this is bragging, self-promotion, or celebration, but here I go:


You can do it!

The night before my first solo driving trip in Melbourne I had nightmares. It’s not that I don’t like driving – in fact I am an experienced driver and have driven lots of different cars on all sides of the road, big and small, manual and automatic. I drive carefully and confidently and I think I am considerate on the roads. But I am spatially challenged, meaning that I have no sense of direction whatsoever and have therefore serious issues with finding my way. In addition, I cannot tell right from left without thinking hard about it. This challenge of my spatial intelligence is reflected in those parts of the IQ test where you are supposed to match up 3D images with one another to see which of four possible pieces fits with the sample image missing a part. Impossible! How can people figure that out?

Because I am adamant not to let such things restrict me I have had many detours and sweaty arrivals just because I did not take extra precautions or double check my choices on which way to turn while en route. But now that I am soon turning 40 I figure that I have to find a way to live with my spatial challenge and maybe give myself a brake. So I spent some of the evening consulting Google maps while my husband had a fun time proposing seven different routes because it didn’t matter. Well, it did for me, and I chose the most straightforward route that was a bit longer, but much simpler than the others. I memorised the street names and distances, although I also planned to have my laptop on the passenger seat.

Nonetheless, when the morning came I had a lot of excuses ready for why I shouldn’t go or why my husband should come with me. My hesitation could have to do with the fact that, while I was at it, I planned four meetings that day so I not only had to get to one destination, but three, and there was no time for messing up. The reason I didn’t seriously consider just dropping the whole project of driving a fat jeep in left traffic to parts of a huge city I had never been to before was my self-efficacy. I believed I could do it.

In fact, I knew I could do it, that I would figure it out. The term self-efficacy was coined by the psychologist Albert Bandura in his book on Social Learning Theory from 1977. Self-efficacy is a very widely used and cited concept and is related to the person’s belief about his or her ability to complete or master a certain task or meet a challenge effectively. It is for good reason that sports psychology uses self-efficacy as one of its core concepts: you can only visualize yourself with a gold medal in hand if you have high self-efficacy. I did my PhD on Type 2 Diabetes and one of our very interesting findings was the importance of self-efficacy for metabolic control in diabetes. I dare to say the same goes for every single chronic condition and in fact health behaviour in general. We also see the major role self-efficacy plays in parenting.

As simple as it seems, it is true: if you believe you can do something, the odds are that you will succeed. Well, unless you mix up boasting or an unrealistic self-image with self-efficacy. Having high self-efficacy means that you take responsibility for your actions and that the possibility of both success and failure lies within your reach. The good news is that self-efficacy is possible to affect, which indeed is what a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy does. If you don’t believe you can make a change in your life you need to start working on why you don’t believe you can make a change.

I did find my way to all my destinations, drove a total of 72 kilometers, and was not even late. It did help to plan and to ask my researcher colleague for directions at my first destination. It turned out that she knew exactly what it was like to be spatially challenged. So when the road I was driving on did this impossible thing dividing itself into two going in complete different directions I knew what to do because she had told me: stick to the right, let’s see, it’s this hand! I am not alone, in fact there are plenty of us spatially challenged, otherwise rather intelligent, people out there. You can do a simple test to tell: if you call on us to turn right too quickly and without pointing, we will either turn left or say which right?

It did feel a bit phony, but when things got tough that day I just said to myself: you can do it! The best news with self-efficacy is in fact that successes create a positive loop with better self-efficacy and more successes. Parents intuitively know this. So keep chanting “you can do it” to your child the next time it runs into a challenge and a small miracle is bound to happen in front of your eyes.