About a year ago, I landed a job by asking the CEO through a cold message on LinkedIn.
3 things to note:
So, will you land a job by just asking? Probably not. However, you definitely won’t ever get a job by not asking or taking that first step.
And this applies to many areas of life.
The pattern of human behavior often time is predictable. It is predictable simply because we feel: we have emotions that arise in response to many real, remembered, anticipated, and imagined rejections by others (Leary, 2015). Therefore, our need to be accepted has led to the development of many behavioral mechanisms that arm us against threats to acceptance.
So in this article, I’ll talk about:
My Story Starts with Rejection
Before we get into the self-fulfilling prophecy, I’ll start with a quick story.
I spend a lot of time wondering of the many “what if’s” in life. And if you’re anything like me, then you’ve probably spent a whole lot more thinking about some of the fear-based consequences that seem to always come with uncertainty: the possibility of dissolution, ostracism, and rejection by others.
Sometimes these are silly, trivial fears that you can get over, other times you may be crippled by the very thought of things which may lead to stagnation and complacency.
On some occasions, these fears may also result in analysis paralysis – a slippery slope where procrastination is thinly disguised as productivity, the art of preparation instead of taking action.
It’s tough, I get it.
A year back, I was seeking experience to supplement my part-time studies. I could have graduated that year if I studied full-time, but I didn’t have a clue on what my passions were, what I was good at, or what I wanted to do out in the workforce.
After much deliberations, I eventually re-vamped my LinkedIn Profile, updated my resume, and went straight to the deep end of randomly messaging CEOs on LinkedIn.
Was it daunting? Absolutely.
Did I feel intimidated by the title and seniority of some of the people I messaged? You can say that 1000 times.
I sent those messages out without too much thought. However, there were so many times leading up to that where I wanted to do things to prepare for it. They included things such as:
…and the list goes on.
No doubt, these all would have been beneficial for me in the long run, but I also knew that those exact same things were justifications and excuses for not sending out those messages because I feared being rejected.
And sure enough, I got rejected. A lot.
Make no mistake, I was lucky to get nice messages like that. Most had ended up with no replies or left on seen.
And you know what happened?
Nothing. Nothing happened when I got rejected.
Because for every 9 messages I sent that got rejected, there was 1 that got back to me. I put all my energy and effort into that, and that eventually placed me in a company, industry, and role that excites me every day.
How many times have you been guilty of wanting something, but never asked?
Always toying with the idea of wanting to do something, but never taking that first step?
Being confused and baffled, but never having the courage to ask that ‘silly’ question?
Now I wouldn’t say that I ended up getting my role with ease. Asking was just the first step. Covid hit in the middle of negotiations, there was a period where nobody was hiring, I had to follow up for weeks, everything was remote, I had to learn software on my own, and that was just the beginning.
However in hindsight – one year later – that small, almost trivial initial ask, brought me one of the strongest growth, learning, and career advancements of my life.
And with Covid stunting the job market, putting graduates in a more precarious situation now more than ever, I often wonder why so many fear getting or even taking that first step of asking or applying for a job.
There are many sides of the coin to this issue, but I want to tackle it from the angle of the self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the field of sociology, sociologist Robert Merton first defined and coined that the self-fulfilling prophecy term
“…is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.” (Merton, 1948, p. 195)
Merton (1948) based his studies on the phenomenon of this prophecy playing out in racial conflicts in America at the time. The self fulfilling prophecy enacts itself when the dominant group harbors racial prejudices: such groups will almost always treat certain ethnic groups in ways that re-affirms their beliefs such that they are not prejudices, but as facts.
As an example, by believing that one race is of lesser intelligence, a teacher may pay the student of a certain ethnic group less attention in assisting them with learning and understanding. Therefore, the chances of the ethnic group performing better in tests are lowered, and further affirms the intelligence belief.
(A/N: I would like to quickly note that these racial examples are used strictly for illustrative purposes based on Merton’s study at the time of 1948 and do not reflect current times or hold as truth in any way).
And so, when we define a scenario or hold a reality as truth, we then start to affirm this prediction with the behaviors that would fulfill it.
To understand why we often unconsciously evoke the self-fulfilling prophecy, we can start by understanding how our brains make a sense of the world.
On a very rudimentary level, we form a sense of understanding of the world in two stages:
In other words, our sense of touch, sound, smell, and taste is assigned a meaning by our brain. The exact same world in which you and I live is different only because of the way our brain has processed the information from our senses.
Basically, our brains are information sorting machines.
But beyond that, the past two decades of neuroscience research hypothesizes that our brains are predictive information sorting machines (Clark, 2013).
You probably know what an apple tastes like before you eat it, simply because your brain has experienced the act of eating an apple and filed the taste of the apple somewhere in your brain. You expect that a granny smith apple will taste sour, a royal gala to be sweet, and so forth.
Additionally, the predictive capability of our brain is a form of optimizing energy efficiency, allowing us to navigate the external world: our brains must discover information about any likely outcomes based on impinging or familiar signals (Clark, 2013). We attempt to meet those needs before they actually arise – if they even arise.
Which brings me to my next point.
What do we do when we are confronted with an unfamiliar scenario where we aren’t able to fully predict the outcome?
Well, we do what humans tend to do best: we let our imagination run wild.
To put it simply, our brains start predicting: it rummages through every similar or familiar scenario to predict the most likely outcome.
On a literal level, Kok and de Lange’s (2014) research of shape perception and the primary visual cortex reveal that the human brain visually fills gaps and any blind spots to produce a likely picture. So not only are we processing and filtering external information, but we’re actively interpreting things that we don’t visually see (Smith & Muckli, 2010).
In that same vein, we too fill in the gaps of knowledge by our active interpretation of reality or any given possible scenario. In psychology literature, the act of creating new interpretations from the past is referred to as generativity (Hoemann, Gendron & Barrett, 2017) and it allows us to improvise and imagine.
And often, these situations or outcomes we conjure are laden with undertones of negativity. You know, the worst-case scenarios. As writer, H.P Lovecraft (1927) notes,
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (Lovecraft, 1927, para 1)
We start painting a narrative of our negative expectations playing out and their consequent negative outcome. Although there is nothing wrong with being cautious or being realistic in nature, the issue arises only when we start projecting this narrative as truth.
For instance, it would have been so easy for me to receive the first 3 rejections from my LinkedIn messages and think that since my qualifications and experiences weren’t up to par, to then put a halt to messaging anybody else.
Therefore, those initial excuses of wanting to do X, Y, and Z before sending out those messages become this sort of truth or reality for me.
That’s the self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s sneaky.
Remember how I said our brains are predictive machines?
Our brains want to predict accurately, or put another way, minimize error (Clark, 2013). So, you can see how something like the self-fulfilling prophecy aids that process. If you predict that you’ll fail, then you should surely fail.
Not only that, but it is also easier to fail because failure typically translates to inaction.
Thing is, we respond not necessarily to the objective features of a situation, but often to the meaning a situation has for us (Merton, 1948). We are inherently averse to anything that is difficult or involving potentially negative consequences like fear and failure. Therefore, it is easier to predict and anticipate it than to not anticipate it and be shocked by it.
In my case, if I predicted that I would get rejections from my Linkedin messages (and I did expect that to be the case), then I anticipate it, and therefore, the rejections don’t affect me much, simply because they don’t surprise me. I predict and accept it as part of the process.
Taking my case of rejection and failure a step further: if I were convinced and predicted that nobody would ever hire someone who didn’t have a degree and had very little tech experience, my fear of rejection would have me stop asking or take no action at all.
And taking no action equates to no opportunity to get a job or gain experience. Not having a job or experience further re-affirms to me that trying in the first place would have been fruitless anyway, and the outcome would have been the same regardless of if I sent those messages or not.
It doesn’t just apply to me, it applies to anyone: those wanting to make a career change, but never do. Graduates getting an office job for the first time, but never applying because they’re scared of the work or believe that no one would hire them. Even people wanting to lose weight, but not taking action simply because they don’t believe that they can and expect to fail.
This fallacious fear then transforms into an entirely justifiable reality.
Additionally, our brains also just want to be, well, correct.
On paper, it sounds quite bizarre, but you’ll find that surprisingly, people tend to do this a lot. I’m sure you may be doing it now or have at one point too.
“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” (Thomas, 1928, as cited in Merton, 1948)
To put it simply, your attitudes and the thoughts you have can become reality. That is the case because your mind will subconsciously affirm those beliefs and ensure your prediction is correct.
If you find that you are constantly making predictions that come true, you may be living a self-fulfilling prophecy. They usually sound like this:
It’s true that sometimes, the exhibit of these predictions may be evidence that you are simply self-aware of your own capabilities, and who you really are. However, these very same thoughts can have a subconscious effect on your own expectations and thus, behaviors.
Why? Let’s say it with me. Because our brain wants to be right.
Take the essay example. If you predict ‘I am going to do well on this essay, it’s likely your following thoughts will be solution-driven:
I’m not too familiar with the topic, but if I keep researching over the next few days, I’m sure I can get a better understanding and find a good topic to write about. Then, I can write a paragraph, seek feedback and make sure I understand the marking criteria…
Think that you’re going to bomb the essay, and you probably won’t dedicate any time preparing yourself for it, as you have already made up your mind that you won’t do well, so why even try?
Predictions act as belief: believe you can do something big, and you will. If you believe and your brain predicts it can do something, chances are, you will act in a way that will correspond to your beliefs that supports and reinforces your ‘prediction’ (again, proving your brain right)!
It is important to note that the self-fulfilling prophecy isn’t always a bad thing – just like how you can be stuck in a vicious cycle for negative predictions, this prophecy also works for positive predictions!
So next time you find yourself thinking you knew that X would happen. Have a think about why you had that thought and what behaviors, beliefs or thoughts you may have had leading up to that outcome, that made you think you knew it was coming.
It goes without saying that sometimes we don’t ask, simply because we doubt. Not of others or any external circumstances, but of ourselves.
You’ll find that this ties very closely with the self-fulfilling prophecy, and in some cases, could be the root of some of your self-fulfilling prophecy behaviors. The difference, however, is not always clear and comes down to do the individual and circumstance.
In the case of Menton’s (1948) study into racial and ethnic prejudices, the self-fulfilling prophecy roots deep within ingrained environmental influences, the beliefs that society or the people around us hold that we assimilate, take as truth, and further perpetuate.
However, in the case of the essay, the failure to do well may stem from the doubt and faith that we place within ourselves of not being intelligent or capable enough.
And when it comes to asking, we must ask ourselves first why we don’t.
I feared rejection, I feared that my skillsets weren’t good enough, I feared that I had nothing to offer. The things I feared were also the things I believed about myself, and it all came down to how I viewed myself.
But the best remedy to combat fear is paradoxically to take action. Isolate your fear, determine what it is that you are afraid of, and take action. There are actions to handle every fear.
Fear rejection? Expect it and get rejected many times. Realize that it’s not the end of the world and if my poor heart can take it, so can yours.
So to recap, why don’t we ask again?
It’s not the act of asking we’re afraid of, but the things underscoring the meaning for us of what asking would entail.
As an example, asking for a promotion has the possibility of rejection, and the rejection may reinforce to us already negative self-beliefs that we have of ourselves. Our negative self-beliefs may also be the reason why our brains have so readily predicted that we would get rejected, so it is likely that we have not confidently made the effort to work towards a position and place that deserves a promotion.
For me, the meaning of the situation would be the fear that no one could find any value in me, simply because I didn’t believe I had value to add.
In essence, if you find that you are not taking action, pin down the meaning of what the situation and the potential situation would mean for you.
Been meaning to do something like starting a business? You probably don’t because you don’t believe it will be successful, and so not only will you waste time, money, and effort in trying to start it, you may also have to deal with your own failures, bad habits, or opinions of others.
Again, that initial belief of failure already determines the outcome via the self-fulfilling prophecy. Conversely, having positive beliefs underpin a meaning that reinforces positive actions and attitudes.
Sometimes, we may find that taking action, even when we don’t fully believe in ourselves, eventually end up empowering us. The concept of “fake it till you make it” does have merits.
First, understand that you’re not alone and doomed to toxic cycles of the self-fulfilling prophecy. There are things you can do to stop the cycle and even shift it to a positive mind frame.
Take some time to examine yourself. Do you show signs of the self-fulfilling prophecy? You may recall that the signs are when you seem to be accurately ‘predicting’ outcomes and that you (well, your brain) always seems to be ‘right’.
Once you’ve reflected and recognized that you may be stuck in some form of self-fulfilling prophecy cycle, dig further and try to underpin what the true issue is.
There are layers to this. You may find that the issue is that you’re scared, but of what? And why?
Is it a lack of self-worth? Maybe self-limitation? Perhaps assimilated societal or environmental beliefs? It could even be due to trauma or unresolved childhood pain.
Of course, I understand that this can be very confronting, and often takes time and practice to identify. But you’ll find that it can be very liberating and relieving to be able to objectively understand your behaviors and the potential whys.
That first step, that first action you take towards your goal, towards facing your fear- anything- will always be the hardest.
So, brace yourself. It’ll probably be uncomfortable, you won’t want to do it. But the funny thing is, you’ll feel so much better once you do. A classic example: exercising.
Remember, action cures fear. Don’t think, and just do. Send that message. Place that product order. Get out of bed at 6 am. Open your computer and start that essay.
Ask for what you want. Act for what you want.
Sometimes, you’ll already believe you are able to do things and then take the necessary actions. Most times, you’ll need to start taking small steps that reinforce a positive belief that you don’t yet fully believe.
And that’s okay! It’s normal. The key point here is progress over perfection.
You should also expect failure. I know this sounds contradictory, but expect failure in the sense that every step taken, even if it ends up as a “fail”, is still a step taken. The takeaway is that failure is also success, but only if you understand why you failed and keep going.
What helps is also reframing your beliefs by adding ‘I believe that I will do all that I can to accomplish X’.
By believing that you will give it your all, you are acknowledging that you will be taking the necessary actions that will get you towards your goal, without falling into a case of imposter syndrome.
The magic here? If you keep taking action or start to ask for things that you want, you’ll find that that belief will start to shift into absolute certainty and that things will only be a matter of time.
By no means am I saying that I’m an invincible human who takes actions and asks things on a whim without a second thought – which no doubt, could potentially be disastrous. Having a healthy dose of doubt is a good thing! – it allows you to consider how to reasonably and best position yourself.
However, not asking and not taking action is where you are doing yourself the greatest disservice. Asking is not being selfish. Because oftentimes, you may also be benefiting or helping the person you’re asking and creating new opportunities together.
I’ve pestered my manager by asking him to show me various things, and more often than not, that simple ask has unloaded work off his shoulders and given me the opportunity to take on new responsibilities and tasks.
Hopefully, you’ve gained some understanding of some of your behaviors. I know I have, and a lot of the time, I still struggle with asking, taking action, and standing up for myself and what I want.
But I’m taking it day by day, issue by issue, and I hope you do too, by asking just one question at a time.
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