Positive Delusions: Do We Need Them to Reach Our Full Potential?

positive delusion

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Les Brown


No matter what you believe about yourself and your capabilities, at least part of it is probably full of crap.

Our beliefs are very flexible and subject to change on a whim. And our perception of ourselves is often just an exaggeration of what’s currently unfolding in our lives…

When something bad happens to us (like failing an exam), we might begin to believe, “I’m an idiot.” And when something good happens to us (like acing an exam), we might begin to believe, “I’m a genius.”

But if our beliefs about ourselves are so flexible and subject to change, how accurate are they?

In many ways, our beliefs are inherently delusional. We rarely have perfect information or perfect knowledge about ourselves or reality as a whole – so our minds help “fill in the blanks” and “make up a story” about ourselves that makes sense to us.

While these stories we tell ourselves are often “make believe,” they still have very real world consequences in our lives.


The stories you tell about yourself

If you go on a first date with someone and embarrass yourself, you might begin to tell yourself the story that “I’m just not good at dating. I’m weird. No one will ever like me.”

And that story is going to influence how you act in the future…

If you truly believe that story about yourself, it will make you more hesitant to go on another date, or more fearful of meeting new people, or stop you from seeking out relationships entirely.

But…what if you take that same experience of failure and tell yourself a different story?

Maybe when that first date doesn’t work out, you instead tell yourself:

  • I just need more experience with dating before I get better at it.
  • I just wasn’t compatible with that specific person.
  • I just wasn’t feeling well that day and was in a bad mood.
  • I would’ve hit it off better if they gave me more of a chance.

Are any of these stories completely true? Maybe, maybe not.

However, at least these stories give you more of an opportunity to learn, grow, and continue to move forward in your life.

In that sense, even if they aren’t completely true, could these stories be considered “positive delusions?”

You don’t exactly have any hard facts or evidence that “I’ll get better at dating” or “I just wasn’t compatible with that person,” but those beliefs are certainly more productive than “I just suck at dating altogether and people hate me.” Right?


Positive delusions

Many really successful people, whether they be actors, musicians, athletes, or CEOs, tend to have “positive delusions” about themselves.

What I mean by “positive delusions” is that they overestimate their potential, even when there is no evidence or facts that support this estimation of themselves.

When you first pick up a guitar and try to play it, you’re likely going to suck at it and sound awful. But the people who believe “I can do this. I can learn. I can improve. I can be really awesome at this…,” they continue practicing until one day they actually ARE good at playing guitar.

“Positive delusions” can be a type of self-fulfilling belief, where our beliefs play a role in how we act and the results we get out of life. Sometimes, you need to cultivate a certain belief before that belief becomes true.

I remember my younger days when I played baseball and my coach would always say “You have to believe you can hit the ball before you can hit it.” It’s simple advice that even a child can understand, but it touches on a fundamental truth behind success.

The simple truth is that if you don’t believe something is possible, then you’re not going to look for ways it can become true. That’s not magic, that’s logic.

In psychologist William James’ classic book The Will to Believe (which you can get the Kindle version for free), he discusses this same phenomenon on how our beliefs are sometimes required before they become true.

In one of my favorite sections from the book, he explains how we often need to believe people will like us before they actually will like us:

    “Do you like me or not? Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation. The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence, until you shall have done something apt […] ten to one your liking never comes. […] The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth’s existence; and so it is in innumerable cases of other sorts.”

This is just one example of why a belief is often required before a thing becomes true, even when that belief isn’t supported by current evidence.

Do I really know if someone is going to like me or not? Do I really know whether I will succeed or fail at something? I do not – but it’s healthy to assume that belief if I’m going to give myself a chance.

We often think of delusions as being negative, misleading, and destructive – but I think you can see how they can also be positive, motivating, and productive.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should completely ignore our reality and become mindlessly optimistic. But every now and then, we need to take that “leap of faith” before we can reach our full potential.

One could argue that a belief in a God or supernatural power can also be beneficial in this same way. We may not have any evidence that this supernatural power exists, but the belief in a higher power can often motivate and inspire us to become a better person.

In conclusion, “positive delusions” can be a very practical and beneficial thing that is often required if you want to bring out your best self.


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