Life lessons from the Little Engine That Could

by Madeleine Kolb

One of my most pleasant memories from childhood is of bedtime stories. My brother and I would get on our flannel, zip-up jammies with the slipper-feet, and we’d cuddle up on either side of Mom or Dad who would read stories of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, The Wizard of Oz , Winnie the Pooh, and others.

The story of the Little Engine

One of my favorites was the classic The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. You probably remember the story:  A small train carrying toys and food for children on the other side of the mountain breaks down and can’t move. Other trains come along, but they refuse to help and go on their way.

Until a little blue engine comes along. It’s never been over the mountain, but finally it says “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” It hitches itself to the little train and off they go.

Puff, puff, chug, chug, went the Little Blue Engine. “I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can” as it pulls the load over the mountain to deliver toys and food to the boys and girls in the city.

The Can-Do Factor  

The Little Blue Engine succeeded because it thought it could. It showed that the first step to doing something challenging is to think that you can. This attitude is called the Can-Do Factor or self-efficacy.

The authors of the book Successful Aging (John W. Rowe, M.D. and Robert L, Kahn, Ph.D.) define self-efficacy as

…the belief that one can solve specific problems, meet specific challenges, and otherwise influence the course of events in one’s everyday life.

The book describes findings from studies of aging, funded by the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Along with results which disprove common myths of aging, the studies found three key factors which predict strong mental function in old age:

  • Regular physical activity,
  • A strong social support system, and
  • Self-efficacy.

What does self-efficacy have to do with aging anyway?

 Rowe and Kahn say that self-efficacy is particularly important as we age because it prevents the self-fulfilling prophecy (or vicious cycle) that sets in if a person thinks he can’t do something:  He doesn’t try very hard and is not very successful, so he tries even less hard after that and does even worse, and so on and so on.

But it works both ways. Having self-efficacy tends to lead to successful effort which increases the sense of self-efficacy, which leads to more successful effort, and so on.

The authors indicate that self-efficacy can be increased, and the way to increase it is the way to learn just about anything challenging:  You start with baby steps, you get supportive feedback, you take on something slightly more challenging, you get more supportive feedback, and so on.

Examples from the real world

 Over the years, the I think I can attitude has helped me to take on a number of life challenges, such as

***Coping with a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes about 6 or 7 years ago and learning how to manage it without medication by reading up on the disease, making small substitutions in my diet, continuing my regular exercise program, and learning to use a blood-glucose meter and download the data to my computer to look for trends.

***Creating a starter blog with decades of writing and computer experience, knowing  essentially nothing about blogging and learning from experience and from fabulous supportive resources, such as Leo Babauta and Mary Jaksch’s A-List Blogging Bootcamp.

***Winning a gold medal in the Presidents [Exercise] Challenge and setting a goal of earning the platinum medal in less than 5 years. I calculated at the start that if I racked up points at the same rate as I had been doing, it would take me 10 years to get the platinum. Ten years? I thought. That’s ridiculous.

So I’ve been using a pedometer to count my just-walking-around-the-house steps separately  from my taking-a-walk steps. Yesterday, I calculated that if I continue doing that, it would take 8 years to earn a platinum medal. Still way too long, but I think I can find a way to do it in less than 5.

Three ways you can increase your self-efficacy

***Challenge yourself with something you want to do but have been told you’re no good at, maybe singing or dancing. You’ll learn a lot and have a terrific time, and so what if you don’t make it to American Idol or get your own reality TV show.

***Know when to ask for help. If you feel as if you have to figure out everything by yourself, you may get stuck and become discouraged. You may even give up. This will decrease your self-efficacy. Besides, people really love to be asked for help.

***Trust your brain to come up with an answer when you encounter a problem. It could be a simple problem or something complicated. When you’re doing something relaxing, such as taking a shower or walking your dog or just sitting on the bus, your brain is working away on your problem. Often an answer will suddenly pop into your head. You can’t force it; it just happens.

Do you have an experience with self-efficacy that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear it.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Françoise August 18, 2010 at 11:36 am

Hi Madeleine
thank you for this interesting view on self-efficacy. I had been wondering if there is a difference at all for kids or grown ups in this respect, but you are right, this is something which is only slowly fading away.
In my father’s generation I often see that at some point they decide that they can’t do anymore and it feels as if this has the consequence that it does becomes more difficult to “be able” for them nowadays.
I always wonder how this script could be interrupted, but I also learned that it is something only he can solve. The only support I can provide is ideas or suggestions, it is up to them to take them or not .
Françoise

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2 Madeleine Kolb August 18, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Hi Francoise, Thank you for an interesting comment. I think that as people age they believe many of the myths, such as “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” So they start to think, “I’m not sure I can,” and that affects their performance. It’s sad because many studies show that the ability to learn doesn’t decline rapidly with age.

“I always wonder how this script could be interrupted, but I also learned that it is something only he can solve. The only support I can provide is ideas or suggestions, it is up to them to take them or not .”

One thing I can think of is to suggest a class with a really good, supportive teacher. I took a dancing class a few years back, and the instructor would say things like, “Good! Now you’re getting it.” Support and encouragement make such a difference.

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3 Meg - Minimalist Woman August 19, 2010 at 11:21 am

The innate ability to learn doesn’t decline rapidly with age, but external factors can put a huge damper on things. I am thinking specifically of my father, who is sharp as a tack at 84, but macular degeneration and declining health with a lot of pain really get in the way of doing the things he enjoys most and saps a lot of his will. The guy is Type A, so it takes a lot to sap his will. Up to a couple of years ago he was busy learning how use a computer and to buy and sell things on eBay and still worked enthusiastically on restoring an old Model A Ford and old tractors, and fabricating things out in his shop. Now he can’t drive, he can’t read, and he can’t work in the shop, and those things used to help distract him from his other ailments, which are getting worse. I’m not sure what his self-efficacy options are at this point. Any thoughts?
.-= Meg – Minimalist Woman´s last blog ..Minimalism and How It’s Shaping My Life =-.

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4 Madeleine Kolb August 19, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Meg, I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read your comment this afternoon. I think that having a good social support system and the opportunity to get outside every day would help your father’s spirits, and maybe he already has those. As far as ways to use his sharp mind now that his sight has deteriorated, I thought of two approaches.

One is to brainstorm with him about interests he could pursue now. My BF works with a man who’s been restoring a Model A for a long time. This man knows other men who restore old cars, and they communicate with each other. (I don’t whether they have regular meetings or not.) There may be a way to get your father involved in a group to share his knowledge and experience about auto restoration or other things he knows a lot about.

Another approach (which you have probably pursued already) is to speak to doctors, physical therapists, or other experts about other activities, groups, classes, or community organizations he could get involved with. With his ability and sharp intellect, it seems that he could make a real contribution and get a lot of personal satisfaction at the same time.

Your father is fortunate to have such a caring daughter.

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5 Rich Slan August 25, 2010 at 6:49 am

Hey Madeline,

Great post. I especially like the part about the Presidential Fitness challenge! Good for you. Are you still moving toward the platinum level?

After reading your post, I also decided to start the Presidential Fitness challenge. I really like recording my activities and seeing my points climb, etc. Hopefully more adults will find out about this and take up the challenge.

Reply

6 Madeleine Kolb August 25, 2010 at 8:32 am

Hi Rich,

The President’s Challenge is a terrific program, and I am still doing it. One problem with it, though, is that after earning 80,000 points for a gold medal, you have to earn another 420,000 (500,000-80,000) for the platinum. I think it would be more motivational to have another level between the gold and the platinum.

So my plan is to rack up points faster by jogging instead of walking now that the hot, humid weather is nearly over. I’ll be interested in reading about your experience with the Challenge, and maybe your parents would be interested in it also.

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7 mike kirkeberg August 27, 2010 at 10:52 am

Great post. The little engine that could was a plugger. Even in the face of diversity, it kept plugging away. If I remember the book correctly, the little engine wasn’t so sure it could make it, but it kept on chugging up the hill.
Mike
.-= mike kirkeberg´s last blog ..Boomer Quote – ReDiscovery =-.

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8 Madeleine Kolb August 27, 2010 at 11:19 am

Hi Mike,
The Little Engine had never been over the mountain, so it had a good reason to wonder whether it could. But the Little Engine really wanted to help whereas the bigger, stronger trains that came by couldn’t be bothered. It’s amazing how these simple stories stick with us our whole lives.

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