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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