Try to forget about the idea of pride as a deadly sin. The latest research shows that pride can be a powerful motivational force.
It’s true that “hubristic pride” – when you feel pleased in your own abilities – can be harmful and indicative of an inflated ego. But “authentic pride,” which is the satisfaction and pleasure we take from the positive outcomes of our hard work and dedication, is an important, rewarding emotion that encourages persistence. And for creatives going through a tough patch, feeling a lack of pride can be a useful indicator that you’re taking the wrong approach. In extreme cases, it might mean it’s time for you to change strategies, or even to take a new direction entirely.
For a dramatic example, consider ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes who once ran 350 miles in one go, and another time ran 50 marathons in 50 days. This man has some serious motivation. But where did it first come from?
The impetus arrived on his 30th birthday when Karnazes was reflecting on his life and his career in sales – a promising path, but not one that gave him any feelings of pride. As University of British Columbia psychologist Jessica Tracy explains in her new book Take Pride, Why The Deadliest Sin Holds The Secret To Human Success, it was specifically this absence of pride that motivated Karnazes to become one of the most successful and inspirational long distance runners in the world. “Karnazes didn’t start running because he knew it would change his life, but because he wanted to feel something,” writes Tracy.
If you recently suffered a disappointment – perhaps a design pitch was rejected, or your latest artwork commission fell through – and are feeling a distinct lack of pride, try not to bury this emotional discomfort. Instead, use it to motivate yourself to make the changes you need to turn things around.
Alternatively, if what you’re doing and achieving doesn’t give you a warm glow of authentic pride, perhaps it’s time to rethink your work priorities and strategies. Indeed, we could all benefit from tuning into these feelings more. “We often can be going along and things seem good, but we’re missing this sense of achievement,” notes Tracy. “This sense of pride in ourselves, and becoming aware of that, is often what prompts us to change our behavior.”
Tracy recently demonstrated some of these motivating effects in a series of studiespublished with colleagues at the University of British Columbia and the University of Rochester. For example, the researchers measured university students’ feelings of authentic pride after an exam, and they found that those who reported feeling low pride after a poor result (i.e., they reported feeling little sense of fulfillment or accomplishment) also tended to say they planned to change their study strategies, and they subsequently showed improvements to their performance in another exam several weeks later. The same improvements were not shown by poor-performing students who did not experience low pride.
It was a similar story when the researchers surveyed members of a running club after a race. Those who performed poorly, and who also reported feeling low pride afterwards, tended to say that they planned to change up their training regime, and they went on to achieve a better performance in their next race.
These results show how feelings of low pride act as a “barometer of achievement” that motivate us to change. But crucially, it is only if you take the time and effort to reflect on these feelings, or lack of them, that you will get to benefit from their motivational power.
One word of caution – if you’ve had a string of disappointments and you’re feeling low feelings of pride combined with low self-confidence, you risk your absence of pride slipping into shame. Shame, as Tracy explained, “… is feelings of ‘I can’t do anything. I’m not good at this. I’m not going to try to work hard because it’s just going to end up in failure’” – a state which is not at all motivating. Feeling low authentic pride, by contrast, “means you’re missing those feelings of competence and achievement and you’re trying to get those feelings back,” says Tracy.
There’s a key distinction that’s important for determining whether you feel low pride or shame. It comes down to whether you interpret a disappointment as due to changeable issues, such as a lack of effort or the wrong strategy, versus it saying something about the kind of person you are. For instance, if your last design didn’t get much positive feedback and you interpret this as saying that you’re a poor designer with no talent, this is clearly demoralizing. On the other hand, what can be a powerful motivating force is when you feel a strong yearning to experience pride, rather than disappointment, and you recognize what you need to do to succeed next time.
So embrace pride. It is not vain or inappropriate to want to feel more proud of yourself for your dedication and commitment.
This piece was originally published by 99U.
Featured image by Giacomo Bagnara.