Julie Kay’s article in her Leading Questions blog about Marcus Buckingham’s new book “The One Thing You Need To Know” made me think:

(Buckingham) argues that recent research shows that realism in our self-assessment can hinder our performance while unrealistic self-assurance fosters enhanced performance. He describes studies where children from lower socioeconomic sectors of society were asked how likely they felt they were of getting into college. Research had shown that these children actually had little chance of completing high school never mind being admitted to college. The children who were “realistic” about their chances performed in line with the assessments and very few made it into college. On the other hand, a significant percentage of children who were “unrealistically optimistic” about their ability to gain college entry actually achieved it. So Marcus Buckingham states we should be building self assurance rather than self awareness.

I haven’t read the book yet, but based on Julie’s reading of it there‚Äôs a bit of a logical error in what Buckingham describes as a “realistic self-assessment”. The research presumably didn‚Äôt show that those individual children had little chance of completing high school – only that the *average* educational attainment of children from that socioeconomic sector was lower. The optimistic children weren‚Äôt being unrealistic ,because the research said nothing about their individual abilities! Particularly as we know that attitude and expectations significantly affect performance (see for example the study known as ‚ÄòPygmalion In The Classroom‚Äô) and so become self-fulfilling prophesies.

In fact I would argue that someone who bases their expectations of their future performance on an average for their socioeconomic category, as if their own skills, interests and expectations had no bearing, is actually being more unrealistic than someone who reckons they will succeed – and does.

The apparent conflict between self-awareness and self-assurance is illusory, as the research says nothing about the individual, only about the average for their socioeconomic category. Of course Buckingham is hardly alone in regarding averages as defining what’s realistic – it’s endemic in psychology, education, medicine and management.  I believe we will get better results if we look instead at what enables exceptional performance.

“Realism” versus “unrealistic optimism”? Hooey!

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