Have you heard of the white coat experiment?
In 2012, two researchers from Northwestern University wanted to test how your clothes might affect you. They split their subjects into two groups, with one group wearing a medical doctor’s coat and the other group wearing a painter’s coat. Interestingly, those wearing the medical doctor’s coat scored 50% higher on the concentration test than the other group.
But even more interesting was the twist: both groups were wearing the same white coat – they just perceived them to be different because that’s what the researchers told them.
This story is powerful for two reasons: First, it tells us that we are free to pick the meanings we attach to things because, inherently, nothing has value. And second, it shows us the power of the stories we tell ourselves.
Intentionally Assigning Value
For the most part, we can create our own meanings in the world. We can decide if we are wearing a doctor’s or painter’s coat. We can determine if we had a good, bad, or neutral day based on our interpretation of the day’s events.
Whether we realize it or not, we are the ones attaching value and meaning to everything around us, from events, items, and even people.
The trick is to take control of this opportunity and intentionally assign your values.
For example, you could say your life is a mess if you are going through a lot. However, you could also say that you are simply in the middle of something, and it’s a work in progress – like a half-solved Rubik’s cube.
Based on the meanings you attach to your circumstances, you can either lose yourself in feelings of overwhelm or look optimistically to the future.
Take another example: One person working minimum wage hates his job but begrudgingly shows up every day because he has no choice. The other person is determined to open his own business one day and is thrilled for the daily opportunity to see behind the scenes.
They are in precisely the same position but approaching it differently.
You can simply stumble through life helplessly reacting to everything or take a more proactive perspective – the choice is yours.
It doesn’t matter whether the story you tell yourself is true or not because only you know what you tell yourself in your head. But that doesn’t make this exercise any less powerful.
The Power Of Self-Perception
This power of assigning value goes beyond interpreting external things; you can use it as an internal tool.
Suppose you are just about to do a public speaking engagement. You can spend your time backstage reminding yourself that you feel ready or confident, or you can spend it worrying that you are unqualified and that it would be better if someone else were going to give the talk.
In which scenario do you think you’d perform better?
This is not to say you can strut into an operating room and perform open heart surgery because you believe you can. There are limits to what your mind can do for you.
But just because you can’t will yourself to fly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the power of your self-perception in ways that you actually can.
Those who wore a doctor’s coat felt like doctors and performed better. However, those who thought they were wearing artists’ coats lowered their standards for themselves (despite not really having any reason to!).
But how do you convince yourself you are something? How do you change your self-perception?
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
As the saying goes, fake it ‘til you make it. Even if you don’t feel confident now, act like it anyway, and the confidence will follow.
It sounds a little crazy, but it works because the best evidence you’ll ever have for anything is seeing it in action, especially from yourself. Affirmations are great, but they are only the first step.
Telling yourself that you are responsible a hundred times plants the possibility of it in your head. But it is only when you actually make a deadline that the idea solidifies, and you begin to believe what you are saying in earnest.
If you want to be anything, just be it, and do it regularly – and your confidence will follow.
This is one of the actual benefits of habits: Since you do them every day, you are constantly reinforcing to yourself that you are a kind person or that you are a person who exercises or whatever else your resolution may be. From there, the results are simply cherries on top.
Choose the story you want to tell yourself, then keep faking it and putting in the reps. Before you know it, you will have worked your story into reality.
Strengthen Your Mind
Your mind is a powerful thing, but there are things you can do to make sure it works at its optimal capacity. Your power to intentionally assign value to things is more powerful when you feel good inside and out.
Besides, going back to the start of this article, the group that performed better wore their white coats first. Even though, ultimately, their mindset determined their performance, their perspective was first triggered by something external.
Get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise – go back to the basics that we all know will make you feel good.
Also, invest time and effort in looking good. Get a nice haircut, and get some nice clothes. No, your appearance does not define you, but this experiment has shown the direct effects of your physical state on your performance.
As an added benefit, looking put together affects how people around you treat you too. Thankfully it’s not the only metric people have, or it shouldn’t be. But it still is a metric you may want to use to your advantage, especially for first encounters.
The Importance of Managing Your Perceptions
This is all good, but so what if you feel good in your skin? So what if you tell yourself you’re wearing a medical doctor’s coat instead of a painter’s, and it helps you concentrate more? What does it matter?
It matters a lot!
Author, philosopher, and theologian Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that because the world needs people who have come alive.”
Passionate, confident people are the people who change the world and make it a better place. They are the ones willing to put themselves out there and let their message be heard in their unique voices and make a difference.
And passionate, confident people can do that because of the story they tell themselves, augmented by evidence of their past successes, compounded with simple things like looking and feeling good in their skin.
Whether you end up on stage speaking to millions or in front of a classroom talking to five, I hope you find your confidence and your voice from the story you tell yourself and use it to make a difference in this world.