"Just scary enough"

I saw the phrase in Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, in a chapter on happiness and resilience. He described it as “a delicious mix of being a bit frightened yet knowing it would end up all right.”

Making things “just scary enough” can be the key to changing your behavior and to learning in general. 

“Stress inoculation”

“Some of the most convincing neuroscience data for the benefits of getting just scared enough,” Goleman wrote, “comes from studies of squirrel monkeys.”

In 2004, experimenters at Stanford University took young monkeys from their mother for an hour, once a week for ten weeks, and put them in a different cage with adult monkeys they didn’t know. They were terrified, as evidenced by a range of observations, and when the hour was up they were returned to their mothers. A control group was left with their mothers the entire time.

After the ten weeks, both groups young monkeys were placed alone with their mothers in a new cage filled with treats and places to explore.

“Young monkeys who had earlier been exposed to the stressful cages proved far braver and more curious than others their age…and showed no biological signs of fear arousal…those who had never left the safe haven of their mothers just clung timidly to her.” 

The regular visits to a challenging environment, they concluded, “acted as an inoculation against stress.”

Developing self-efficacy

Forty years earlier, other Stanford researchers made similar observations about humans and found related benefits. Albert Bandura and Nancy Adams treated people with snake phobias by taking them through progressively more challenging steps. The researchers would model the behavior first - e.g., looking at a picture of a snake, peering into a snake’s cage, and ultimately holding one. Gradually, at their own pace, the patient would take these small steps too.

Most patients were cured with this “guided mastery” in an hour or two, and it changed their lives. Overcoming their fear improved their “self-efficacy,” their sense of personal effectiveness and confidence to take on other challenges.

“Those who persist in subjectively threatening activities will eventually eliminate their inhibitions through corrective experience, whereas those who avoid what they fear, or who cease their coping efforts prematurely, will retain their self-debilitating expectations and defensive behavior.”

Goleman described it this way: “If we are exposed to too little stress, nothing will be learned; too much and the wrong lesson might become embedded the neural circuitry for fear.”

When you’re overwhelmed

But what if what you’re trying to do is too daunting or challenging? Pema Chödrön described three strategies in The Places That Scare You. “One way is to train with a less challenging subject, to find a situation we feel that we can handle.” In Working Out Loud Circles, we refer to that as “touching the treadmill.” You break down the change you’re trying to make till it no longer triggers your resistance or flight mechanism. 

The second way is to realize that you’re not alone, that millions of other people are going through something similar, feeling what you’re feeling. Shifting your attention to others in this way can make the experience seem less personally threatening. 

Finally, “if none of these is yet possible, we engender some compassion for our current limitations and go forward.”

Are you trying to make some change in your life? Make your next step “just scary enough.” Each small step you take will develop your confidence, each small failure will build up your resilience, and you'll increase your chances for success.

Guided mastery at work

SnakeImagine you’re afraid of snakes. You don’t just dislike them. You're so afraid that you can’t even walk on grass for fear a snake might be there. Like other phobias, the fear paralyzes you and the paralysis affects other parts of your life.

Then imagine you’ve discovered a way to learn how to overcome that fear in a few hours. Perhaps 45 minutes. You’ve not only overcome your fear of snakes, you’ve changed your life.

Now imagine you could apply this approach at work.

The technique

In 1969, Albert Bandura, the most-cited psychologist alive today, used a technique he later called “guided mastery” to help people overcome their snake phobia. In his experiments, subjects would receive treatment combining “graduated live modeling with guided participation.”

First, they’d watch for 15 minutes through a 1-way mirror as the experimenter interacted with a snake. Then, after the snake was back in its glass cage, the subject might enter the room and sit on a chair at varying distances from the cage. Gradually, the experimenter would model more and more interactions and help the subject follow along.

It was the subject who set the pace of progress, based on their apprehensiveness. And it worked. More than any other methods Bandura tested, guided mastery was the most effective, produced the most sustainable change, and produced benefits that went beyond curing the subject’s fear of snakes.

“Having successfully eliminated a phobia that had plagued them for most of their lives, a number of subjects reported increased confidence that they could cope effectively with other fear-provoking events. As one subject explained it, ‘My success in gradually overcoming this fear of snakes has contributed to a greater feeling of confidence generally in my abilities to overcome any other problem which may arise. I have more faith in myself.’”

What Bandura witnessed, and what he went on to study for the next 40+ years, was a strengthening in self-efficacy, “the extent or strength of one's belief in one's own ability to complete tasks and reach goals.”

Guided mastery in the classroom

This technique’s effectiveness isn’t just limited to phobia treatment, of course. We’ve probably all had some experience with guided mastery, perhaps in learning to play piano or golf. In a recent TED talk, for example, David Kelley from IDEO described using guided mastery to help build people’s creative confidence. Advances in technology, combined with a better understanding of how people learn, are making it easier for all of us to experience guided mastery.

Khan Academy, for example, combines 4500+ online videos, 100,000+ problems, sophisticated dashboards, and real-time coaching from other kids as well as teachers. Just as Bandura helped cure people of their snake phobias in 1969, Salman Khan is using guided mastery to help over 1.5 million subscribers overcome the challenges of learning algebra, physics, and dozens of other subjects.

And he’s finding the same improvements in the student’s sense of self-efficacy.

“There’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you said ‘these are the gifted kids’, ‘these are the slow kids’...But when you let every student work at their own pace - and we see it over and over and over again - you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they race ahead. And so the same kids you thought were slow, you now would think they’re gifted.”

Guided mastery at work

What about work? Often what we call “talent development” is simply labeling who’s good and who’s not. Instead, firms should help people strengthen their sense of self-efficacy so everyone feels they can get better. In 2000, thirty-one years after the snake phobia study, Bandura was clear that using guided mastery at work produced a wide range of benefits.

“Organizations that provide their new employees with guided mastery experiences, effective co-workers as models, and enabling performance feedback enhance employees self-efficacy, emotional well-being, satisfaction and level of productivity.”

Even better, regardless of the management practices at your firm, now you can experience guided mastery and its benefits by Working Out Loud. Readily coming into contact with experts modeling the work you’re trying to get better at. Making your work visible in small steps. Getting feedback on that work and make progress at your own pace. And, importantly, strengthening your self-efficacy. 

After Sal Khan delivered his TED talk, Bill Gates talked with him and told the audience, “It’s amazing. I think you’ve just got a glimpse of the future of education.”

As I  coach people to Work Out Loud, I feel the same way about work.

Guided mastery at work

Snake

Snake

Imagine you’re afraid of snakes. You don’t just dislike them. You're so afraid that you can’t even walk on grass for fear a snake might be there. Like other phobias, the fear paralyzes you and the paralysis affects other parts of your life. Then imagine you’ve discovered a way to learn how to overcome that fear in a few hours. Perhaps 45 minutes. You’ve not only overcome your fear of snakes, you’ve changed your life.

Now imagine you could apply this approach at work.

The technique

In 1969, Albert Bandura, the most-cited psychologist alive today, used a technique he later called “guided mastery” to help people overcome their snake phobia. In his experiments, subjects would receive treatment combining “graduated live modeling with guided participation.”

First, they’d watch for 15 minutes through a 1-way mirror as the experimenter interacted with a snake. Then, after the snake was back in its glass cage, the subject might enter the room and sit on a chair at varying distances from the cage. Gradually, the experimenter would model more and more interactions and help the subject follow along.

It was the subject who set the pace of progress, based on their apprehensiveness. And it worked. More than any other methods Bandura tested, guided mastery was the most effective, produced the most sustainable change, and produced benefits that went beyond curing the subject’s fear of snakes.

“Having successfully eliminated a phobia that had plagued them for most of their lives, a number of subjects reported increased confidence that they could cope effectively with other fear-provoking events. As one subject explained it, ‘My success in gradually overcoming this fear of snakes has contributed to a greater feeling of confidence generally in my abilities to overcome any other problem which may arise. I have more faith in myself.’”

What Bandura witnessed, and what he went on to study for the next 40+ years, was a strengthening in self-efficacy, “the extent or strength of one's belief in one's own ability to complete tasks and reach goals.”

Guided mastery in the classroom

This technique’s effectiveness isn’t just limited to phobia treatment, of course. We’ve probably all had some experience with guided mastery, perhaps in learning to play piano or golf. In a recent TED talk, for example, David Kelley from IDEO described using guided mastery to help build people’s creative confidence. Advances in technology, combined with a better understanding of how people learn, are making it easier for all of us to experience guided mastery.

Khan Academy, for example, combines 4500+ online videos, 100,000+ problems, sophisticated dashboards, and real-time coaching from other kids as well as teachers. Just as Bandura helped cure people of their snake phobias in 1969, Salman Khan is using guided mastery to help over 1.5 million subscribers overcome the challenges of learning algebra, physics, and dozens of other subjects.

And he’s finding the same improvements in the student’s sense of self-efficacy.

“There’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you said ‘these are the gifted kids’, ‘these are the slow kids’...But when you let every student work at their own pace - and we see it over and over and over again - you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they race ahead. And so the same kids you thought were slow, you now would think they’re gifted.”

Guided mastery at work

What about work? Often what we call “talent development” is simply labeling who’s good and who’s not. Instead, firms should help people strengthen their sense of self-efficacy so everyone feels they can get better. In 2000, thirty-one years after the snake phobia study, Bandura was clear that using guided mastery at work produced a wide range of benefits.

“Organizations that provide their new employees with guided mastery experiences, effective co-workers as models, and enabling performance feedback enhance employees self-efficacy, emotional well-being, satisfaction and level of productivity.”

Even better, regardless of the management practices at your firm, now you can experience guided mastery and its benefits by Working Out Loud. Readily coming into contact with experts modeling the work you’re trying to get better at. Making your work visible in small steps. Getting feedback on that work and make progress at your own pace. And, importantly, strengthening your self-efficacy.

After Sal Khan delivered his TED talk, Bill Gates talked with him and told the audience, “It’s amazing. I think you’ve just got a glimpse of the future of education.”

As I  coach people to Work Out Loud, I feel the same way about work.