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Remember Stuart Smalley, Al Franken's self-help guru character from the old Saturday Night Live show's "Daily Affirmation" segment? His catch phrase was, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" It was funny shtick, poking affectionate fun at the self-help and recovery movements and their penchant for using affirmations to change mental attitudes.

Now, I think affirmations are a great way to remind ourselves of things that we actually do believe but tend to forget. I've written many times in this blog, however, that experience, not affirmation, is the only way to build true confidence. We can't talk ourselves into believing in our abilities—or at least we really shouldn't. A confidence based on mere affirmation could be dangerous because it might encourage us to ignore that "spidey sense" that tells us we're about to do something stupid. Such a confidence would make us much more prone to complacency and errors of inattention such as "get-there-itis."

On the other hand I think we often discount our positive experiences and magnify the negative. We develop a destructive kind of self-criticism. We don't realize that our observations are skewed, and despite their seeming gravitas, are no more accurate than Stuart Smalley's vapid affirmations.

I've often written about applying the observe-act-observe cycle to identifying and correcting errors, but I've come to feel it's more important to recognize and reinforce our successful behaviors. For example, when landing an airplane, we sometimes misjudge the flare and plunk it down a little harder than we'd like. We can analyze the situation to identify our error and think of ways to adjust the flare to get better results, and that's very helpful.

But what about when the landing is a "greaser"—a thing of beauty? I think it's very important to soak in that experience as consciously as possible, not to over-think it, which diverts our attention from the experience itself, but to commit our successful actions to memory. This is where heightened awareness, especially of sensory input, really helps. If we can remember vividly what that landing looked, felt, and sounded like, we're much more likely to duplicate it in the future.

In fact, we can probably learn even more from what we do well than what we do badly—but only if we're paying attention. Maybe that's the best way after all to affirm a true confidence in our abilities—one that we can trust not to lead us astray.

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