The year was 1967 and American psychologist Martin Seligman was studying depression.
Over a series of experiments conducted by Seligman and his team at the University of Pennsylvania, the term and concept of "learned helplessness" was introduced to the psychological field.
Learned helplessness can be thought of as a mental state we adopt after being repeatedly exposed to adverse outcomes outside of our control, despite our intentions and actions. At the opposite end of the spectrum sits self-efficacy: our belief in our innate ability to effect change and/or achieve goals.
Seligman's studies were — unfortunately — initially conducted with animal subjects, but he could have just sat down with a bunch of actors and discussed the experience that is embarking on the actor's path.
We say that only in semi-jest. While the path of an actor can absolutely be the most delightful and fulfilling yellow brick road, it'd be irresponsible to ignore the fact so many come to find it a disillusioning hike. And this — we believe — is because there is so much we can't control in relation to effecting change and achieving our goals as actors, that somewhere along the way we start to slip down the scale from self-efficacy to learned helplessness. Simply because we aren't equipped with the mindset and strategy required to navigate this with ease.
But it is possible, amigos. It is possible.
The 3 types of goals
Let's start by briefly reviewing the three types of goals that exist: process, performance, and outcome goals.
- Process goals: these goals target specific actions or behaviours and are completely controllable. An example for us actors might be hitting a 20-minute vocal warm-up five times per week.
- Performance goals: these goals target work standards and are mostly controllable. An example for us actors might be to write down our director's notes after each rehearsal and actively ensure they're implemented.
- Outcome goals: these goals target external wins and are largely uncontrollable. An example of us actors might be signing with a particular agent (or getting into drama school, booking a job etc. etc. etc.).
Ideally, we'd like to have a nice balance and interplay of all three goal types. However, society — especially Western society — has come to prioritise and pursue outcome goals above all else. The problem with this is that outcome goals are influenced by an infinite number of factors beyond our locus of control, and when these are our only markers of success, can lead to the realms of learned helplessness. Outcome goals are awesome at getting us aligned and fired up, but they can be a double-edged sword if used exclusively.
Outcome goals need to be set. And at the Dojo, we vocally champion the pursuit of Ambitious-Ass Goals. The twist is, once we've defined our outcome goal and reverse engineered the bejeezus out of it, we kinda need to let it go. Instead, our day-to-day focus will be on the bite-size next steps (i.e. process or performance goals) we need to take to get there.
Unfortunately, this element of the goal-setting dance isn't given the limelight it deserves. As a result, many of us don't realise it's an essential part of goal setting success (and keeping our sanity and feelings of self-efficacy intact along the way).
Process and performance goals
Assuming we've followed along with the above, we'll naturally be hitting one or two process and/or performance goals daily as we wiggle ourselves towards our Ambitious-Ass Goals (again, this system is mapped out here). This is the key to side-stepping learned helplessness and enjoying a despair-free journey along the actor's path.
Albert Bandura, the psychologist who first proposed the idea of self-efficacy, has stated that engaging in regular experiences of success — however small — is central to cultivating self-efficacy. And high levels of self-efficacy, in turn, increase our attention, confidence, optimism, tenacity, and overall sense of wellbeing. Which is a pretty insane cocktail of benefits. No doubt if there was a pill we could take to reap these gains, we'd all be popping them.
This is all fine and dandy and somewhat built into our overarching goal-setting system. But how can we employ this same strategy when opportunities arise out of the blue? For instance, a last-minute self-tape or unexpected general with a casting director?
The answer still lies in process and performance goals. We'll just be setting ourselves a stand-alone objective, specific to this one-off event. This goal should represent a valuable personal takeaway, again regardless of the external outcome. What action, behaviour or work standard could we strive to meet that would make this feel like a success? Or as best-selling author Tim Ferriss likes to ask himself, "Even if this fails, are there skills and relationships that I can develop that will carry over into other things?" We can then make a note of this intention in our journal or phone and let this steer our response.
Another way to go about integrating this practice into our daily lives is to get our "results" elsewhere. This is especially useful in quieter seasons within our career or industry (the COVID-19 pandemic being a perfect case in point). Although this isn't as effective as getting wins directly from our domain of mastery, research has shown that excelling in other areas of life is still a very powerful way to build self-efficacy and belief in our capacity to effect change.
Our industry isn't (yet) built in such a way that makes winning as abundant for us actors as we'd probably like. Therefore, we have to take responsibility and make this true for ourselves. We may feel this is unfair. Maybe so. But the undeniable advantage of this is that it's a decision we can entirely control, and when faced with so few items in this category, we'd be wise to take it as far as possible.
Thoughts / feedback / challenges? We'd genuinely love to hear.