The Chronicles of Fear, Part IV: The Shadow of Doubt
April 13, 2011
Ahh . . . the year 2000. How I miss the old days. I was young, fit, and a being to be admired! Okay fine, I was younger, in slightly better shape, and still not much to look at. But hey, it’s my story, so I get to tell it how I want! Anyway, those were the days when I could do two dozen chin-ups (give or take a dozen) without breaking a sweat. But these days, I’d be lucky if I could manage two. And if I were to do four in one go, I would still feel like a disappointment. What’s wrong with me? Why am I incapable of matching and exceeding my former self?
As a future GRE test-taker, you may be well-acquainted with that feeling of inadequacy. While the GRE doesn’t task you with proving your physical prowess (unless you count ripping your hair out and throwing your pencils at the wall!), it does demand that you prove your mental prowess on content that you used to know very well. Content, such as high-school math, that now feels like a very distant memory at best. And in this case, it isn’t so much the difficulty of re-mastering the content that’s impeding your progress, as it is the realization that you’ve regressed in something.
Ever since the beginning of time, we humans have valued and rewarded progress. For many people, a fulfilling life is one in which we constantly push forward. In which we conquer boundary after boundary to become stronger and stronger. For those of us with such a drive to achieve greatness, the only thing worse than living in someone else’s shadow is living in our own. It is far easier to find the motivation to surpass someone else’s achievements than it is to find the motivation to do a little less worse than we used to be capable of. Regression amidst progress, even in very minor doses, can still lead to fear in a big way. Doubt in our own abilities begins to set in.
To counter this fear, the knowledge we must gain may come as a surprise. It is not knowledge of how we used to be so capable that will help; rather, we need the knowledge of how we used to motivate ourselves. In the case of my chin-up achievement, while many things may be different between now and then (age, current physical fitness, etc.), one key difference stands out: When I was first on the road to being able to do 24 chin-ups, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I used to be able to do 24. When I first hit two, I was proud. When I first doubled that to four, I felt even prouder. In those instances, I was focusing on the achievement, not on what I thought I should be capable of. The positive energy that I provided myself motivated me to keep building on my accomplishment.
While studying for the GRE, the same principle applies. If you were a geometry whiz in high school and now can’t even remember how many sides are in a triangle, it doesn’t have to be a problem—unless you make it so. Comparing your current rusty state with the end result of years of prior study is a surefire way to trigger fear of inadequacy, which in turn leads to doubt and impedes progress. The key is to focus on the path you took, the motivation you received by every small accomplishment along the way, and the thrill of success at each larger milestone you reached. Only by finding and mirroring this positive path—the path you follow instinctively when learning something for the first time—can you successfully reach and surpass your proverbial 24 chin-ups once more.