Welcome to Mo’s Letter, a series of essays by Dr Mo on personal growth and professional success in a digital world. Today’s essay is about affirmations.
After ten years, I finally got around to watching Inception again (first released in 2010) on Netflix. Like most people, the movie didn’t make sense to me the first time around—but after a decade of letting the confusion marinate, I was finally able to understand its plot, themes, and ending.
The film explores some fantastic themes around dreams, reality, and the nature of the mind. In the story (no spoilers), an extraction team attempts one of the most dangerous mental experiments ever devised: “inception”, or the planting of an idea into someone’s mind to influence a future decision. One wrong move would spell disaster.
The lead character, Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) calls ideas “the most resilient virus known to man.”
Four times now in the past two months, I’ve been asked if I suffer from impostor syndrome (I don’t), and why not. After some thought, my first answer was “achievement.” I’ve achieved a few personal academic records: like completing Grades 2 and 3 in one year, then Grades 11 and 12 in one year, then starting my Masters at 21 and graduating with a PhD at 26 (the first in the country to do so).
“Achievement” seemed like a tidy answer until I realized that my general lack of impostor syndrome extends beyond academia. I have sat with presidents-elect and talked to them like peers. I can hold a conversation with anyone on the planet—from professors and ministers to business titans and celebrities. I go into any new business venture with a clear view of how it will evolve, how I’ll get customers, and what I’ll charge. I love having older, wealthier, smarter, and more famous friends—precisely because I want to learn their secrets and apply them to my own life.
So I dug deeper. And one particular memory stands out.
A few years ago, in the dining table of our apartment in Gaborone, my brothers and I were having a conversation with our dad about wealth. “Wealth is a good thing to have and pursue,” he said. This was one of the positive ideas about money that he planted in our heads—rather than the prevailing narrative that money is the root of all evil. But it was what he said next that truly stuck: “You will achieve so many big things in life.”
There’s a certain calm that follows you in life when you’ve been planted with the conviction that your goal in life is to win, succeed, and conquer. The idea that I could ever fail at something now feels so… strange. The virus of achievement has thoroughly infected my entire psyche—so much so that I sometimes wonder what I’ll be up to at 50. I struggle to picture myself at that age because my rate of achievement and knowledge keeps doubling each year. I can’t wait to meet my future self.
This brings me to the concept of affirmations—the things we tell ourselves (and others) that shape our reality and perspective on life. Our internal affirmations can make or break us. We affirm things all the time; from telling ourselves simple things like “I can’t sing” or “this is just how my body is”; to slightly more worrisome messages like “I’m just not good at relationships”; to even more dangerous messages like “all (blacks/whites/men/women) are <insert silly generalization>.”
These internal convictions then colour our interactions going forward—from how we engage with others and ourselves to opportunities that come our way. And the problem with affirmations is that they are self-fulfilling.
An email arrives asking you to bid for a project in your field and you dismiss it because “I’m not experienced enough.” A friend mentions a scholarship to study in the UK and you discount it because “it’s cold there and expensive anyway.”
Someone tells you about job opportunities in another city and you dismiss the idea with “I can’t leave my mom alone”—as if your experienced and mature mother will perish without your almighty presence. You weasel out of romantic entanglements because you’re “just not good at relationships.”
For some of you, the idea of “marriage” or “having kids” or “moving to another country” gives you chills, as does the idea of “starting a business” or “quitting your job”.
Some of these reactions are simply due to convictions you haven’t yet confronted.
With time and a bit of introspection, you can usually piece together the origins of your convictions.
Perhaps your parents’ divorce put you off marriage forever. Maybe a friend’s difficult pregnancy turned you off the idea of having a baby. You watched a friend’s business struggle to gain traction and told yourself you’d never go down that road. A relative moved to Europe or Asia and experienced racism, discrimination, and financial hardship, so the idea of leaving your home country fills you with dread.
Once you recognize where your convictions come from, you realize that what happened to others won’t necessarily happen to you.
Kids from broken homes can end up being loving parents. A 9-5’er might find success in entrepreneurship—and vice versa. The dating game might be rough on your friends but kinder to you. The fact that you sucked at sport, or couldn’t talk to people, or always got in trouble as a kid, doesn’t mean you’ll be that way for life.
Kill the virus
Convictions are like viruses, and there are two main ways to kill a virus: vaccination and antiviral medication.
Vaccination is you feeding your spouse, child, sibling, relative, or friend positive affirmations—messages that will bury themselves in their psyches and innoculate them against the fear of failure, impostor syndrome, anxiety, depression, or a crippling inferiority complex.
The same way we all have the power to infect people with bad narratives (sometimes unwittingly), we can also vaccinate them with strength and determination. Do more of the latter. It costs you nothing.
The second method is by administering antiviral medication. This entails confronting and eliminating the negative convictions you carry within you. While this is best done by a therapist, you can start killing those negative viruses by simply changing what you tell yourself.
You’re not “bad at relationships,” you just need to work on yourself a little more and pick better partners. You’re not “afraid of marriage,” you just haven’t seen many positive examples of it.
White people aren’t all racist or evil, you just haven’t met enough of the good ones yet. Black people aren’t all lazy, greedy, or vicious; you just need to expand your circle a bit more. Men aren’t all trash, women aren’t all parasites, babies aren’t all hard work—you just need to keep an open mind.
Vaccines are only useful after your body has encountered, battled, and learned from the weakened viruses they come with. Likewise, antiviral medication only works after it has circulated your body for a few days or weeks. Even ARVs take a few months before you start seeing results.
The key function here is time. Whichever method you pick—whether you’re trying to kill a biological or mental virus—give it time and be patient with the process.
It usually works out.
Till next week,
In my last post, I explained why you should “bee the flower”—getting people to come to you instead of you seeking them out. Here’s why:
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Mohammed Shehu, Ph.D. writes on content and marketing for creators and brands. You can find him online @shehuphd everywhere.