The Strangest Secret and the Power of Self-Efficacy

At Pace, we have the motto “Nothing Teaches Like Success.” We are very interested in the social and psychological dynamics of human success. That is, what makes some people successful and others relatively unsuccessful? At Pace, we look for ways to reverse developed cycles of learning failure and uncover a modus of learning success in each struggling student. One of our favorite pieces on this topic is as relevant today, if not more, than it was when first published in 1956 by the “Dean of Personal Development.” In The Strangest Secret, Earl Nightingale makes the case that human success is not a secret or a mystery but a result of specific principles and attitudes. If you haven’t heard this work, it will cost you a mere 30 minutes and is well worth the listen. Nightingale defines success as follows:

Success /sək-sĕs′/ noun — According to Earl Nightingale, the progressive realization of a worthy goal or progressive approximation of a worthy ideal.

So success is when anyone has set deliberate plans or goals and is steadily progressing towards those goals. This does not necessarily equate to wealth, power, and status. Success just means one is steadily progressing at something they wanted and planned to do. In other words, if someone is making progress doing what they want, they are successful.

The problem, to Nightingale, is that only 1 in 20 are doing this (setting deliberate, desirable goals and progressing towards them consistently). The Strangest Secret emphasizes the power of one’s thoughts and mindset in achieving success and happiness in life. Nightingale’s fundamental message is that “we become what we think about most of the time.” Therefore, by cultivating a positive and goal-oriented mindset, individuals can dramatically improve their outcomes in life. Ultimately, according to Nightingale, those with a goal orientation keep their goals ‘top of mind,’ and this drives their behavior to goal completion.

But is it really that simple? If success is only a matter of listing goals and thinking about them all the time, then shouldn’t everyone be successful at everything? Why do so few people set goals and work on them consistently? In many cases, it amounts to self-belief. Nightingale’s answer is true, but only if you really, truly believe you can. Success, it seems, may be more about convincing yourself you are capable — of achieving, learning, or becoming anything — than it is about your current skills or situation.

This is
“Meta-analyses across different spheres of functioning confirm the influential role of perceived self-efficacy in human self-development, adaptation, and change (Boyer et al., 2000; Holden, 1991; Holden, Moncher, Schinke, & Barker, 1990; Moritz, Feltz, Fahrbach, & Mack, 2000; Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991; Sadri & Robertson, 1993; Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998) ref 
– that confidence drives success. But if that’s true, then how could one go about convincing themselves that they can do something, or do anything? If there were a systematic method anyone could use to “convince themselves” that they can be successful in a particular endeavor, then success would be a simple matter of time. When viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear that everyone can be successful at anything. To pursue this inspirational idea, we can utilize a critical psychological construct: self-efficacy. Later, we can find an episode of Thomas the Train to watch, too!

Coined by psychologist Albert Bandura, the term self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in their ability to achieve goals in specific situations, through specific behaviors.

Self-Efficacy /selfˈef.ə.kə.si/ noun — an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). Self-efficacy reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment.

Self-efficacy is distinguished from self-esteem or self-confidence, though all three terms are closely related. Self-esteem is your generalized sense of self-worth and has to do with much more than just your skills, knowledge, or abilities. Self-confidence is your generalized confidence in your abilities and chances of successful performance. Self-confidence is a major component of self-esteem.

Self-efficacy is focused on your belief in your abilities, like self-confidence. But self-efficacy refers to one’s relative confidence in specific behaviors required for successful performance in specific scenarios. In a way, self-confidence can be thought of as your “average self-efficacy.”

Bandura (2006) suggests that written systems of analyzing and tracking self-efficacy can be an effective means of increasing confidence and ultimately, performance, in any area of human endeavor. They can be used privately, as a personal self-development tool, and with certain consideration, as an activity or resource in any social learning environment.

We can use this concept of self-efficacy, in a step-by-step fashion, as a general method for success in any scenario. Since increasing confidence means increasing success, we can use self-efficacy as a conceptual tool to access the sum parts of our own self-confidence. In other words, if a person can identify all of their “personal self-efficacies,” then they have a clear, written path to complete self-confidence, and accordingly, success at will.

In this post, we’ll explore how Bandura’s ideas on ‘perceived self-efficacy’ can serve as a systematic method for increasing general self-confidence and harnessing Nightingale’s “strangest secret.”

Nightingale’s Timeless Wisdom as “Mama’s Rule”

Those who don’t succeed instead conform to their circumstances or environments, by adjusting their goals or ideals. They see their life as a “situation” or set of external forces or things that “happen to them.” Their focus is directed outward (and their reinforcement is extrinsic). Nightingale discusses cycles of success and cycles of failure. Because we become what we think about, success hinges on our mindset and goal-orientation. Failure, in contrast, often stems from a lack of purpose and an external focus—essentially looking outward for reinforcement instead of within.

We are interested in the idea that “we become what we think about,” as Nightingale says. Isn’t this what Mama always said? We’ve all heard some version of “Mama’s Rule,” which states, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” In other words, you can do anything or become anything, as long as you work hard and truly believe you can.

And it’s not just a mother’s saying; this concept is reinforced by many great minds in history, including Marcus Aurelius, Henry Ford, and the founder of Pace Learning Systems, Dr. John McKee. Aurelius is often quoted as saying, “A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it.” Ford said, “Whether you think you can or can’t, either way, you are right.” Our motto here at Pace, Nothing Teaches Like Success, speaks to the very same idea: students who expect to succeed are shown to succeed more often. This wisdom syncs perfectly with Nightingale’s claim that we become what we think about.

A Systematic Approach to Building Confidence

Albert Bandura suggests that this concept of ‘perceived self-efficacy’ can be applied to any task, goal, or skill. He emphasizes that self-efficacy is most potent when tailored to specific tasks or goals. General self-confidence or self-esteem may give you a general sense of capability, but it’s your self-efficacy that helps you nail a particular task. And it’s many of these particulars that collectively manifest in self-confidence and success.

Bandura provides a methodology for breaking down the abstract notion of self-confidence into actionable information. By “scaling” perceived self-efficacy in specific areas, it becomes measurable and trackable. Creating self-efficacy scales like Bandura’s provides a practical way to apply Nightingale’s philosophy of “you become what you think about.” The scale serves as a systematic approach to move from thought to action. Bandura’s focus on specifics — that is, specific behaviors in specific contexts — can also help us overcome common issues associated with ‘self-reporting’ tools.

Common Pitfalls of Self-Reports

Self-reporting tools, while valuable, come with inherent challenges:

  • Bias: Respondents might answer in a way they believe is socially acceptable or in a manner that reflects their aspirations rather than their true beliefs.
  • Lack of Introspection: Some individuals might not have a clear understanding of their own abilities or feelings.
  • Overgeneralization: Broad questions can lead to generalized answers that don’t capture the nuances of an individual’s experiences or beliefs.

However, Bandura’s self-efficacy scales address some of these pitfalls:

  • Specific: They focus on particular domains and tasks, reducing overgeneralization.
  • Gradated: By asking about confidence levels in varying degrees of challenge, they offer a more nuanced view.

A focus on specifics with a very granular scale also allows the respondent to differentiate specific abilities, reducing potential bias from social considerations. If respondents lack a solid understanding of their own abilities or lack the vocabulary necessary, self-efficacy scales can still serve a diagnostic purpose to inform instruction.

Creating Self-Efficacy Scales

Bandura’s “Parental Self-Efficacy Scale” is designed to provide insights into the challenges parents face in influencing their children’s academic development. The scale prompts parents to rate their confidence in their ability to execute specific tasks known to be related to their child’s academic growth:

Parental Self-Efficacy

For instance, one of the items on the scale asks parents to assess their confidence in their ability to “Get your children to see school as valuable”. Another asks about their ability to, “Help your children’s school get the educational materials and equipment they need.” This focus on specific tasks, rather than a generalized sense of parenting capability, allows for a more nuanced understanding of where a parent might feel confident and where they might feel they need support or lack resources.

When creating self-efficacy scales, there are a few keys to remember:

Personal Self-Development Setting:

  1. Be Specific: Focus on particular domains or tasks you want to improve in, rather than general areas.
  2. Use Gradations: Measure self-efficacy against varying levels of task demands.
  3. Regularly Update: As you grow and change, adjust your scale to reflect new challenges or areas of interest.
  4. Avoid Vagueness: General or broad questions can lead to overgeneralization and less actionable insights.
  5. Don’t Overcomplicate: The scale should be easy to understand and use.
  6. Avoid Negative Framing: Frame statements positively to encourage growth and development.

Group or Class Setting (Education/Training/Rehabilitation):

  1. Tailor to the Audience: Understand the needs and challenges of your target group and create scales relevant to them.
  2. Provide Clear Instructions: Ensure participants know how to use the scale and what is expected of them.
  3. Seek Feedback: Regularly check in with participants to ensure the scale remains relevant and useful.
  4. Avoid One-Size-Fits-All: Different groups have different needs. Customize scales accordingly.
  5. Don’t Ignore Cultural Differences: Be sensitive to cultural, linguistic, or other differences that might affect responses.
  6. Avoid Overloading: Too many items can be overwhelming. Keep scales concise and focused.

Digital Literacy Self-Efficacy

Using Bandura’s guide as a reference, let’s create a unique “Self-Efficacy Scale for Digital Literacy.”

Digital Literacy is a broad term that encompasses a range of skills, both software and hardware-related. It refers to an individual’s ability to find, evaluate, and communicate information via digital platforms, which includes understanding how to use various digital tools, software, and hardware. Below we’ve created two iterations of this scale, getting more specific in the second version. Both might be useful in different contexts or with different groups of respondents.

Digital Literacy Self-Efficacy, Version 1
Digital Literacy Self-Efficacy, Version 2

Self-efficacy scales also have vast potential for application in soft skills development programs. When designed and used thoughtfully, they can mitigate common problems associated with self-reporting and serve as valuable tools for personalized, effective learning experiences.


While Earl Nightingale laid down the timeless principle that “we become what we think about,” Albert Bandura gave us practical tools to apply it methodically through his work on self-efficacy. Combining these two gems, we get a flexible, powerful framework for achieving success in general.

In essence, Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy offers a powerful lens through which we can view personal and professional development. By breaking down the abstract idea of confidence into specific, measurable beliefs about our capabilities, we can create actionable roadmaps to success. Whether you’re charting your own growth journey or guiding others on theirs, understanding and harnessing self-efficacy can be a game-changer.

So next time you’re confronted with a new task, challenge, or opportunity, remember: it starts in your mind. Equip yourself with set of self-efficacy scales made specifically for your goal, and see how it transforms your path to goal achievement. Ask yourself if you can do it, then get more and more specific until you find your starting point on the path to your next success. Or apply this same tool to your education program and use it with your students. By leveraging tools like self-efficacy scales, you can make anything more achievable.

~C. Massey, October 19th, 2023

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