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Lesson 4: (Shelach) – “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves”: Self-efficacy as key to achievement
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, either way, you are right!”
“Thus, they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the Land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” Numbers 13:32–33
A dramatic turning point in the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert was the event that prolonged their desert wanderings to 40 years, termed ‘the sin of the spies.’ Moses had instructed 12 senior representatives of each tribe to scout the Land of Canaan and report their impressions. Moses had asked them to notice if “the people who dwell in it [are] strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” Given Moses’s idealization of the Promised Land, his hope and intention may have been for the scouts to return with glowing reports, thus raising the spirits of their fellow tribal members to approach the Land joyfully and with great anticipation. Perhaps Moses, so sure of the outcome, meant these queries to be rhetorical, such as “taste this cake and tell me whether it’s scrumptious or not.”
The problem emerged when the scouts returned after 40 days. They acknowledged that the Land flowed with milk and honey and even brought abundant clusters of grapes as Moses had requested. They proceeded to report how strong the people were and how large and fortified were the cities. Caleb, one of the scouts, saw where this was going and sought to silence them by blurting, “Let us go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”
Once the 10 pessimistic scouts saw that Caleb had overstepped his bounds by going beyond reporting only what he saw and offering his interpretation of what he saw, they did the same, revealing their fears, lamenting, “We cannot attack that nation, for it is stronger than we.” Tellingly, they further revealed that they saw themselves as grasshoppers relative to the giants in the local population “and so we must have looked to them.”
Reviewing the scouts’ introspection, I find it remarkable that these tribal princes appeared to have understood that others saw them as a reflection of how they saw themselves––as lowly grasshoppers––millennia before Freud introduced the defense mechanism of projection into our psychological lingo. Indeed, the 10 scouts went beyond projection, insightfully acknowledging that they felt as powerless as grasshoppers in the Promised Land.
These 10 pessimistic scouts seemed to have viewed their entire mission through the lens of grasshoppers, proceeding to catastrophize any future encounter with the local Canaanite population. Despite the contrasting reports of two of the scouts (Caleb and Joshua), the Israelites who heard the pessimistic report cried all night out of fear and apprehension that the Land they were approaching was impenetrable. This fear indicated they no longer believed God would always be at their side in military confrontations with the local inhabitants.
The 10 scouts’ image of themselves as grasshoppers reflected their sense of impotence, with God concluding that they would not be the right generation to enter the Land. God then declared that in retribution for the 40 days the scouts traversed the Land, only to produce a pessimistic report, they would be condemned to 40 years of wandering in the desert, a year for each day. Their fate may have been God’s judgment that those anticipating being vanquished could most assuredly not become the vanquishers. The consequence was wandering those extra years in the desert until the slave generation died out, enabling a more confident generation to emerge.
What makes one person see themselves as a weak ‘grasshopper’ and another as competent to face a challenge? Albert Bandura, the late pioneer of social-cognitive theory, introduced the concept of self-efficacy as accounting for potential discrepancies in achievement among individuals having similar capabilities: “Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.” Notably, one’s faith or belief in the prospect of accomplishing a task has a greater effect on motivation, feelings, and actions than their objective skill level. Thus, perceived self-efficacy is often confused with self-esteem. While self-esteem reflects a general sense of valuing and respecting oneself as a person (being), self-efficacy focuses on how successful a person believes they will be when confronting particular challenges or tasks (doing).
Self-efficacy has broad applications in innumerable human endeavors. For instance, if one begins a diet believing it to be a lost cause, they shouldn’t be surprised if the results are not satisfying. Considerable research has addressed teacher self-efficacy, public speaking self-efficacy, mountain-climbing self-efficacy, even marital self-efficacy. Managerial self-efficacy may make the difference between a manager who advances and one who stagnates. In a career-related example, ‘career decision-making self-efficacy’ refers to a person’s belief in their ability to successfully perform the tasks involved in the career decision-making process at critical decision points throughout life. In another example, individuals having higher ‘job search self-efficacy’ are less likely to give up their search than those with lower job search self-efficacy.
Indeed, self-efficacy does not refer to those individuals who sail effortlessly through complex tasks; instead, it describes individuals who believe in their ability to perform the task successfully but may anticipate encountering hurdles in their efforts. They maintain their belief that they will somehow manage to overcome those hurdles. Self-efficacy goes beyond mere optimism and is based on one’s history of proud achievements, positive feedback on this success, and exposure to others who may have modeled the required performance.
We can cite many examples of how self-talk can help achieve the benefits of high perceived self-efficacy. We can begin with The Little Engine that Could (“I think I can! I think I can!”), Barack Obama’s crowd chants from his 2008 presidential campaign (“Yes, we can!”), and recall what the women’s 100-meter gold medalist at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica, told herself: “Behind this 10.6 [seconds] was a lot of nerves, and I said: ‘You can do this, you’ve been here before, just execute.’” And all three achieved their goals.
- Can you enhance your self-efficacy? Yes, you can! For instance, upon facing a new life or work challenge, whether it be first-time parenting or assuming a new job responsibility, your first reaction may be to feel overwhelmed. The key to this response is to accept that it’s likely to be only a temporary feeling. Among the possible antidotes: Take a deep breath and break the challenge into sub-components that can be performed step by step; talk it over with a colleague (or spouse) to gain another perspective; review your history of confronting similar challenges and apply your insights from those events; take a break, whether only a lunch break or an entire weekend. Returning to your challenge after this break will enable you to filter out the extreme (often unhelpful) emotions and view the task more objectively.
- We all have different skill sets and different strengths in managing new tasks. When facing a new challenge, aside from reviewing the elements of your past successes in comparable circumstances, a wise action would be to check your strengths (such as those reflected in the VIA Character Strengths Survey. Whatever your strengths, think about how they can be applied to your new challenge. Whether it’s perseverance, curiosity, zest, social intelligence, or even humor, plan how to integrate these strengths into your efforts to achieve your objectives. Applying these strengths in new ways will become part of your unique resolution to the presented problem and enhance your self-efficacy for the task(s) ahead.
- Try this: “Unless people believe that they can produce desired effects…they have little incentive to act.” This statement by Bandura provides us with the key link to expanding our comfort zone, as we have addressed in previous posts. As noted, this principle does not imply that we can accomplish anything we desire. It means that even anticipating frustration and bumps awaiting us, we are confident that, through sincere efforts, we can bring the challenging task to a successful conclusion. Thus, reminding ourselves how we have mastered skills of which we had zero previous knowledge can be a simple tool to neutralize those pesty inner critics that always try to keep us back.
 Numbers 13:18–20.
 Numbers 13:27.
 Numbers 13:30.  Numbers 13:31.
 Numbers 13:33.
 Numbers 14:34.
 Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control (p. 3). W. H. Freeman.
 Ackerman, C. E. (2020). What is self-efficacy theory in psychology? PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/self-efficacy/
Littman-Ovadia, H.,Lazar-Butbul, V., & Benjamin, B. A. (2013). Strengths-based career counseling: Overview and initial evaluation. Journal of Career Assessment, 22(3), 403–419.
 Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(3), 75–78 (p. 75).