The Inertia of Capability Perceptions

Apr 16, 2024

The Inertia of Capability Perceptions


If you are aiming to reach an extraordinary level of success in your life (define as you like) there is something you are bound to encounter that, if you’re not aware of it, could add significant friction to your progress.

I call it the Inertia of Capability Perception. (Gratitude to @anthonycomfort for contributing his linguistic prowess in helping to coin this term). Here’s what it means:
The people that you spend the most time with, be they friends, family, or coworkers, will naturally form and keep a mental impression of you in their minds. This conceptual avatar will include their sense of everything from of your personality traits, and physical appearance attributes to your relational ties and your personal capabilities (knowledge, talents, skills, etc).

Sure, “it only takes a minute to form a first impression,” but it actually takes weeks or months for a mental avatar of you to fully propagate in the minds of others. Consequently, it’s much easier for or a person that you newly encounter to naturally accept the vastly greater capabilities you now possess versus those that you possessed just a few years ago.

This is because the perception that a new person has of you hasn’t been colored by the state of your capabilities from years ago. It will take time to build up the inertia of their perception, particularly with regard to what you may be capable of. Initially, they may be surprised and impressed by your talents quite frequently, but eventually a box will form around you in their mind. While it may seem more logical that those with whom you spend the most time would have the greatest opportunity to witness your growing capabilities, it actually takes a big push or some kind of shakeup to update the perception of someone that has known you for a long time.

Have you ever had the experience of encountering the child of a friend or family member after a few years of not seeing him or her? Something in your brain gets rocked. There is a major disconnect between this now young adult and your mental image of a waist-high whippersnapper. It takes a lot of getting used to. People experiencing this often say things like “I’m blown away” and “I just can’t believe it.” What makes it so mind-blowing when this happens? It should be obvious that after a few years a child will grow into a young adult. It all comes down to the inertia of perception.

This is one of the reasons why taking a role with a new company can be so freeing and empowering. The avatars that people form of you in a new company match more closely what you are capable of in the moment that you make that transition.

The Inertia of Capability Perception causes a person to experience a sense friction from those closest to him or her relative to their personal growth. A natural (and healthy) doubt that other carry subconsciously when they experience a disconnect between the real you and their avatar of you. It’s not that they don’t believe in you, it’s that their natural interpersonal wiring is doing its job – preserving an avatar of you that they can relate to each time they encounter you. Without this function it would be very difficult for people to relate with each other. Having each person you encounter, regardless of frequency, be a blank slate in your mind each time you see them would make it very difficult to form meaningful relationships, effective teams, or trusting partnerships.

So, what to do about it? The first thing is to just be aware that Inertia of Capability Perception is a thing. The friction you might experience from those closest to you is not an indicator that your sense of your own growth is off the mark. It’s simply about not using their perception of you as the sole benchmark of what you are capable of.

The second (probably now obvious) thing is to seek out new encounters, opportunities for fresh and current avatars of you to form in the minds of others. Seeing a reflection of yourself in the eyes of another is a fantastic way to start confidently stepping into your newest and greatest abilities.

Third, remember that the human brain is 100% wired for stories. If you want those closest to you to update a stale perception of you, they will need to have some cause to do so. For clues on how to do this, think of the classic elements of hero’s journey. They need a story element that drives the shift – something that provides room for them to make the necessary avatar updates. Did you spend a week at a retreat? Complete a course? Read a book that really impacted you? Encounter a powerful mentor? Overcome a challenging obstacle? Without some movement in their timeline of your story, their perception of your capabilities will remain stagnant.

Finally, don’t forget that you yourself have avatars of others that are almost certain to be outdated. Bring your curiosity to their story and be sure you are making room for their true capabilities. Those that best understand the talents of their team, friends, co-workers and loved ones, are best able to foster amazing accomplishments both with and for others.

Colt Briner  « Architect of Influence


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