I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.
History provides many excellent examples of self-efficacy and internal locus of control, two concepts we’ll talk about here, but British poet William Ernest Henley has been especially on my mind lately.
Henley penned the often-quoted words above in 1875 as the close to his poem Invictus. His relatively short life of struggle began early: he lost a leg at age 16 after tangling with tuberculosis.
Years later, doctors told him his other leg needed to go as well. Unless you’ve suffered a similar fate, we can only imagine how devastating this news must have been for a young man.
Instead of accepting his fateful situation as unchangeable, Henley took matters into his own hands. He traveled to Scotland and sought out famed surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister who was pioneering new techniques at the time. With much effort and numerous surgeries, Dr. Lister was able to save Henley’s other leg.
Henley was a gruff, whiskey-drinking, Victorian-era poet. He purportedly served as inspiration for Long John Silver in Treasure Island, if that tells you anything.1 But despite being ill for most of his 53 years, he became a well-known poet. Much of his most powerful work was written while surrounded by suffering and death in hospitals—not exactly an environment that encourages creativity. Instead of giving up or making excuses, Henley pushed back, and his fame spread.
Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and President Obama, among others, have all referenced Invictus at some point.
Traveling while ill and with one leg in England—or anywhere, for that matter—in 1873 wasn’t exactly easy, but Henley was rewarded for his strong internal locus of control and willingness to embrace discomfort.
He got to keep his remaining leg.
Invictus is Latin for “invincible.” I don’t know if Henley considered himself invincible. I, myself, certainly don’t feel invincible. Nature has reminded me that I am made out of squishy flesh; there have been quite a few injuries and close calls over the years.
I do, however, enjoy a higher level of self-efficacy thanks to my life of travel.
Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control
Chance favors the prepared mind. – Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur’s famous quote hints that our sense of agency (self-efficacy) and personal power may not be able to change all outcomes every time, but some diligence can better our odds of success.
The concepts of self-efficacy and locus of control differ slightly but are intrinsically linked. Here are two loose summaries:
- Self-Efficacy: Your confidence that you can succeed in specific situations or achieve the outcome you want.
- Locus of Control: How much you believe you have power over outcomes rather than rely on chance, luck, fate, or “the universe.”
Locus comes from the Latin for “location.” People gravitate toward either external (chance or fate control outcomes) and internal (the decisions we make affect outcomes). Maintaining an internal locus of control is more ideal for having the power to change future outcomes.
If Henley had possessed an external locus of control and resigned to his role as a victim, he would have lost his remaining leg. Instead, he understood that he had some power and decided to challenge the hand fate had dealt.
Again, the ideas of self-efficacy and locus of control are closely related but not completely interchangeable. But when combined and expressed, they can make you a dangerously competent person. Extensive travel can certainly help you foster a stronger sense of self-efficacy.
The Concept of Self-Efficacy
The concept of self-efficacy was perpetuated most by Dr. Albert Bandura, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University.2 Still working at age 95 [time of this post], he’s considered by many to be the most cited and influential living psychologist. His 1997 book Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control isn’t a light read, but it will change your life.
To quickly reiterate, self-efficacy is described as how much “agency” you feel.3 It’s your level of confidence that you can get something done or fix a situation. How much self-efficacy a person holds influences their ability to succeed at a task and create the outcome they want. Self-efficacy also helps you overcome adversity and determines how much effort you’ll put into something.
To quote Professor Bandura as interviewed in The New York Times:
“People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities. Ability is not a fixed property, there is a huge variability in how you perform. People who have a sense of self-efficacy bounce back from failures; they approach things in terms of how to handle them rather than worrying about what can go wrong.”
Extensive research shows that people with high self-efficacy more often succeed at what they are trying to accomplish—possibly due to persistence. People with a lower sense of self-efficacy are less likely to “get back on the horse” after getting thrown off a time or two. They lack the confidence that they have what it takes to overcome resistance, so they ask themselves, why take the beating?
People with a higher sense of self-efficacy don’t feel singled out when things go wrong. They know challenges aren’t a personal attack. People with lower self-efficacy and an external locus of control are likely to take a victim stance and feel like “nothing ever goes my way” or that they are cursed with bad luck.
How Travel Affects Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control
Being a stranger in a strange land is good for mind and body in so many ways, but for a moment let’s focus on what I believe is the most important benefit of independent travel: boosting self-efficacy.
Although observation, persuasion, and emotion all play a role, greater self-efficacy largely comes from past personal experience.
Back in 2006, I was understandably nervous on the boat when heading out to my very first scuba diving site. I wasn’t sure I could remember everything I had learned in class and know what needed to be done underwater. And what if my assigned dive buddy or I had an emergency?
Later, when heading out on the boat for my 10th dive, I was excitedly asking the divemasters, “Are we there yet?” like a kid in the backseat on a family vacation. Experience had boosted my self-efficacy. I was much more confident I could get through a dive without screwing up.
Like many kids who grew up in the 1980s, I was probably first exposed to self-efficacy while watching the TV show MacGyver. Nothing leaves an impression on a young boy more than watching a guy get himself out of a dangerous situation with nothing more than whatever he found in his pockets. MacGyver was dangerous with a rubber band.
Every time you thought he was done and that the situation was irreparable, MacGyver would persist and figure out a way to survive.
Independent travelers learn to adopt a high level of MacGyverism. The road throws some of the most bizarre, unthinkable scenarios your way—sometimes on a daily basis. You often have to sort out field-expedient fixes with little assistance.
Vagabonding travelers learn to use whatever they’ve got on hand to fix problems. I’ve made expedient repairs on my backpack, shoes, laptop, and everything between. Sometimes the repairs are to the body. Along with handling numerous other travel injuries, I’ve set and bandaged my own broken thumb (please don’t click if you are squeamish!) with phone help from a nurse friend at home.
But self-efficacy doesn’t have to be applied to fixing things that broke or went wrong. Research shows, simply having a higher self-efficacy can help you accomplish what you want to do because your stick-to-it-ness is strong.
The fastest way to increase self-efficacy and foster an internal locus of control is through personal experience. The quickest way to obtain personal experience is with exposure to novel, unpredictable environments. Living a life of travel provides many.
In 2015, in a eureka moment after being unexpectedly swarmed by bees on my front porch, I realized that it’s the unpredictability of the road that drives travel addiction. This unpredictability is also what hones the self-efficacy that can carry over into other areas of your life.
I personally believe there’s no greater way to boost your self-efficacy and internal locus of control than experiencing long-term, independent, world travel for yourself. A part of that process is learning to fail well and often until we raise our self-efficacy.
Each time we attempt, fail, and repeat is yet another strike from the ethereal hammer that forges us into competent, successful human beings.
Be the master of your own fate.
Be the captain of your own soul.