By Todd Rogers
This past weekend my family and I traveled about 5 hours away to watch our son play in a sports tournament. Before I left, I was talking with my boss about the trip and I told her that I was a little nervous about the trip up and back. I won’t name names but let’s just say that one of the other travelers in my car isn’t exactly enthusiastic about trip navigation – even with the help of a GPS and a smartphone. And I’m one of those drivers who rarely messes with devices while driving.
My boss tells me to think positively and things will be just fine. That got me to thinking about what it means to think positively. Did you get that? I guess you could call it “meta-positive thinking.” I spent the first leg of my drive thinking about many things. One of those things was a refresher on positive thinking. I hear people telling one another that you need to think positively about this. In fact, I hear that kind of mantra from myself from time to time. There is even a field of psychology called “positive psychology,” and it deals with developing and sustaining positive thoughts and actions across the span of one’s lifetime. Any way that you slice it, thinking positively about things is a moniker that permeates Western culture but I’m not so sure that people understand exactly what that means.
In a career-sense, what does “think positively” actually mean? How does someone practice positive thinking? Is there any benefit to thinking positively or is it just a catchy subject of countless self-help books? I’ll tell you what “think positively” means to me. I will also tell you what I do to practice it and how I got started with the habit. As it stands right now, when information reaches my brain, lots of things happen. One of the very first things that happens involves finding all of the current and potential positive attributes that could come from that information. Stuck in bad traffic? This isn’t what I hoped for, but now I have some extra time to listen to whatever I want to listen to. Someone says something mean to me. This is a chance to test my resolve at taking the high road. I hit my thumb with a hammer (say bad words first) I can’t undo the deed so after the pain dissipates, I will use the experience to get better at hammering. This may seem odd to some but I can assure you that when I reflect on things, it’s in a positive manner.
Not a day passes that I don’t encounter someone who’s the exact opposite when it comes to thinking. I encounter people who’ve allowed themselves to become pre-programmed with a negative filter and who use negative terminology when describing even gleeful events. These are people who say things such as, “Well, I won the lottery; that’s going to really screw up my taxes.” Or someone who might say, “Sure, they won the game but they looked awful on defense.” I can usually spot this kind of thinking in only a few minutes of exposure to someone. As someone who used to see things with a negative spin attached, it is far better to have the positive view. Here’s how I got started with my optimistic interpretation.
It’s all about the language. Language is a system of sounds, symbols, words, etc … that when added together, reflect thoughts and ideas. I don’t know about you, but in my head all of my ideas are processed using the English language. Those billions of neuro-transactions that happen in my head from one moment to the next, if you could capture them on paper, they would be written in English. About a year ago, I started to observe that I used a lot of words that talked about what I would not do, or what I didn’t like.
I tried an experiment. Every time I caught myself using a negative, I tried to see how I could have the same thought, but in a positive angle. Where I used to think, “I don’t like tuna casserole,” now I might say, “There are things that I prefer more than tuna casserole.” It was about the most impractical and clumsy way of thinking about things and quite frankly, I felt foolish. But, I committed myself to changing how I thought about things and the first step on that journey was to make basic changes in how I processed inbound information. I couldn’t just automatically start thinking positively about things. I really didn’t have much of an idea of what positive thinking was like. But, I did know what positive and negative words were. I trained myself to stop using negative words. The only thing that I had left were positive words. This started with simple things (see tuna casserole example above). Pretty soon, I started hearing myself say things with a positive spin on them. I felt a little foolish at first, but what was initially clumsy became habit. Now, the positive words flow effortlessly. They are part of the dialog that goes on in my mind and they are very much a part of what comes out of my mouth (or keyboard).
After I had practiced the use of positive language, it actually became difficult to have a negative view on things. The words to describe things positively were simply more accessible to my mind and so I naturally gravitated towards using what came easier. Possibly it is out of laziness, but why put in extra effort at something when the path with less effort will carry you further and make things more pleasant in the short term and the long term? I know people who seem like they were put on Earth simply to be bitter. But, my conviction is they only seem that way because that is what they have practiced long enough for the bitterness to come easily. Even those people can adjust to a positive tone. They just have to try.
So, there is no multi-step solution to this. There is a one-step solution: start using positive words to describe things to others. You don’t need to announce your effort. Keep it private and start today by describing things to yourself and to others in a positive tone and before long, it will be exceedingly difficult to do otherwise.
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