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When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work

If you’ve read my other articles, then you might think that I don’t like positive thinking. You’d be wrong. I love positive thinking. Research into motivation has shown time and time again that believing you will succeed at something really does increase your chances of succeeding (it’s something called Expectancy Value Theory). The problem is that the self-help gurus of the world fail to make one critical distinction when it comes to positive thinking. They fail to tell you that there are really two ways of thinking positive about achieving a goal and doing the wrong one will ensure that you become a world-class failure. Yes, it’s that serious.

Here’s a little quiz. Let’s say you want to start a business. You could think positively about that goal in two ways. You can think:

A – “I have the knowledge and skills to start this business and I feel secure and confident that I’ll be able to achieve that goal.”

B – “I will easily be able to secure the financing, raw materials, and distribution channels and will have no problems attaining reaching the projected sales targets of 1000 units.”

What’s your pick? Well, I hope it was answer A, because answer B is setting you up for a world of hurt. Studies have shown time and again that if you believe something is easy to achieve then you will put in less effort. It’s as simple as that. However, if you believe that you possess the knowledge and skills to overcome challenges with the recognition that there will be some challenges in your path, then you’re going to put in more effort more consistently. Of course this is a lot easier said than done, so let’s actually do it (just in case you’re thinking, “it will be easy for me to think this way”).

1. Pick a goal that you have.

2. Now, think about one positive aspect of achieving that goal. “What does success look like?” is a good question to ask yourself. Get that picture in your mind.

3. Ok, now think of a few obstacles that stand in the way of you achieving your goal. Be realistic.

4. Now think of another positive aspect.

5. Now another obstacle.

Do this enough and you’ll have a very accurate AND inspiring vision for the future. Thinking positively this way prevents you from fooling yourself into taking the path of least resistance which will often lead to a place you don’t want to go. Again studies have compared different groups, each who have used a different technique for thinking positively and the group that used this alternating technique (Mental Contrasting) are always the highest performing group. Learn from these studies and model their success. There is nothing wrong with thinking positively, but just make sure that you balance that with the knowledge that anything worth doing is going to be difficult.

About the author: Chris Cowan is an executive coach and an expert in adult and organizational learning. He is currently working as a consultant with the Federal government. He has previously worked for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Leadership Development and the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Previous consulting clients include, Fannie Mae, Samsung USA, the United States Air Force, and Microsoft. He has written or co-authored 13 articles on adult learning and is a certified action learning coach and training evaluator. Chris received his Masters from Harvard in 2005 and is currently writing his dissertation on transformational leadership at the George Washington University. He currently drives a 2008 Dodge Viper. Feel free to contact him with questions at Chrcowan@gmail.com.