From Mark Ford, editor, Creating Wealth: It’s one of the great fallacies in the self-help industry: You can change your life with “positive thinking.”
The purveyors of positivism—starting with Napoleon Hill and including the people who now promote The Secret—contend we all have, at our conscious disposal, the means to transform ourselves into walking, breathing success machines.
Some self-help gurus sell positive thinking because they know it’s one of the most lucrative products to put in the marketplace. Change one thought, and you can change your life!
What better promise can you make to an underachieving, wannabe-rich-and-successful couch potato?
So, it’s no wonder positive-thinking products making quick-and-easy promises account for billions of dollars in sales per year.
Now, I’m not saying all proponents of positive thinking are hucksters. Many are honest men and women who believe in the concept because they’ve used it successfully in their own lives.
They’re usually people who’ve always been accomplished—excelling in sports or academics or business, almost from the start.
Their repeated successes gave them confidence they can do just about anything.
But what about the rest of the world? The 80% of the population who got C’s in school… who sat on the bench during ball games… and who had little or no success in business? What messages are buried in their hearts?
The positive thinkers will tell you this is exactly the point. The people who struggle are failing because they don’t think they can succeed.
If they could change their thinking, they’d do better.
And so, the therapy for these self-doubters is positive thinking. Stand in front of the mirror in the morning and repeat 20 times: “I am a good person. I can do anything. I will be successful.”
It’s very appealing. Two or three minutes of talking to your mirrored image, and a mental switch will be turned. Everything after that will come to you effortlessly.
But the reality is different.
Does positive thinking work?
In her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Dr. Julie Norem confirms my belief positive thinking doesn’t work for everyone.
She cites a study indicating it may work for people who already have an optimistic way of looking at their abilities… but it doesn’t work for pessimists.
In the study, researchers divided their subjects (all identified as pessimists) into two groups. They told one group that—based on past performance—they were going to do well on a standardized test they were about to be given. And on a pretest survey, these subjects indicated they did, indeed, feel optimistic about their results.
The second group wasn’t given any encouragement. The results? The first group—the temporarily optimistic pessimists—actually performed worse on the test.
I’ve been critical of positive thinking for years. I think it’s useless to people who most need help changing their lives: people who have deeply held negative feelings about what they can accomplish.
Positive thinking only works for those who are emotionally positive. Usually, these people have a history of success.
People who’ve been good wrestlers, for example, find it easy to believe they’ll win their next wrestling match. Entrepreneurs—like yours truly—find it easy to believe their next business venture will be successful.
When you’re emotionally positive, you can’t help but think positively about everything.
So, thinking positively helps. But it only helps the 20% of the population who are already emotionally positive.
The rest of the population—the 80% of the world who are emotionally negative—cannot be helped by positive thinking.
I knew this was true, though I didn’t know why.
When I wrote about it in the past, many readers objected. When I spoke about it at conferences, attendees complained. They seemed angry. As if I was trying to take something precious away from them.
They believed I was trying to deny their best chances of succeeding. What I was really trying to do was get them to stop conning themselves… and take the specific actions that would help them achieve their goals.
As the years passed, I met some of these same people at other conferences. They were still attending self-improvement seminars, still carrying positive-thinking books, and still upset with me for telling them positive thinking wouldn’t change their fortunes.
It had, after all, worked for the people promoting all those seminars and books.
Year after year, decade after decade, they stayed poor. They stayed stuck. But they wouldn’t give up their dreams of changing their lives quickly and easily by changing their thinking.
I was never able to articulate how I knew positive thinking would never work for these people. But then, I read a book that helped me understand: A General Theory of Love. It’s written by three eminent psychotherapists and neuroscientists.
As they explain, our emotions are deeply rooted in the way our minds are wired. There’s a scientific basis for many of our emotional responses and how we relate to others.
At the same time, our interactions with the world and people around us have a profound impact on our attitudes. These interactions—which can actually alter neural pathways in the brain—begin in infancy and influence our development.
So, if you grew up with negative feelings about your ability to achieve success, that’s the way your brain is wired. And no amount of positive thinking will change it.
Here’s what the authors of A General Theory of Love have to say about the self-help industry:
A vigorous self-help movement has championed the hoax that a strong-willed person, outfitted with the proper directions, can select good relationships. Those seduced into the promise of a quick fix gobble it up. But the physiology of emotional life cannot be dispelled with a few words…
… Self-help books are like car-repair manuals: You can read them all day, but doing so doesn’t fix a thing.
To go from being emotionally negative to emotionally positive, you have to get some solid successes under your belt. That’s where another success technique—visualization—comes in.
But this one works.
It’s no secret many of the most successful people in the world—including entertainers, athletes, and CEOs—use visualization to help them achieve their goals.
Take Tiger Woods…
“Visualization has become a major part of my shot-making, especially as it pertains to shaping shots… It makes a huge difference in my performance.”
And Jack Nicklaus, one of the greatest golfers to ever grace the game, said, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.”
Famed sports psychologist Bob Rotella charges thousands of dollars per session to help pro athletes and business executives achieve success through visualization.
In addition to coaching pro PGA golfers and top athletes in the NBA and NFL, he coaches high-ranking executives at Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, General Electric, Coca-Cola, and many other companies.
Matt Furey—world-class martial artist and top Internet marketer—credits visualization for his success.
Matt’s wrestling coach told the scrawny, uncoordinated high school teen he never had a chance. But by using the power of visualization, Matt gained the confidence to win match after match—and became a champion wrestler in high school and college.
Later, Matt became World Kung Fu Champion—thanks, again, to visualization and the very positive attitude that was now buried deep in his limbic brain (the part of the brain involved in emotional behavior).
As I said, people who are emotionally positive about their chances for success have a history of succeeding. They’re doers, not dreamers. So, forget about positive thinking.
Instead, start rewiring your brain by working toward the goal you want to achieve or practicing the skill you want to master.
At first, you won’t feel very good about what you’re doing because you won’t be very good at it. But stick with it.
Remember, it takes about 1,000 hours to achieve competency in anything worthwhile.
Start by setting very modest objectives. Use visualization to help you excel at specific tasks and overcome specific challenges. But don’t waste your time repeating useless mantras.
Actions—and only actions—will reprogram your limbic brain and turn you into a real “success machine.”
Reeves’ Note: In the October issue of Creating Wealth, Mark’s chief stock analyst discusses another way your emotions could be helping others steal your wealth. It’s called “emotional analytics”… and you need to know how to defend yourself against it.
Creating Wealth is a “holistic” wealth advisory normally retailing for $199 per year. It’s provided free to readers of The Palm Beach Letter and Mega Trends Investing.