Secrets to Success: The Power of Positivity

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Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.
~ Winston Churchill

In the first post in my Secrets to Success series, I suggested improving your odds of achieving goals by tying them to your core values. In the second, I talked about overcoming a major roadblock to reaching our goals: temporal myopia. In this post, I’ll share one more idea. It’s the simplest, the shortest, but could be the best.

It’s called the power of positivity.

If I took the brain out of your head and put it on the sharp edge of a razor blade, it would look like a pea rolling down a four-lane highway.

Maybe not directly, but that’s the way a lot of us might as well be talking to the people we care about or work for us, and it’s the way we all regularly talk to ourselves.

If you’re like me – in a hurry and overwhelmed – you might do what I’ve found myself doing to the people I supervise at work: calling them on the carpet, criticizing them for doing a bad job, pointing out their mistakes, and ultimately implying their position is at risk. We all sometimes resort to the same type of tactics with our kids, our friends, and other important people in our lives, especially ourselves. But whether you’re attempting to alter the actions of others or yourself, this isn’t the way to do it.

My girlfriend is a nurse. She was telling me recently about a lecture she attended about the importance of staying positive with patients. Turns out that a lot of people in the healthcare industry use negative reinforcement to help us change unhealthy behavior: Mr. Smith, your cholesterol is off the charts. Ms. Jones, if you don’t start exercising, you’ll be dead in six months. Mr. Brown, you’re about two cigarettes away from a heart attack.

Don’t go negative

The problem with this brand of negativity? It has an unintended consequence: Rather than changing behavior, it simply causes patients to stay away from the doctor’s office. Guilt – whether directed at yourself or other people – is more likely to reinforce negative behavior than fix it. That’s because negative behavior is often used to compensate for a lousy self-image.

In this LA Times article, researcher Deborah MacInnis describes a study she conducted at USC.

She put three groups of subjects alone in a room with a very large piece of chocolate cake. They were told they could eat as much or as little as they wished. The first group was told to focus on the pride they would feel if they resisted the cake. The second group was told to imagine the shame they would feel if they ate it, and the control wasn’t told anything.

Result? The subjects who anticipated pride at resisting the cake ate way less than those who focused on shame. They also ate less than the control group.

Why does this happen? Here are her words:

“Guilt, it turns out, carries a triple whammy: It concentrates thoughts on the temptation rather than on self-control; it makes you generally feel bad, weakening resistance; and it heightens the expected pleasure from being bad, which makes the temptation more tempting.”

So if you have a problem with food, rather than calling yourself a fat slob, maybe you picture the slimmer you. If you smoke, don’t beat yourself up over your lack of self-control, picture the pride you’ll feel when you stop. Before you tell your husband how lazy he is, tell him what a great provider he is or how good he looks. If you’re dealing with employees, tell them how well they do some things before you tell them where they need improvement.

Carrots are healthier than sticks

So if you want to help people accomplish their goals – or want to accomplish yours – forget the stick, and stick to the carrot. Create a mental picture of a perfect self, remind yourself how close you are, then follow the remaining steps to get there.

In short, don’t underestimate the power of positivity, especially when it comes to yourself. One of my favorite expressions: If you talked to other people like you talk to yourself, you wouldn’t have any friends at all.

As you go through your day today, do two things. First, remind yourself of your best qualities. Then say something nice to somebody else. It won’t cost you a dime. And it’s going to make the world a better place. Especially your world.

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