Let’s consider the Wright brothers for a moment. Not particularly good students, they had an interest in things mechanical and a few peculiar hobbies. At some point, they decided they could design a machine that could fly, which if you think about it, was a pretty crazy idea. If Wilbur and Orville thought the way most of us think, they’d have been discouraged by the improbability of success, the throngs of skeptics and the four years of trial and error before they finally achieved that first twelve-second flight. They’d have had to be almost delusional in their stubborn faith in their abilities to ignore the many compelling arguments against their attempts. But ignore them they did, and as modern-day travelers of the world, we know their optimism changed the course of history.
Those who achieve “great” things have varied talents, backgrounds and beliefs. They come from different times, different cultures and different families. But almost unanimously, they have one thing in common — a dogged optimism and determination to believe in themselves despite the odds. Not that positive thinking is just about achieving greatness. There are thousands of people whose names we’ve never heard who have made an impact on the world, on themselves and on those they love simply because they believed they could. And people who are happy rarely have better lives than those who are unhappy – they have better outlooks. Negativity isn’t just a matter of perspective. How we see the world determines what we make of it. If you woke up feeling like what you do today won’t matter – that it won’t be relative to the grand scheme of your life – it won’t. You’ll follow the same patterns, see the same limitations and be blind to the opportunities outside your expectations. You’ll expect the same shortcomings in others, and they’ll live down to your expectations, too.
So how do you change how you think? Most of us would like to be a little more positive, but so often our attempts end in the same complaints and doubts, leaving us feeling bad at our failure to not feel bad! Realistically, telling yourself to look on the bright side isn’t a particularly powerful cure. A lifetime of reinforcing guilt, pessimism and hopelessness isn’t going to dissipate in a day. It’s actually easier to change your actions than it is to change your thinking, so begin by identifying a positive course of action in each new setback. Whether or not you always take it, you’ll slowly be training yourself to attack problems with the measured delusion that brings happiness, clarity and success to so many.
Project the positive.
You may think you’re hiding it well, but your pessimism and insecurity is constantly revealing itself to others. Negativity affects us in very perceptible ways: it radiates in our posture, our word choice, the conversations we begin and those we avoid. When you do make a mental shift toward affirming yourself and trusting that you can make the best of any situation, it’ll show. In the meantime, try working from the outside in. Subtle adjustments in your body language can help change your image and your perspective.
Accept doubt. Then reject it!
Doubt isn’t going anywhere. It’s human nature and it’s necessary to making discriminating choices. In fact, those who claim to be completely fearless aren’t optimistic; they’re self deceptive. Without doubt, what’s to keep us from believing we can undertake a marathon after knee surgery or following each new cause that comes our way? Doubt helps us make practical decisions, but it also makes us ordinary. The trick is deciding when our reservations are founded (i.e. jumping off this cliff is likely to result in disaster), and when they represent odds that can be overcome (Why waste time on a novel I could never get published?). Listen to your doubts, and weigh them carefully. When you know your discomfort is founded in insecurity, dismiss it. When the risk is worth taking, go for it. Doubt is useful and healthy, but if you avoid everything you’re not sure you can do, your limits will never budge from where they are today.
Turn obstacles into opportunities.
One of the most often observed traits in people who have been exceptionally successful in business is the ability to see a setback as an opportunity in disguise. Even the best laid plans are sure to go awry. The solution isn’t to better planning – it’s being adaptable. Expect opposition and be prepared to come up with alternatives. If you see versatility as lack of resolve and alternative solutions as failures, you’ve doomed yourself before begun. Life is complex and chaotic, so it stands to reason that no plan, no matter how foolproof, will work out exactly as planned. Look at your plans as rough outlines that will only be fully realized when they’re fleshed out with the caprices of reality. So your boss wants to transfer you to a department outside your expertise. Is there more room for advancement? A chance to learn a new skill? Does this put you in a better position to bargain for something you want? Arguments can make relationships stronger; challenges help you find strength; obstacles force you to consider strategies that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The next time you feel like something has gotten in your way, don’t give up; it could be the perfect opportunity you didn’t know you were looking for.
Talk to yourself.
It’s only fair. When we do something careless or fall short of our expectations for ourselves, most of us give ourselves a subconscious reminder that we’re stupid, unlikable or thoughtless. As you train yourself to turn mistakes into opportunities, try to balance all those negatives with conscious daily reminders of how capable, adaptable, kind and wise you’ve become. The more a thought recurs, the more firmly it is entrenched in the physical composition of the human brain, where it informs future choices. Choose to repeat positive, affirming thoughts and you’ll literally change the shape of your personality!
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