The Power of Positive Thinking and the Examined Life

The concept of positive thinking has caught on fire in America. You’ll hear it called a lot of things, like “The Law of Attraction” or “Self-Fulfilling Prophesies.” In essense, accomplishment through positive thinking is a mindset where you convince yourself you can accomplish something. These thoughts become pervasive. For me, “I want to retire insanely early,” is a thought I have with me every day. That thought and mindset permeates through to my decisions, like when an hour ago I went to the store and bought lunch. Or, I should say, I went and bought my next ten lunches (for $4.40 total). These decisions reinforce the thinking and bring it closer to reality. But, in all cases, there is no chicken/egg conundrum—you need to think it first, and the actions come later.

I fully subscribe to this mantra. Rhonda Byrne wrote a series of books on the subject, and Oprah popularized the first one, The Secret, with a made-for-TV movie. Byrne goes a little overboard with the rhetoric and wordiness (the whole book can be summarized in one paragraph [see first paragraph of this post]), but she deserves accolades for popularizing a rather nebulous idea. On the whole, I subscribe to the idea and think it’s the most powerful force one can have.

Let’s take, for instance, a huge struggle I had recently and how I overcame it.

Job Hunting

In the late summer of last year, my family and I had just signed a one-year lease to a Manhattan apartment. Shortly thereafter, we came back to our home in Virginia and, in a manner that reinforced me and my wife’s “soulmate” status, we nearly at the same moment said, “This is where I want to live.” We decided at that moment that we would endeavor to find a job back in Virginia so we could live and raise our growing family in an environment that makes us most happy.

Months passed and nothing happened. I struggled every day with money, I became very depressed each time I had to pay rent. Finances were a disaster, and the desire to leave my job infiltrated my job performance, making me unhappy and somewhat unproductive at work. Every thought I had was, “I’m miserable,” “I hate it here.” I was essentially negative all-around.

One night my wife and I talked about our mental state, and I came to a conclusion that my depression caused me to feel inferior. I felt like a loser, and I felt unemployable. I was willing to take anything, and that desperation probably came through in my demeanor and that led to some poor interviews. Rejection reinforced my sense of inferiority and everything just became worse.

The Turning Point

The real turning point came in the winter when I wrote the post, Farewell New York, New York. I had no job prospects and everything was going nowhere. But, I wrote the post anyway and scheduled to publish it on February 14th, 2015. I’ll say it again, I had no job prospects. However, and suddenly, I felt reinvigorated and under-the-gun. In the weeks that followed I was energized to make the post a reality. I applied to jobs every day. I changed my resume. I tapped into my old network. I looked for jobs that may have been above me. I had several interviews, and they all went well. I was rejected for positions, but I fought through the rejection rather than getting down. On February 12th, two days before I had scheduled the publishing of the Farewell post, I got an offer. The following week, I received two more offers. I held off of publishing until I actually put in my notice, which was around the 25th of February, but I didn’t care about missing the deadline by a couple weeks—I made it!

Why It Worked

Saying to one’s self, “I gotta get a new job” might work for some, but it obviously wasn’t enough for me. You need to map it out in your mind, you need to put yourself in the headspace of accomplishing the task. It’s a bit of negative reinforcement, but it’s the kind of reinforcement I needed. It’s effectively saying, “don’t make a liar out of me,” to myself. Open-ended goals are all well and good, but actually saying you’re going to do something where you mostly control the outcome is far more effective, in my opinion.

Not long ago, I was talking with one of my Godchildren about school and grades. She said, “I’m going to try to get a ‘B’ in all my classes.” I replied to her with this note:

Do, not Try

It’s a slight change in semantics, but the difference it makes in action is huge. In one case, you commit only to “trying,” while in the other case you’re committed to “doing.”

“Trying” can be anything. “I tried, I did the first assignment but then got bored.” Or, “I tried the homework, but it was hard.” Trying, in an of itself, takes literally zero effort, so you subconsciously give yourself a lot of “outs” to accept failure as an option.

“Doing,” though, is pretty cut and dry. “I’m going to get a B in all my classes” leaves no room for error or interpretation. By necessity, you will have to “try” to get those ‘B’s, but now you’ll have to see it through. The level of effort changes. You’ve put your word out there, and most people want to live up to their word. By me drafting a post about leaving New York and setting a publish date, I put myself out there and wanted to live up to my expectations.

I’m doing this again now, almost every day. I wrote in a previous post about how I started telling people, just in passing conversation, about how I’m going to retire in 2019 at the age of 34. Now, I admit, that sounds pretty conceited and self-righteous by bringing that up all the time, but I’m doing it so that I have expectations of me by others. My friends, family, blog readers, and some trusted co-workers are all aware of my desires to retire in 4 ½ years, and I: 1.) don’t want to make a liar out of me, and 2.) don’t want to embarrass myself with utter failure.

So, What If I Do Fail?

Obviously, not all is in my control. Maybe I’m holding some companies that file for bankruptcy. Maybe I get in a bad accident. Maybe the economy tanks and our home drops in value by 75% and I can’t sell it. There are a lot of things that might happen that are outside my control that could force me to delay my early retirement. I’ve outlined a pretty solid and reasonable roadmap to accomplish my goal, but wrenches will certainly get thrown in somewhere along the line. If a wrench does get thrown in, though, now that I’m expected to accomplish this goal in a stated timeframe, I’ll be more apt to readjust course and find a way to still reach my goal.

If I still fail, though, it probably won’t be by much. If, on September 3rd, 2019 (my retirement date), I’m not 100% comfortable with my ability to afford complete retirement, maybe I’ll work an extra 3-6 months. Maybe I’ll do some part-time work. Maybe we’ll sell our current home rather than rent it and move. In any case, though, the failure won’t be because any lack of effort, and I think any reasonable outsider would still consider what I’ve done a “success.”

If you announced on Facebook that you were going to lose 20 lbs. by the end of the year, but by Thanksgiving had only lost 10, I’m guessing you’d probably start hitting the gym like crazy, talking the stairs at work, cutting meal sizes, and doing everything in your power to fulfill that goal. Your friends would probably help out and encourage you. If you didn’t hit 20 until the following MLK day, we would all still be proud of you.

To Sum it Up

Next time you have a goal to accomplish, write it down and tell everyone you can. Sure, you might sound a little self-centered, but that’s okay (in moderation). You won’t bring it up in every conversation, but getting people aligned to your goals and making yourself accountable to your friends, family, and others will give you constant and positive reinforcement to make your goal a reality.

Godspeed!

Eric

3 Comments

  1. I love goal-telling. In fact, while many people try not to talk about their retirement plans much, I pretty much take the opposite route. I’m free-flowing when it comes to talk of my plan to retire early. I’m proud of this newly-found lifestyle that prioritizes happiness and fulfillment over “stuff”.

    As far as I’m concerned – if you’re proud of it, tell it! 🙂

    • Steve,
      Thanks for stopping by. Love your blog. I never quite understood the reluctance to talk about such topics as retirement date–getting more people aligned with my goals can only help. Thanks for commenting!!

  2. I like your post. A positive attitude changes everything in life. I have struggled a lot every time when I tried new things, but a positive attitude helped in surviving in all the situations.

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