Why Thinking Positively Can Ruin Your Chances Of Success

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In some of the most fascinating behavioral research I’ve ever read and a blow to the global “puppies and rainbows” market, Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues conducted numerous studies over the past two decades and

discovered a powerful link between positive thinking and poor performance…The more that people ‘think positive’ and imagine themselves achieving their goals, the less they actually achieve…Positive thinking reduced the likelihood of depression in the moment, but increased the chances of it occurring over a longer period.

Before you give up hope and pitch your state representative on approving a yearly Purge, let’s figure out what in the sam hell is going on here.

Positive thinking is a high. In that state, our brain relaxes due to a sense of what psychologists call “mental attainment,” because our brain can’t decipher between the outcome we are picturing and one that has yet to be accomplished.

The problem isn’t positivity, it’s what we typically do with that positivity that becomes the issue.

People who positively fantasise about the future don’t, in fact, work as hard as those with more negative, questioning or factual thoughts, and this leaves them to struggle with poorer performance.

No matter how hard we try, reality catches up to us all.

But what about those stories telling us that we should visualize success

Well, there’s a fine line between visualizing an expectation and visualizing a fantasy.

For someone who has never put in an ounce of work, visualizing the trophy presentation, the victory lap, or the standing ovation, is going to hurt more than help.

However, for the athlete, racecar driver or keynote speaker, thinking about stepping up and draining a jumper if the defense shows zone, or how they would take turn two if someone ends up on their inside, or what metaphor they would use to transition between slides three and four does help.

What they’re actually doing is visualizing scenarios/hurdles/problems – in a realistic version of their immediate future – and what they would do to counteract those very impediments. It’s about what Oettingen calls “mental contrasting.” Or in other words…Things don’t go as planned. Be ready.

Obstacles led people with realistic goals to apply more effort and perform better, and [it led] people with unrealistic goals to pull back.

Either you’re excited about the challenge/work, or you realize that it was too big of a task and you “get off the pot” before your legs go numb. Both options are victories because moving on is a huge part of breakthroughs. Letting go of a malignant idea wreaking havoc on your creative abilities opens up opportunities for what is actually possible.

The overwhelming research shows that hoping, praying, and wishing for things to happen move the needle forward exactly zero units of measurement. The idea isn’t to rid yourself of all those gerunds and don a cloak of self-loathing, no. The idea is to be positive about your skills and efforts because you’ll need that energy to get out of the pickle you’re going to soon find yourself in.

It’s about having energy for adaptation, not your coronation.

Oettingen and her colleagues created the WOOP Method to help manage your goals.

WOOP – Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.

Define the Wish
Visualize the desired Outcome
Identify the Obstacle that will hold you back. (That’s the mental contrasting part)
Then, the Plan is about figuring out what you’ll do when you hit that obstacle

For example, If I start to feel lack of confidence during the speech, then I will remind myself that I am smart enough and know more about my subject than anyone else present.’

WOOP, there it is.

(You can read more about daydreams, expectations, and competence in Oettingen’s paper: Fantasies and the Self-Regulation of Confidence. You can read how I get stuff done in my previous post: The Ultimate Guide To Getting Anything Done)