We believe in magical thinking. Why else buy a best-selling book that promises to make you wealthy, healthy, or wise? We must believe that knowing the secret alone is enough. Based on the number of times we go back to the self-help aisle for the latest book promising miraculous results, that at least appears to be what we wish were true.
But is an idea alone sufficient, or does progress require action? And if knowing the idea is not enough, what action is enough to create a result? Why do so many people fail to implement an idea successfully, even though they fully grasp it in concept?
I was thinking about this while reading lists of books recommended by various famous people. The thought process behind these lists seems to be "This person is rich and powerful. If you read what they're reading, you can become successful like them." I have mixed feelings about such lists. The celebrity endorsement of a book given after the endorser has become rich and famous means nothing. I want to know what successful people read before they became successful. Much more importantly, what were they doing in their lives that caused them to become successful?
I hear successful people say they believe that successful people read all the time. While there does appear to be a correlation between intellectual curiosity (indicated by regular reading) and success, I rather suspect success comes from more than just reading books. I will explore in a moment how we can improve our odds of successfully implementing an idea. But we are not done exploring the power of thought.
Upon reflection, I can think of many times in my own life where I firmly believed I would benefit from the power of thoughts alone. The sports world is filled with elite athletes who practice visualization or mental imagery. This is the practice of imagining yourself performing the sporting activity as you would like to do it in the real world.
For example, if you have an important race coming up, you can visualize yourself performing the race in your head. There you are at the start line, feeling calm, full of energy, and ready to go. Here is how you will start running, with smooth and quick strides, conserving your energy. This is what you will feel and how you will respond when you notice some tiredness, or perhaps a stich in your side. And look, here is how your neck, shoulders, arms, and legs will all be flowing and relaxed as you head into the final stretch.
From Olympians on down to us average plodders, in sports as diverse as golf, weightlifting, running, or chess, studies have demonstrated the startling power of first playing out realistic scenarios in your head. See this summary in Psychology Today for a description of the mental imagery practice.
It seems that our thoughts can produce similar mental patterns as our actions themselves. As a result, visualizing your specific performance in a specific setting can impact your later physical (and mental) performance. This is really remarkable. But also understandable, I suppose, when we consider how important one's mental attitude is to performance.
You may have heard the phrase attributed to Henry Ford "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." I think this explains at least in part why visualization is so helpful to later performance. By mentally going over your race or event, you are seeing yourself perform as you would like. You are training yourself to "think you can" by seeing yourself do it in your head.
Does this also help explain why so many people experiment with the practice of affirmations? Although readily dismissed by skeptics as New Age nonsense, the idea that we can shape outcomes in the world by virtue of our thoughts, desires and emotions is not so different than athletes' mental imagery. Indeed, since the 1980s, there has been a small but growing body of research finding tangible positive outcomes from positive affirmations. (See this article in Positive Psychology, as well as another Psychology Today article for some overviews.)
Because affirmations help reinforce mental states we are trying to foster, the best ones are personal (i.e. in the first person), short, and formulated in the positive. For example, I am strong, I am healthy, I am happy. Coming back to running, repeating mantras during a race is another trick that marathoners have been using for decades. This Sheebes blog has a nice summary. Phrases like "light, fast, strong" and "go faster, push harder." In my earliest races I repeated the mantras "light and fast" and "strong and steady" to help me keep going.
In summary, visualizations and mental imagery can create demonstrated improvements in mental and physical performance. Positive affirmations and mantras do the same. Writing this post, I find I am not as dismissive about the idea that thoughts alone may have power.
No doubt Seneca and the Stoics saw the wisdom in this, and indeed placed controlling one's thoughts at the pinnacle of virtue. In this week's Moral Letter 067 On Endurance, we explore how virtue arises in responding to both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. It all depends on your state of mind.
Let me give you two more reasons why we might keep an open mind about the power of the mind to impact outcomes in the real world. I will wrap up by speculating on the thread tying all this together and offer my formula for how to turn ideas (thoughts) into personal success.
First, some of you know I am sharing elements of Stoic philosophy in the Moral Letters for Modern Times. One key lesson is that our state of mind is all-important in determining our path through life. By focusing on what we can control, and particularly on our thoughts, we can live a purposeful life. I tag most of my posts with the word "mindfulness" for a reason. How could I embrace Stoic wisdom without at least being open to the idea that our thoughts have the power to shape our lives?
Second, one of the spookiest things I ever did was write down on a single piece of paper a number of life goals: personal, professional, financial, social, and fitness related. It was Christmas break in 2006. We were in the Alps, surrounded by snow and quiet beauty. I made the list as part of a career development exercise where I considered my situation 10 years previously, the present day, and where I wanted to be in 10 years. I made my aspirational list, put it aside, and didn't think of it for years. Looking back, I see that sheet of paper changed my life, which is why I am so fascinated by it.
Without realizing I was doing it, I started to knock off one item on the list after the other. By now I've accomplished more than 90% of the things on that more than 15-year-old list. I don't know about you, but I see few task lists of any kind that I complete as well. Mind you, these were not little goals. Many were so ambitious as to be almost comical to my 2006 eyes.
In Moral Letter 068 On Private And Public Service, we examine how one's abilities and ambitions develop over the course of their lives. We explore what it means to have an impact on the world, and how to think about people who are more concerned with their reputation than their impact.
As for me and my impact, some ten years ago, I started to take out the list about once a year and update it. I'd check off goals I accomplished and sometimes add new goals. I might spend an hour on it, that's it. I kept the original sheet of paper because it was already clear to me something magical was going on. I know it wasn't the piece of paper itself, but it was hard not to be superstitious.
I think writing down goals all those years ago did two helpful things for me: I acknowledged to myself things that I wanted to achieve, and I expanded the scope of what it was possible for me to achieve. Just writing down goals made them not only tangible but doable, and they became things I thought I could do.
Did writing down goals cause me to pay more attention to them in the coming years and take actions as a result? No doubt. That's part of how we move beyond knowing an idea and implementing that idea. We have to take some concrete step to move from thought to action.
My experience suggests that even a small step may help get you started. Once you are on your way, if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, then nothing will stop you from reaching your goals. So go ahead and believe in your own magical thinking, so long as you take at least one step towards achieving your goals.