Positive and constructive thoughts are critical to our well-being, decision making and performance. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that people with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within 5 – 25 years than those with a more negative outlook (The Power of Positive Thinking). Furthermore, researchers at Stanford University found that a positive attitude toward math uniquely predicted math achievement, even after they accounted for multiple other factors in 240 children. They also found that positive attitude was associated with increased engagement of the brain’s (hippocampal) learning-memory system. Structural equation modeling further revealed that increased brain activity and more frequent use of efficient memory-based strategies resulted in the relation between positive attitude and higher math achievement (Positive Attitude Toward Math Supports Early Academic Success). I knew this from trying to accomplish tasks with a bad attitude and achieving poor outcomes but now there is science to back up what I empirically learned over the years.
Our thoughts are easily influenced by our experiences, life circumstances, and surroundings. There are a few things in life we have control over and many we do not. To complicate matters, there is one absolute guarantee – if you try to accomplish anything meaningful in life, problems will arise. The good news is, your thoughts are fully within your control and it’s your choice how you’ll respond to various stimuli and challenges. What’s crucial to know is that thoughts lead to actions, and actions will define your character.
In order to gain control of your thoughts and keep them positive and constructive, we need to explore areas of risk:
- Negative thinking
- Tit for tat, comparisons, and envy
These feelings and struggles are part of life, but they don’t have to become the focus of our days. Here are some strategies for mitigating these areas of risk:
When a problem hits, it’s easy to lose control of your thoughts. This can manifest itself as negative thinking that is usually blown out of proportion. Here are some examples:
- “This is way too much work! I should give up.”
- “Why am I doing this? All I am facing is problem after problem.”
- “Everyone is going to ridicule me when I fail, and my reputation will be ruined.”
- “Oh my gosh, this newfound failure is going to cancel the program. What am I going to do?”
When negative thinking is allowed to manifest itself, it’s common to become overwhelmed and not think clearly. This leads to bad decisions. Instead, isolate a negative thought when it occurs and refocus your attention on something constructive. Give your emotions time to provide you valuable information. If needed, rest for a period. Then take logical steps to address the issue that generated the negative thoughts. So how exactly is this done? Let’s review in the context of an example.
Earlier in my career, I was working to resolve persistent sensor failures in vehicles. Several people tried to solve the problem before me, but none were successful. I discovered that a combination of water seepage and high voltage was contributing to the failure. The water was getting in because a chemical reaction caused our silicone seal (similar to caulking a bathtub or window) to lose adhesion. Testing of two new silicone sealants was nearly complete (to prove no water entered the sensor), and our customer deadline was approaching quickly. The customer was pressing hard for a solution due to failures occurring in their customers’ vehicles.
I was diligently analyzing data and performing visual inspections of the sensors to draw conclusions for the report. I was putting in twelve- to fourteen-hour days, six days a week. It was brutal. Then one week before the meeting with the customer, I severely broke my leg while volunteering with a youth group. On day two, I was in surgery and on day four, I was back to work. The customer agreed to delay the meeting for one week, and I continued the grind of twelve-plus-hour days. However, now I was in severe pain, had trouble sleeping, and had difficulty getting around. Negative thoughts started to creep in. We are going to lose the business to the competition if I cannot complete this. The customer will be severely disappointed in me for missing our deadline again. I should just give up and go home. Who cares? When these thoughts surfaced, I refocused on my work to put them out of my mind. This was a continuous process and was not easy.
A few days before leaving to present the report to the customer, I lost my grip and fell in the bathroom while getting ready for work. It was really painful. All of the stress, frustration, and negative thinking hit me at once. I lay on the floor and moaned as I processed the raw emotion of it all. I’m not sure how long I stayed there, but eventually I picked myself back up. As I starred in the mirror in silence, I contemplated giving up. Then I said, “No,” got dressed, and went to work. I didn’t want to give up and let the team down even though my situation gave me a perfect excuse.
After completing the report, we arrived at the customer’s facility. They felt really bad as I hobbled around presenting the information. As I drew my final conclusions, the customer’s lead engineer’s mouth dropped open. He was convinced we understood the root cause of the failures and our proposed solution would fix it. Then they asked me if I wanted to come work for them. All my hard work paid off because I was unwilling to give in to negative thinking.
Giving leeway to temptation in our minds is very destructive. Contemplating temptation can be fun, but persistent thought usually leads to action. Areas of temptation can vary, but some common pitfalls include food, lust, greed, laziness, obsessiveness, drugs, and alcohol.
Let’s consider some examples we might encounter in daily life:
- You are trying to lose weight, and you are tempted to have more dessert.
- The wine is good, and you are tempted to overdo it.
- That person over there is really attractive, and you and your spouse are fighting.
- You wanted to exercise, but sitting on the couch with a snack and a good show is easier.
Let’s be frank: we have all faced one or more of these. But temptation can only thrive if we entertain it and give it room to roam. Similar to negative thoughts, it’s best to isolate the tempting thought and start an alternative action that is constructive, rather than destructive. Here is an example to better illustrate this.
It was tax season, and I was looking for legal methods to save on taxes. My consulting business was thriving and between my wife and me, our tax burden was significant. In reviewing my W2s, only a portion of my income was reported to the IRS by my customers, since some small businesses are exempt from filing. For a moment, temptation suggested I could lower my tax burden by only reporting income the IRS knew of. Chance of an audit was slim and I could easily hide the money, should one occur. Plus, large corporations were taking advantage of loopholes, saving billions. But morally it wasn’t right—it was cheating, and I knew it.
I cleared my head and refocused on reporting all my income. Yes, I could have saved thousands of dollars and splurged on a nice vacation, but instead I walked away with a clean conscience, knowing I had abided by the law and my personal ethics. My reputation is more important than wealth. These thoughts occur every year and every time I need to put my reputation first. It’s a battle.
Tit for Tat, Comparisons, and Envy
Thinking through fairness can be extremely beneficial in such things as business deals and court rulings. However, in relationships, this can be counterproductive because it leads to tit for tat, comparisons, and worst of all—envy.
Tit for tat requires that you keep a record of wrongs (mostly) and rights, and give the equivalent effort in return. As soon as the other person doesn’t measure up to our expectations and the kindness we have shown, resentment starts to set in and we want to get even. This hurts you most. It’s better to love freely and enjoy the benefits this brings. Yes, there will be some people who take advantage of your generosity, but most will return kindness and support in the future.
Comparisons (between yourself and others) are simply not beneficial. You were born with a unique set of gifts, and your life has resulted in an equally unique experience. No two people are alike in this regard. At times, even the most qualified individuals are overlooked for a promotion, not for their own shortcomings but possibly politics or the shortcomings of those higher on the ladder. Hence, comparisons only lead to envy and this is a miserable place to be.
At my former employer, twice I was passed over for Senior Member Technical Staff during the annual election cycle. If I had consumed myself in comparisons, I would have have been very frustrated and envious because I was ranked highest in my job grade and doing the best work of my career. However, there were other factors at play.
In one instance, I was not elected because senior management wanted to build greater diversity on the technical ladder. In another instance, I was not allowed to apply because I was recently granted a remote work agreement. The reasoning for the second instance is better understood, given more context.
My wife and I wanted to move out of state to be closer to family after our first daughter was born. In addition, my wife obtained a new job within her hometown near family. The VP of my division rejected my proposed plan to maintain employment and work remotely, so I decided to leave the company. This seams silly in todays world of COVID-19. During my last week of employment, I sent the CEO an e-mail thanking her for all the support she provided in my career and to inform her that my wife and I decided to move because of my wife’s new job. I mentioned the remote work agreement in my e-mail (as an effort to stay with the company) but did not ask that the decision be reconsidered. Instead, I proposed working together with my former employer as a consultant in the future. Since I had worked with the CEO on key programs, we shared a passion for charitable giving and we both loved skiing, we developed a friendship and mutual respect for one another over many years.
A couple of days later, she requested to meet with me. She wanted to learn more about the remote work agreement I had proposed. We discussed the topic and other areas of my work, and she ended the conversation with no guarantees, as she would not force her staff’s hand. The next day, I received a call stating I had my old job back. Unfortunately, the VP felt slighted through the process and his reporting directors felt it was their obligation to delay my election and gave me incentives to leave—such as no raise, no bonus, no promotion, and constant obstacles to complete my work. After several months of this, I was fed up and decided to leave for good. The CEO later apologized to me because the company was unable to make things work.
After resigning, I started a successful consulting business and I later went on to be VP of Global R&D for a competitor within three and a half years. In that role, I was given the opportunity to create a technical ladder program. Although this journey had many ups and downs, the end result was very positive for me because I didn’t focus on comparisons but rather the knowledge that I was making a difference.
Worry is absolutely pointless. It does nothing to effect the outcome of a situation. Furthermore, it’s destructive by consuming an enormous amount of time you could use to work out a solution, and it fills your head with worst-case scenarios that rarely come to pass. Your time is much better spent devising and executing a plan to manage the risk of the situation to turn the outcome favorable. If you are in business and launching a new product, consider using a design review gating requirements checklist as a method to eliminate risk from your product launch.
I was recently speaking to a potential entrepreneur who wanted to take the leap in starting her own company but was worried it wouldn’t be profitable in the first year. I suggested methods to keep overhead low and to limit financial risk through partnerships. I also proposed developing two budgets: a likely scenario and a worst-case scenario. If financial risk were manageable in the worst case, it became less scary. Then I asked her to fold a piece of paper in half and list out all her concerns on one side and potential resolutions and controls to minimize risk on the opposite side. This would likely generate action items to gain more information. Finally, I advised her to connect with other successful entrepreneurs to form a support network for when she encountered questions or problems. At the end of this exercise, there would be no need to worry because she would have a clear plan of how to be successful, with fewer unknowns and a team of people to turn to for help.
Resentment hurts you and nobody else. If you let it, it will consume your thoughts and actions. You will thirst for revenge, limiting what you can do that is constructive. In reality, it only builds stress. The biggest risk is that resentment triggers thoughts of despicable retaliatory behavior, and if you let it persist, you will resemble the character you despise.
It’s much better to forgive and let it go. Channel all of your energy into acting in kindness and gratefulness, and into endeavors that bring you joy and satisfaction. In the end, you will be much happier.
After I left my former employer because the remote agreement didn’t work out, I held resentment toward my former boss for a while. His actions cost me a very large bonus and promotion, despite doing the best work of my career. However, it didn’t stop there. When I started my consulting business, he continued to harass me with my former employer’s lawyers with no legal grounds to do so while I was working to grow my business. Eventually, I reached out to the CEO to end the onslaught of attacks and I never heard from their lawyers again. I had every right to be resentful, and my thoughts stewed for a couple of weeks. Revenge often entered my mind.
Then a realization hit: every moment I thought about getting even detracted from me furthering my own business. This didn’t hurt him; it only hurt me. He was winning in my mind. That moment, I stopped resenting, forgave, and channeled all of my energy into making my business successful. When the resentment resurfaced, again I made a conscious effort to forgive and redirect the negative energy into positive actions for my business. Within a year, my company became a profitable entity and I was my own boss. This was a game changer for me and it has only gotten better each year.
Since resentment is such a common feeling, here are some strategies to deal with it:
- Honestly forgive. When resentment surfaces again, forgive again and continue to do so until the resentment is gone. Be mindful that this may take time.
- Show gratitude in other areas of your life.
- Refocus your energy into doing something constructive you are passionate about.
- Show kindness and give to others.
CALL TO ACTION: Five Steps You Can Take to Win the Mental Tug-of-War, Control Your Thoughts, and Achieve Success
- Misery loves company, and peers are influencers. Identify the people in your inner circle (friends, coworkers, family, mentors) and evaluate their impact on your thoughts and actions. Do they support and encourage you? Do they provide practical insights into how to achieve your goals? Do they have your best interest in mind? Are they willing to provide constructive criticism that will make you better, and do they care enough to listen? If yes, you have chosen wisely. If no, maybe it’s time to seek better relationships.
- When a destructive thought or temptation comes into your mind, take time to isolate it and consider its origin. Process the emotion that was generated from the situation so you can gain more insight and develop a logical response. Then replace the destructive thought or temptation with thoughts that will help you succeed at the task at hand. This is extremely difficult and takes practice, so let’s consider an example.What many people don’t know is that I struggle with stuttering. Over years of practice, I have reduced it to a minimum, but it still persists to some degree. It’s most pronounced during introductions (oddly enough, saying my name is extremely difficult) and public speaking. I could allow negative thinking to consume me by focusing purely on my sweaty palms, being shy, and never speaking publicly. At times, it’s tempting to curl up in a shell and stop interacting with people. However, this would drastically reduce my quality of life and prevent me from following my passions.Instead, I isolate negative thinking when it surfaces and focus my thoughts on my surroundings (listening intently, people-watching, nature) or my next task. I also rehearse fluent speech often and have developed numerous workarounds for times of struggle. Despite this hard work, sometimes I fail.As a consultant, I was meeting with a customer. The president of the organization was showing me around and introduced me to one of the engineers. I started to speak and my tongue froze on my company’s name. I immediately tried a workaround but it didn’t work, and I saw concern in my customers’ eyes. Panic and humiliation began to flood my mind. I actually started to shake. All that would come out is “Um-ahhhh-um.” It was the longest ten seconds of my life. Then I stopped. After regaining my composure (in two seconds), I made eye contact, I apologized, stated that at times I struggle with stuttering, and my company’s name is DiPaola Consulting. The tension was released, and we continued our tour. It never happened again throughout my contract with this customer. To me, instances like this are a really big deal and extremely embarrassing. But most people think it’s no big deal and they attribute it to a simple brain fart, never crossing their mind again. Hence, I am constantly amazed at how many people think I speak fluently. They never perceive a problem. It’s a great compliment to all my hard work.
- Balance your emotions and feelings with rational thought and action, not immediate uncontrolled reaction. Emotions are critical to our being, providing situational and relational awareness, motivation, and safety. We need to listen to our emotions to receive and process valuable information. However, balance is needed to prevent emotion from taking over. We need not become paralyzed with fear or anger or lash out at someone.
- Don’t compare your stature, circumstances, belongings, or appearance to others. There is absolutely no benefit in this. When the thoughts come, replace them with gratitude for the many blessings you have. People mostly show their best and if you are constantly comparing others’ best to your worst, it is failing game. You will only destroy your self-esteem.
- Create a plan to eliminate worry in your life, and then put it into action. One practical strategy to eliminate worry is to consider whether appropriate actions (within reason) have been taken to mitigate the potential risks. If so, don’t entertain the negative thoughts and rely on your plan. If not, focus your thoughts on developing a plan to mitigate your concern, rather than worrying about it.
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