What would it mean to you if you held the keys to remove the biggest obstacles to your success?
What if the biggest obstacles getting between you and your deepest and most meaningful desires were inside you and your thoughts?
Finally, what if the most important key to envisioning a successful future depended on your willingness to focus on an element of your behavior that you would have to overcome?
Would you be willing to change?
Recently, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain. The host, Shankar Vedantam, was interviewing social scientist Gabrielle Oettingen about some surprising new research around positive thinking.
Turns out that just thinking positive thoughts about the future is actually anti-motivational.
(Sorry Tony Robbins.)
Turns out that something called “mental contrasting” is a more effective way to motivate ourselves and activate our desire to work hard. When we only think positively about an outcome (like winning an award, getting into physical shape, or going to graduate school), our brains tend to react to the positive visioning as though we already accomplished it, which then steals our desire to work towards the initial goal.
(For an essay about how this works and why mental contrasting can be helpful to people, check out this Psychology Today article.)
In the Hidden Brain interview, Oettingen outlines four basic elements to her concept of mental contrasting, which she refers to as WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. (If you are curious about it, you can download the free app on iTunes or check out her website.)
While I don’t know if WOOP really works (I downloaded the app myself and am trying it out), I was deeply struck by something Shankar brings up near the end of the interview. Oettingen’s research is surprising in that it doesn’t focus on the obstacles in front of you, but rather it forces you to look at the obstacles within you.
The obstacles within you, (while being a perfect title to an unpublished REM song) seems to me like the ideal way to describe almost all of the ways that we interfere with our true selves.
When someone tells me that they are “terrible at public speaking,” I often ask them what evidence they have of this.
(Side note: some people really are terrible at speaking in public. It’s just the people who “know” they are awesome at it are usually the worst.)
When asked about evidence, most clients will point to moments when they gave a talk that people “said they liked” but that everyone “really thought was terrible.” Even when people gave them compliments, the clients often “know” that those are not to be trusted.
And how do they know that the compliments are not to be trusted? Their brain told them so.
This is how we create obstacles within us and how they impact our ability to be great at something like communicating or presenting.
- Belief: we believe in the idea that we are limited in a fundamental way (like a curse).
- Warped Lens: we look for evidence to support that belief, sometimes turning positive feedback into negative.
- Negative storytelling: we take our experiences and make stories out of them. We then tell these stories to others and ourselves, reinforcing how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen.
If we instead start with a belief that eliminates the possibility of a curse or a fundamental flaw, then we open ourselves up to more possibilities to change.
Let’s take a job interview as an example.
If I begin with the belief that I am equally qualified for this job and that I belong here as much as the next person, that eliminates the need for the “warped lens” or the “negative storytelling.” I still might not get the job, but I won’t be looking for evidence to support the belief that I am not worthy of this position.
When we are willing to look closely at the obstacles within us, we are able to remove the very things which keep us from being our best selves.
Inauthenticity is often the result of not believing in the value of our true selves. The value of mental contrasting is that we get to focus our energy on things that we can actually control, rather than on obstacles outside of ourselves.
Michael Jordan famously spent hours focusing on his weaknesses during practice. He would make up rules like he could only shoot with his left hand or from twenty feet out. Every time an opponent found a weakness or a reporter would make a remark about something missing from his game, Jordan would make that his obsession. The result was that he became one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He was a fierce competitor who seemed to win through a mixture of awesome talent and indomitable will. (For more about how his approach helped shape him, I recommend the book by David Shenk titled The Genius in All of US.)
Michael Jordan employed a technique where he focused on the obstacle that was internal (his ability to shoot jumpshots) rather than on the things that were out of his control (what reporters thought were his limitations).
To return to the public speaking example, when we think the thought “I am terrible at public speaking,” we have to ask ourselves if it is true or it is is part of a fundamental belief. If it is true, then we can work to improve. Public speaking is just like anything else, you can get better at it with practice.
If it is a belief, then that becomes the obstacle. As long as we believe that we are this, we will always be looking for evidence to support it.
Challenge the belief that you are broken, focus on what you can control and transform the obstacles within you into positive outcomes.