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positive thinking v. retaining the critical faculties of a smart person

I came out of my building the other day and I suddenly realised how hot and wonderful the sun was. It hit me, despite the smog and the cars, this country Egypt is a marvellous place to live because it’s sunny 320 days a year- and the sun really cheers me up.

But then I thought: what if I could make my own weather wherever I was? In wet cold Scotland, or foggy Maine, or monsoon Bombay?

Our mood, positive or negative, is affected by the weather. Setting aside light deficiencies, can we change our mood irrespective of the weather and other factors? Can we make ourselves feel positive? Can we make our own internal weather?

Is thinking positive all it’s cracked up to be?

Positive thinking has come in for a bit of beating recently. Probably because it is almost the second religion of American sales and personal development circles and also because it is very easy to mouth the words but somewhat trickier to know what they mean. I speak from personal experience. For many years, though I have always been drawn to positive people, and ALWAYS on expeditions favoured taking positive enthusiastic types over negative ‘intelligent’ folk, I have also been secretly cheered, in the nastiest schadenfraude kind of way, when someone who is ‘being positive’ finally cracks and gives way to a slew of negative thinking. Apart from proving they are human after all what else does it tell us?

First, the notion that positive thinking is delusional is itself inaccurate. Positive thinking simply means choosing to focus on the positive aspects of a thing rather than its negative ones. It’s that simple. There is no ‘objective’ perception of something when it is at the mental ‘chewing it over’ level. I think you can get flashes of objective perception when for example an art expert sees an object he just instantly knows is a fake, or, in my own case, facing a set of river rapids and knowing, sometimes, instantly, and correctly, which way to go (or risk losing the boat), but there are long periods in life when we kind of drop down a gear and get into ruminating about our past life and the future and whether we are ‘successes’ or not. I have met a millionaire inventor with a fabulous home, a thriving business and high achieving kids and he thought he was failure. He was a war hero too! I mean, come on! But you know- he probably had too much ruminating time courtesy of his wealth- and had started comparing himself to Einstein and Benjamin Franklin – usually it is comparisons that get the old negative self-perception going. ‘That bastard, I was at school with him and now he’s on TV calling himself an expert…’ etc.

Comparisons between people are a slippery slope best avoided, completely sidestepped. What someone ‘has done’ is secondary to what they have learned by doing it and what permanent benefit it has brought them, developmentally speaking.

This notion of permanence is worth pondering. Sometimes we make an advance, or feel it to be one, only to lose it a day or two later. Ranulph Fiennes, the English polar explorer, writes “a motivating mantra will last three days maximum”. In other words, there is a difference between lucking onto a slogan or even a snatch of a poem or song and endlessly repeating it to spur yourself on and making a qualitative and permanent shift. This is different from just acquiring a new habit. Habits can be acquired and lost. One of the most interesting, and successful polymaths of the 20th century was the philosopher J.G.Bennet who was also a linguist, mathematician, chemist, businessman, and first chairman of the National Coal Board. He claimed that whenever he found he had a habit- good or bad- he would try and break it. He disliked anything mechanical being applied to human beings. His successes in the public arena show that ‘good habits’ aren’t quite the essential they have been made out to be. What is required is what lies behind the decision to successfully start a ‘good habit’- or what I prefer to call it: a momentum operation.

A momentum operation is some task, project, job or venture that will need a huge amount of effort to succeed. You’ll need start-up energy as well as momentum energy to keep it going. Instead of thinking of ‘habits’, which to me smack of boring rules handed down by people who are out of touch, I think of creating ‘an environment where failure is impossible’. This means an environment where momentum is maintained by the situation itself. I have heard writers complain of how hard it is to get any peace and quiet to write in. They are setting themselves up for failure before they have started. In order to write successfully you need a distraction free environment, an environment where momentum is maintained. For me this meant, aged thirty, the small ignominy going back to live with my parents, using the bedroom as a writing room, putting off all plans and writing 3-4 hours a day five days a week until the book was finished. Everything that could get in the way I removed BEFORE I started- in other words- a ‘momentum operation’.

On another occasion I had to attend an Arabic language learning course across Cairo. I am fairly bad early in the morning and to get up early, especially after a late night is not my idea of fun. But in Cairo a driver and car is cheap to hire. I had one call for me every morning- and I did my homework in the car. Usually I was the first there too- gaining a reputation for early rising that was unwarranted!

Are you going to achieve something or are you going to try and turn yourself into a fantasy humanoid, rather as body builders eschew strength in favour of looking good? I know what I would rather do- work within my limitations but achieve real things. I get up early during expeditions- usually  because I go to bed early, and I’ve had lots of fresh air. But when I’m in the city I rise right now about 7am because that’s when my kids get up. I’d get up at 8am if it was just me.

One day I may choose to change forever my getting up time- but that isn’t right now. If I want to write a book it’s crazy to add to the stress by forcing myself to get up earlier than I usually do. My point is: a good habit is all very well. More useful is identifying what stops momentum energy from building. With momentum almost anything can be achieved. Without it you’ll conk out like a the bunny without the duracells.

Create a momentum operation rather than a set of good habits. If you have a momentum operation that works for you then good habits are a luxury you can acquire and show off later like a six pack.

Bad habits are no different- you can lose them too. If you are less wedded to the notion of habits being the be all and end all then bad habits should be easier to shift. The way to do it is schedule other things to happen when the bad habit was previously going on. To combat smoking I stopped going anywhere where smoking happened, and if it did I always had something to eat.

We got into this by talking about permanent change versus acquiring a good habit. Permanent change is a permanent extension of how wide a perspective you bring to bear on anything. It comes from experience being digested. The experience of feeling that you can switch your inner focus onto the positive, together with the experience of realising how energising feeling positive is gives rise to a permanent change in how important we feel ‘being positive’ is.

Let me be more specific. Throughout my teens and early twenties I started out to walk a number of long distance paths but always failed or gave up. This track record of failure bugged me. When I was 25 I decided to walk the Pyrenees mountains from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The route I had planned this was about 700km. Over serious hilly country. I had mishaps and foot problems a plenty but I completed it. I then had a feeling that something permanent had been acquired that was an admixture not just of this success but all the failures that had gone before.

Then I grew cocky and had to give up on a simple summer 100km walk in the UK because of poor planning and inadequate preparation. So how can I talk of a permanent levelling up in competence in this area?

What is true is this: I knew I was being cocky. If I had taken it as seriously as the previous walk I would have succeeded. I guess the point is: once you have reached a permanent increase in competence you can still fail, but if you do you’ll know it’s your own fault rather than before, when it was always blamed on some outside agency such as poor boots or poor weather. The main point is that it isn’t aardvarkproof, but at least it works most of the time.

So can acquiring a positive mental outlook be a permanent acquisition?

First off I think everyone prefers to be in a positive frame of mind, 95% of the time. You may like a little ‘recreational negativity’ from time to time but it’s a bummer to be in that zone for too long. And it’s very contagious. Naturally there are certain activities that are more likely to make you feel positive and help maintain a positive frame of mind than others. For me it’s the ocean and the desert- in either of these places I can’t help waking up with a big smile on my face whatever the weather. So hanging out in such places makes sense if I want to boost my positive frame of mind.

But you can’t be on holiday all the time. And there are other people in my life besides me, who don’t like the desert and the ocean. Of course I could just get rid of them, but that’s plain nuts- these are people I love.

So I need a second level of mental operation whereby I can CHOOSE what frame of mind I am in. I think this is the whole key behind positive thinking. It’s not about being positive per se, it’s about being able to CHOOSE to be positive.

Do you see the difference? The ‘easy’ version of positive thinking pedalled in sales seminars is little more than brainwashing yourself to ‘think positive’- whatever that means. The real challenge, however, is to be able to CHOOSE to be positive- or even negative, though strangely, given the choice between the two most people opt for the positive- just as most people opt for holidays in the sun rather than the hail and rain…

So how do you CHOOSE that positive mental state? First you have to shed the culturally acceptable nonsense that ‘outthere’ has some kind of objective reality. Stuff that. ‘Outthere’ is whatever you choose to focus on and emphasise. Just now I walked with my wife through our neighborhood at night to pick up a basket she had bought. The lights shining through a half built block were fascinating and I got to thinking that if this walk was depicted as a series of photos interspersed with prose it would be a better story than prose alone. That set me off looking for interesting shots and the walk was almost like some kind of alternative reality rather than the usual stroll watching out for the incredible numbers of cars and cursing the invention of the internal combustion engine in general.

I just focussed on a different thing. And we all have the ability to do that. It takes no willpower. All it takes is the desire to do it. Curiousity, too, maybe. You have to get used to choosing what to focus on when your mind becomes ‘occupied’. If you start thinking about the past, choose to focus in such a way that what happened takes on a positive slant. One obvious way is to alter the timeframe. When you have a longer perspective events change in significance. If this makes something more positive adopt this perspective.

When you see a film or play that doesn’t draw you in focus on what you like about it, even if it’s the scenery. It really doesn’t matter how clever you are if you are negative and did not CHOOSE to be negative but simply REACTED to what was in front of you. By exercising the muscle of choosing to change what you focus on and give importance to, you are accessing what is the real energy of positive thinking.

Remember you aren’t doing this when you are trying to work out why something didn’t work. But how often are you doing that? Besides, we usually know why something didn’t work. As failure unfolds we get the picture. Analysis after the event is often another variant of procrastination. Mostly we host a mental chatshow in our brains. But the mood we are in affects everything. If the tone is positive we give off a positive energy that affects everything.

This energy controls ‘what you choose to see as important’. I’ve written before about judgement acquisition and how it resides in those who know what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Let’s circle back to that earlier set of remarks about habits. Habits are nothing compared to knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Habits are a tool that help to get a certain job done. But you won’t even know how to use that tool or even what the job should be, unless you know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

In a way the current era is really helpful because it has forced this requirement right onto the agenda of everyday life. I was just watching Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 with my kids (weirder than 1 but worth seeing if you have 8-10 year olds, I digress) and in it there’s a character who was a dork at highschool and now spends his time playing Wii, Nintendo and other games. Whatever your view of computer games, watching this makes you realise how utterly limiting they are. We have this amazing REAL world out there and grown men are sitting indoors fiddling with an Xbox. Yet you only have to play a little to get hooked. In other words, like most vices, you know they’re bad but keep right on. We live in an era where the distractions are unprecedented. Now it’s possible to live your entire life virtually. Instead of it being a theoretical question it’s in our face all the time: pay attention to all the kack out there and your brain will begin to resemble it.

What we pay attention to is either chosen for us: by the advertising and other distractions that get to us first, or what we choose to pay attention to. If you choose to pay attention to writing a book rather than reading books then you’ll have a different result at the end of your exercise.

The fact is, as anyone with kids knows, either you’re attention is being kidnapped by others (the child screaming for attention) or else you have planned ahead and found an activity for them to enjoy while you get some downtime. So planning ahead comes into choosing what you pay attention to.

And what you feed into your plans comes from your experience and the experiences of others. As the saying goes: the ordinary man learns from his own experiences, the wise man learns from the experiences of others. For an unusual example of this read Rebuilding the Indian by Fred Haefele, which I reviewed a few days ago. One way to discover more about from the experiences of others is to talk to old people, people who haven’t given up the ghost, who still have their marbles. All the ones I know have the ability to chose what they pay attention to and there is a strange correlation between the longer lived ones choosing to focus on the positive....

One of your own experiences may have been that it is possible to find a positive area to focus on in almost any setting. The advantage of this is not that ‘you feel better’. Rather it is the slow reclamation of your birthright.

Which is: the ability to make your own weather.





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