Why are some people happy and others just never seem content? Why do some succeed where others seemingly always come up short? Why do some people have so many loving relationships in their lives while others have few, possibly even none? It’s not what they know, where they come from, or what they have – the difference is how they think. It’s their mindsets.
Many of us know the story of Pavlov’s dog. A bell would be rung just before the dog was fed. Over time, the dog learned to salivate not at the food but rather when the bell was rung. In essence, the dog was conditioned based on a stimulus (the bell) to which there was a response (salivation). The bell became the trigger for the dog to salivate, rather than the food itself.
Much of the psychology at the time was based on this concept of conditioning, as famously demonstrated in Pavlov’s experiment. Behaviorism stated that we humans are much the same: we respond to stimuli, and it’s the foundation of all our behavior. Because our thoughts and emotions could not be monitored or measured at the time, they really had no place in therapy.
Then, in the 1960s, a man named Aaron Beck pioneered what has been called the Cognitive Revolution. Psychology was enhanced with the keen understanding that our thoughts and emotions play a central and critical role in our behavior. Therapy models were enhanced to what is now called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This opened up a whole new breed of therapeutic techniques in which people began to actively monitor and manage their thoughts. Psychologists saw dramatic improvements in their ability to treat conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety, Depression and even Tourette’s syndrome and stroke victims.
In the 1990s, new imaging technology allowed science and medicine to actually monitor and measure our thoughts. Through the research that followed, we learned that a thought is a short burst of electrical current that sends a signal as a directive to the brain. The thoughts we have trigger what happens in our brains, which then dictates what we do. In other words, our thoughts are the CEOs of our lives, dictating all our decisions and actions and, therefore, our outcomes.
This explains why mindsets are critical for success in life.
We cannot change simply by forcing a change in our behavior. We just don’t have the attention span and willpower required to do so for the amount time required to cement a sustainable change in our lives. This is why it’s estimated that over 90% of personal improvement efforts fail to deliver permanent results. We can never truly transform our lives until we transform our thoughts.
If you want to lose weight, it requires new perspectives on food, exercise, yourself and the world around you. To control your anger, you have to develop new mental techniques that foster patience, empathy and restraint. For a child to escape poverty, they need to be exposed to new opportunities and their expectations must be expanded so they can recognize their potential. For you to achieve greater success, you must think differently about your relationship to your work, your personal life and the world around you. There is no other way.
Stop everything you’re doing and take all your discipline and attention and focus it on the stream of thoughts that are constantly flowing through your head. Our thoughts are the levers in our lives. This is where a minimal amount of work can yield the maximum results. In truth, very small adjustments in the way you think can and will result in extraordinary changes in your life.
For example, if you’ve read Steven Covey’s great book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you know that proactivity and assertiveness are critical not just to success at work but effectiveness in all areas of our lives. I would say assertiveness has been one of my primary challenges in life – so much so that I have designed a to-do list strategy that prioritizes and attempts to focus me on the difficult and uncomfortable tasks first.
That said, true assertiveness isn’t going to be manifested from a creative to-do list approach. It arises in response to how much you value yourself and your role, as well as the comfort level you have in challenging and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. Until the mental structures around those are modified in your mind, true assertiveness will never become the norm in your life. It will be a constant test of your will rather than the fiber of your being.
Another example would be from Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking book, Mindset. Dweck asserts that the single most important characteristic for success is to have a growth mindset, or the perspective of gaining gratification from personal growth rather than extrinsic rewards.
It is a great model; however, becoming growth-oriented isn’t necessarily easy. You have to fundamentally change the way you think about things like risk, failure and ambiguity. This is a process that must be addressed at the very core of who you are, how you’ve been conditioned and how you think. You can only become growth-oriented by changing your mindset.
I have learned that every effort I make to improve myself is really about my perspective.
If I want to be a better parent, I must convert what is normally anger and frustration into empathy. If I want to lose weight, I must see food more as medicine for the body and less as something to be enjoyed. If I want more success at work, I must trust my instincts more, gain comfort in ambiguity and awkwardness, see failure as opportunity for growth, and completely change my perceptions of the people I work with and manage.
I like to think of my brain as a garden. The goal is to pull out the weeds and plant flowers. The weeds are the negative thoughts, what are known as counter-mindsets. If we do not pull them, they will grow and multiply, leaving no room for the joyful and meaningful lives we all want. The only way to create those lives is to eradicate the weeds and plant the flowers of growth-oriented, grateful, and empowering thoughts.
As Einstein said, “We cannot solve the problems we face at the same level of thinking that created them.” He also said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If we want new and better results, and want to live the lives of our dreams, we must shift our focus to the root of everything we ever have or will experience: our thoughts.