One Way Positive Thinking Can Screw Up Your Life

Avoid the Danger by Using This Astronaut Tested Approach

A positive outlook toward your future and your life has many well documented benefits:

  • Lower stress and depression levels.
  • Greater resilience to hardships.
  • Better health, longer life, and more energy.
  • Better relationships.
  • An overall higher sense of well-being.

But a positive attitude isn’t all sunshine and unicorns.

Having a positive outlook also has a rarely mentioned dark side. In certain situations, positivity can lead to unnecessary hardships, misery and frustrations.

The good news is that not only can you negate this potential downside, you can actually leverage this negative dimension to experience greater success in what you are doing.

The Dark Side to Having a Positive Attitude

Research has confirmed that having a positive attitude is one of the keys to the better life. In another article, I wrote about how successful people typically have a positive outlook. Hear me clearly: a positive, hopeful outlook is essential to experience a thriving life.

But, potential danger lurks.

The danger of having a positive attitude is being overconfident in certain situations. Researchers have identified and labeled this as “optimism bias” (or predictive bias).  Optimism bias is seen in people when they act as if the regular odds don’t apply to them.

For example, the odds of a new business venture succeeding are statistically very low: according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, only 20% of new businesses survive the first year. Of that small number, only half make it to year 5.

That is a whopping 90% failure rate.

Yet, far too many who embark on their new business venture have an unbelievably unrealistic attitude about their chances of success.

  • 81% are very confident their business will do well.
  • 33% are convinced they have a zero chance of failure.

If you lunge ahead with blind confidence in your new business (or anything in life), you are setting yourself up for a potential Humpty-Dumpty crash (tons of debt and stress, heightened relationship problems, and deep depression), … and wonder what just happened.

How can you combat this overconfidence bias? By approaching situations with the mindset of an astronaut.

Astronauts and the “W” Word

Astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote the book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life,” where he describes the importance of letting a form of worry about the future have its place.

Hold on! Worry and anxiety are bad things, right? I know people whose lives were so screwed up because of the destructive consequences of worry in their lives.

True. We often ruminate and sometimes even obsess over all that could go wrong in the future.  It can become paralyzing… or at least a significant liability.

There is, however, a way to avoid “destructive” worry and even take advantage of it.

How Astronauts Approach the Future

Astronauts turn destructive worry into what I call the “constructive worry” approach with a 4-step process:

  1. List out all the things that could go wrong. Psychologist Gary Klein calls this process a “pre-mortem.” A post-mortem examines a dead body to determine the cause of death. A pre-mortem imagines all the ways you could die, and tries to figure out how they can be avoided.

    By the way- this is one reason people who start businesses hire a business coach… because they can’t possibly know all the potential things that could go wrong (but a business coach would).

  2. Determine if each potential danger is within your control or outside of it.  If it is outside of your control then let go of it and move on.

    There is no value in worrying about something you have no control over. If, however, the danger is within your control, what could you do to change that outcome?

  3. Develop a plan to handle the potential problem. Develop a strategy that would counteract the problem if you faced it. Better still, is there a way you could prevent it from happening in the first place?
  4. Practice, practice, practice. How you would deal with that situation if it were to arise. Actually act out (repeatedly) how you would respond, and what tactics you would employ to counteract the problem. Then, if it does happen, you have a plan, you are not surprised, and you are prepared (because you have already faced it).

Leveraging Worry Constructively

Let’s take an example of how constructive worry could be a difference maker for you. Let’s say you have a speech or presentation to make at work. How could you approach it?

The classic worrier- This approach would have you be anxious about EVERY possible thing that could (and in your mind likely will) go wrong… including things you can’t control (e.g. what people think of you).

As a result, you allow fear and anxiety to get a grip on you, causing you not to sleep well (further impacting your performance) and facing the event with dread. Your performance will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The overconfident optimist– This approach may have you trying to compensate for the natural anxiety you might face, or because you’ve done it before and it went ok, you convince yourself you will do a great job. And you might. But, then again you might run into some unexpected issues.

Or, you are so focused on the content of your presentation, that you assume people are going to find it as interesting as you do. They will love all these charts!

But, then the day comes and it doesn’t go well. Your voice tightens, people look bored, you lose your train of thought several times, and it seems like a disaster.

The constructive worrier– This approach assumes the best (be positive!), but prepares for the worst. You do a “pre-mortem” and identify 5 possible things (you have control over) that could cause the presentation to go poorly.

Based on these items, you work ahead of time to be prepared and even preempt the problems:

  • Modify your presentation (to minimize the changes the listeners will tune out. Instead, you incorporate input from others that you admire for their presentations).
  • Revamp your notes (to make it easier to retain your train of thought).
  • Modify your breakfast (to prevent sluggish or foggy thinking).
  • Spend time visualizing a successful presentation (to combat fear in the moment).
  • Actually practice your presentation several times out loud, noting where you stumble so you can fix those ahead of time.
  • Use Expressive Writing the morning of the presentation to reduce normal anxiety levels so you can operate at peak levels.

When the day comes to make your presentation, you are confident AND prepared. You are not surprised by what you actually face because you anticipated it (and made the necessary changes) in advance.

Does this approach work? Definitely. Some of the most successful people in the world use this approach regularly.

How Successful People Use Constructive Worry

Using the Constructive Worry approach is one of the keys to successful outcomes for many people and organizations:

  • Sports– One of the reasons New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is one of the most successful NFL coaches of all time is because he methodically uses this approach. He has taken his team to 7! Super Bowls, winning 5 of them, in part because of his intense preparation.

    Belichick does a pre-mortem to identify all the areas where another team can beat the Patriots  …and develops a plan to deal with them. The team even practices those plans leading up to a game. His teams are ready to handle whatever adversity they faced because they have prepared for it.

  • Airlines- The airline industry at one time was in the news constantly because of some crash somewhere. To improve outcomes, they used the constructive worry approach to systematically developed processes to handle every conceivable thing that could go wrong up in the air. They prepared and practiced ahead of time for various complications. They go through pre-flight checklists down to the smallest detail.

    The result? Fatal accidents have fallen every decade since the 1950s (a significant achievement given the massive growth in air travel since then).

    For example, in 1959, there were 40 fatal accidents per one million aircraft departures in the US. Today, it is 0.1 per million. That is an amazing reduction. Statistically, you have more chance of being killed riding a bicycle or even struck by lightning.

  • The Military– The success of any military venture is not primarily related to their equipment but their preparation and the execution of their strategy. The military trains year round in preparation for all sorts of potential encounters and settings to make sure their soldiers are ready to face the unpredictable nature of the battlefield.
  • Successful Businesses–  Many successful businesses conduct an annual pre-mortem on their current business, seeking to anticipate potential problems that could occur in the future… then developing plans to handle those situations.

Converting Worry Into Success

Experiencing anxiety and worry is part of the human condition. It is impossible to prevent. Why not put it to work for you… for good?

For things that are out of your control, you need to let them go (I find it incredibly helpful to give them to God. I trust he will handle them… or help me through them).

For those “disasters” within your control, and for which the outcome is important try being a little more proactive (like an astronaut). Leverage your worries for good.

Your Turn!

Did you find this information helpful… or have a question about it? Leave a comment below and we will respond!

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