Positive thinking 101

, 2 min read

A few months ago, I attended a friend’s housewarming party and ended up striking a conversation with a university colleague.

Among our life updates, I shared my experience of a self-reinforcing feedback loop: delusional optimism leading to positive thinking, resulting in unexpectedly heightened performance leading to delusional optimism. Excitedly, I was trying to convey how interesting the phenomenon was, when he cut me off with the world’s flattest voice:

“That’s positive thinking 101. Everyone knows that.”

Funnily, throughout our exchange, my classmate engaged in not-that-positive thinking and self-limiting beliefs, being critical even to the effectiveness of positive thinking itself.

“That’s positive thinking 101”. I chuckle to this day when I remember his tone. But the reason the conversation keeps persisting in my head is the stark contradiction between “everyone knows about positive thinking” and his (conscious or subconscious) resistance to apply it.

There are at least two interesting observations to be made:

  1. Lack of knowledge is not the bottleneck towards behavioral change. We know what is helpful or harmful in the majority of cases, which is why we almost never learn anything new when reading self-help books. We re-read familiar concepts phrased in a different way, hoping that a previously unexamined angle will lead to change.
  2. What you know, say, or think are all footnotes of what you do. Action is what that takes your knowledge, words, and thoughts, and makes it tangible. Thoughts and emotions might be driving actions, but without action you are left with an open loop. Current is not flowing. Energy is not converted, it is merely consumed. Nothing happens.

Positive thinking is marginally useful. Practice positive acting 101 instead.