Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Monday, 19 January 2009

What are you thinking...? Choose wisely!

A friend recently quipped: "What's the definition of optimism for an investment banker?" His answer: Ironing five shirts on a Sunday night.

While the times around us are changing, as they ever will, one thing remains the same: your power of choice. You can see any situation as a crisis or as an opportunity. As an ending or a new beginning.

This may sound trite and Pollyanna-ish to you, but rest assured there is good reason for you to cultivate an awareness of what choices you make during your each waking moment. Where you place your attention will determine your level of happiness...both now and later in your life.

We become what we think about all day long.

These words, attributed to the early 19th century American essayist, philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, neatly present the commonsensical insight of something that has now been confirmed by neuroscience.

In fact the book The Wisdom Paradox : How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older by neuropsychologist Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg (see here for book excerpts and here for a short book review) makes a compelling argument that wisdom is essentially the ability to know what to do in a given situation and make good decisions, fast, based on having seen and dealt with similar situations in the past.

So like anything, practice makes better. Unsurprisingly, the way to become good at something is to do it often and to learn from your efforts.

In this way wisdom is not so different from playing a sport or a musical instrument - over time you build up memories of how to do something, which can be readily accessed later on by the fast, memory-building part of your brain (based in the limbic system).

So here's the lesson: if you practice playing the piano badly through your years of life, then you're only ever going to be a bad piano player (though you'll have very ready access to the skill of playing it badly!).

Similarly, if you continually cultivate a mindset focused on crisis, negativity, the downside, and being fearful, then later in life those are exactly the memories you'll most readily access and - hey presto - you're stuck in the same rut of continually thinking everything is rubbish.

Like giving up any vice or bad habit, however, it's never too late to quit and the positive effects can begin to add up immediately. If you begin to manifest positive aspects of your character, some of the noble qualities of what you're like when you are at your absolute best, then those are the attributes to which your brain will make the strongest connections. They will become habits, taking you upwards in a positive spiral towards greater happiness and a more hopeful outlook on life.

Even if you're doubtful of the science behind the matter, I think you'd agree that manifesting a character-filled approach to life by learning to focus on the possibilities rather than the negatives has relatively few down-sides. (Of course, if you're immediately prone to pointing out what the downsides might be, that in itself could be a useful piece of insight for you...!)

I'm reminded of a story about an executive who, no matter what news was presented to him, responded by saying "That's great!" Staff members bearing really negative messages were, to say the least, disconcerted by this reaction, until they learned to see the philosophy behind it - that nothing is unequivocably positive or negative in itself - it all has to do with the meaning we choose to attach to it. Like Hamlet says, "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so".

What are you thinking about, all day long? And is that the way you want to think your whole life long...?

No comments: