In the U.S., we hear all the time about the power of positive thinking. “Visualize what you want and you’ll get it!” We have numerous anecdotes backing this up, like Jim Carrey who wrote himself a $10 million check in 1985 for “acting services rendered” and post-dated it 10 years ahead. Lo and behold, in November 1995 he was paid $10 million for his movie Dumb and Dumber. There’s also that athlete who dreamt of winning a gold medal and then did. However, these folks might be the exception rather than the norm because it turns out, visualizing a positive outcome is one of the worst things you can do if you want to be successful.
That’s because, “Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong,” writes journalist Oliver Burkeman. “By fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”
Burkeman’s comments aren’t just conjecture, by the way; they’re backed up by research. Social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked 83 German students to rate the extent to which they thought positively about graduating from school and finding a job. Two years later, the researchers found the positive-thinking students put in fewer job applications, received fewer offers, and earned lower salaries.
It’s not just students either. Oettingen and Mayer published research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found hip-replacement patients who imagined their recovery would be swift were less successful in recovering than patients with more moderate expectations. That’s because visualizing a positive outcome conveys the sense you’re approaching your goals, which takes the edge off the need to achieve, according to Heather Barry Kappes, a management professor at the London School of Economics.
That’s not to say there’s no place for positive thinking, there is, but it’s more important to visualize the obstacles standing between you and your wish along with how you’ll go about conquering them. That process is coined “WOOP” by Oettingen and stands for “wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan.” (You can practice WOOPing on this website.)
For me as a ghostwriter for therapists and an Oakland-based content writer for small businesses, that means I can’t just imagine receiving a check for a million dollars. It means I have to assess whether my goal is possible for one, and what are the obstacles between me and that goal, for two.
As much as we’d like to believe success is easy, passive, something we can dream our way into being, in reality, success — no matter how you define it — takes effort. It means meeting obstacles head on and overcoming them. It also means doing what works for you. As an old soul in business, contacting therapists and saying, “Hi, I’m a writer for therapists. Working with me, clients have increased their web traffic by 500%,” or “My clients have been published in numerous anthologies,” doesn’t seem to fly. For whatever reason, that method (which works for others!), doesn’t work for me.
Instead, my effort is one of trust, faith, and knowing all who need me will find me because I’m putting myself out there. I’m using SEO so anyone who googles “ghostwriter for therapists” will stumble across my website. I’m asking for referrals from my existing clients. I’m taking inspired action, letting myself be guided, and knowing one of the best things I can do for myself is visualize, yes, but also visualize my hurdles. Imagining the worst-case scenario means I’ll know how to handle it if it arises. And as Roy T. Bennett says, “When things do not go your way, remember that every challenge — every adversity — contains within it seeds of opportunity and growth.”
If you’d like to explore opportunities for growth, I’d love to hear from you!