Fundamentally, most performance psychologists and mental conditioning coaches like myself agree that one of the most important aspects of being successful in leadership, business and the rest of life is to be positive and optimistic. But positivity gets a bad rap these days. When we have negative results, optimism may not only seem misplaced, but outright dangerous. Some even say it’s better to focus on the negative or the obstacles in your way. In fact, there’s an entire line of thinking that supports something called “mental contrasting” which has shown the value of considering possible negative conditions and how you will deal with them. I see the value in this line of thinking but I would argue that these two things are not mutually exclusive. There is a common misconception about how optimism and positive thinking works and how it can help you be more resilient to whatever comes your way in business.
Effective thinking in performance is not about ignoring the data, putting on some rose colored glasses and looking away from negative results. It’s about using what I call objective optimism to equalize our evolutionary pressures to be negative. Our brains have a strong negativity bias — if you’ve ever been unable to avert your gaze from a stain on someone’s shirt, that’s the negativity bias. We tend to notice what’s wrong first. Not what is right.
The tendency to notice what is wrong in the world is part of an alarm system that has been our friend for thousands of years in the sense that it has helped our ancestors identify danger and is one of the main reasons we still exist as a species. After all, if we didn’t have this alarm system, the lion would have eaten us—or our ancestors, that is! But there’s one problem with having a brain that prefers negative observation: it doesn’t do a good job of separating real threats from perceived ones. For example, many are terrified of flying, despite the fact that it’s statistically safer than driving in a car. More often than not, everything goes right. Thousands of flights every day takeoff and land without incident.
Just like air travel fears, worries and negative thoughts about the world are the residue of that alarm system doing its job. We’ve evolved that way because the penalty of ignoring a physical threat to our safety is very severe. So we’re wired with a tendency to pay more attention to what could go wrong and hurt us than what is safe. That can make seeing the world as a fundamentally safe and good place more challenging when there are such salient alarms, like acts of terror happening that instruct our brains’ that it’s not.
As we work on developing a customized mental performance routine, one thing I often do with my clients in sports and business alike is to have them come up with some examples of what is going right in their performance, bodies or lives in general. Making this part of their routines helps them to balance the negativity bias. It also helps people in business to do the hard work to keep on performing. By noting the moments when you are performing well and investigating the performance elements that lead to your optimal performance, it helps you to run the marathon through the moments when you are confronted by a negative event in your business or the world at large. By training our mindset to see the world as it is, a place in which there is more good than bad, we can simultaneously face negative elements and continue to act to improve our results.