Can Everyone Be Rich?

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“The reward would be…”

“What?”

“Well, more wealth than you can imagine.”

“I don’t know — I can imagine quite a bit.” 

—Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

 

Let’s say you’ve done very well and you have a six-figure income and, say, four million bucks in the bank. And you start to feel guilty: Should I really have this much money when so many people are struggling to feed themselves?

You could give it all away. Let’s assume there are four billion poor people on the planet, so divide that into your four million dollars, and each of them receives … excuse me while I whip out my calculator … [*click-click-click*] … one tenth of a penny per person.

Well, that’s not gonna help.

Wait, I know! What if, somehow, everyone could be rich? Could everyone have four million dollars?

Let’s find out. Take America as an example. In 2015, the total assets of U.S. citizens (real estate, stocks and bonds, cars, smartphones, PlayStation consoles) minus debt (mortgages, credit card balances, and the amount you still owe your bookie) was about $85 trillion dollars. Divide that by the 2015 U.S. population and you get a bit more than $265,000 per person.

So if you divvy it all up, every adult and child in America would be worth about a quarter mil. Not bad, but certainly not four million dollars apiece. So that won’t work.

Oh, wait, I got it! Maybe “rich” can be redefined so that more people fit the definition. Maybe $265,000 is rich by anyone’s standards.

Well, first off, you can’t live on it forever. It’ll run out after several years, even if you invest it. You’d need a cool million earning 8 percent just to have an income, after taxes and inflation, of around $30,000 per year. (Give or take. Your mileage may vary.) And thirty grand doesn’t get you anything fancy these days. But at least one person could survive on it indefinitely.

So every American would need at least four times as much money as is available today to be able to retire.

Of course, if everyone suddenly retired at this point in history, all the factories and gas stations and restaurants and bars would close, and nothing would be produced. We’d starve. Dang.

Okay, let’s start over. What, exactly, is “rich”? Dictionary.com defines it as: “having wealth or great possessions; abundantly supplied with resources, means, or funds . . . ” “Great possessions” and “abundantly supplied”: these suggest much more than is owned by the typical schmo. But if everyone got the same amount — say, one million dollars — that would become the new “average”, not “rich”. Hmm.

On the other hand, four million dollars? Now, that’s getting somewhere. Thus if you’re worth millions, you’re still not off the guilt hook. But I have one more idea that might help.

It involves purchasing power. The average American — and the average European, Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Chilean, etc etc — has more wealth than nearly every other human who has ever walked the Earth. Compared to those others, today’s middle-class groups are fabulously rich, abundantly wealthy with great possessions.

A citizen in today’s industrialized countries can own things never dreamt of by the kings of yore. What seem normal to us — quick cheap flights to weekend vacation spots, streaming movies on high-def stereo TVs, instant chats with people in other countries — would have been impossible a century ago. Our average income thus has enormous purchasing power compared with the past. 

That purchasing power keeps growing, year after year, as technology improves. In the future, a mere $30,000 below-average income could have several times its current purchasing power. In effect, a future $30,000 would afford what a six-figure income buys today.

Eventually each of us will have so many resources available from our lil’ ol’ average incomes that we’ll find ourselves possessed of the luxury and leisure and ease that the wealthy have always enjoyed. Like the idle rich of old, we won’t even have to work anymore — not if we don’t want to. The machines we’re building today will do that work for us tomorrow.

So if you’re still feeling guilty about having more than others, you can do two things: (1) invest your wealth in businesses that hire workers to produce the wealthy future that’s looming just over the horizon; and (2) dedicate your own work efforts to building that future, one in which everyone will have more than they know what to do with, to the point where money will no longer be an issue — a future where people will be judged more on their creativity than their bank accounts.

If, on the other hand, you’re wishing you had enough money to feel guilty about, please note that nowadays the quickest way to obtain filthy lucre is much the same: work to build a wealthy future for everyone.

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Robots and Riots

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You do not see union workers holding benefits for robots. — Stephen Colbert

There’s a Doomsday scenario where machines take over all jobs and everyone becomes unemployed. Evictions, hunger, and illness ensue. Riots in the streets. Calls for a guaranteed national income. Legislation to prevent robots from being built at all. Political calamities. A real mess.

French police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators Tuesday as tens of thousands packed the streets of Paris in an outpouring of opposition to the government’s anti-labor agenda. news item

If workers will riot over incremental changes to employment, imagine how berserk they’ll go if all the jobs disappear.

“But robots will never take every job!” Oh, yes they will. We humans are clever — we’ve invented countless labor-saving gadgets over the centuries, devices stronger or faster or more precise than people can be. We’re also clever enough to invent mechanical brainpower that’s stronger, faster, and more precise than our own. In fact, we’re developing this Superior Artificial Intelligence as we speak. Such an intellect will eclipse our own poor powers and take charge. Soon.

(Which would you rather buy, something dirt cheap but excellent from a machine, or something flawed and unreliable and expensive from a human? Hmm.)

This could easily become a bad thing, since people thrown out of work generally don’t have money for food, rent, gasoline, and doctor visits. Also, most of us derive meaning from our labors, and without a job — a way to contribute — people might find themselves existentially adrift. Combine a lack of purpose with a lack of cash, and you get street riots and the other disasters.

And it also could be a good thing … if the automata serve us faithfully and make us all wealthy. We’d have endless free time to pursue our interests, with no need to convert hobbies into jobs. In that world to come, what matters would no longer be how rich you are, but how interesting you are. I call it The Star Trek Future.

(Yes, I’m well aware that this very blog could be replaced by automation. I’d have to find some other way to amuse myself. Tennis, anyone?)

A solution that lately has gotten traction is a guaranteed national income — a stipend for every adult citizen. If all people were unemployed, only those who owned investments would have regular income. The corporations would need to donate money to the unemployed, or none of them would buy any products.

The problem with this plays out as follows: I own a store, and you come in to get a candy bar but don’t have any money. I give you a dollar, and you hand it back to me for the candy bar. Essentially, I’m performing a short ceremony with you, at the end of which I give you a free candy bar. At this rate, I’ll go broke.

Another idea involves a kind of fiscal land reform: the government confiscates corporate stock and hands it out to everyone. We’d all become owners of the robots that took our jobs. Automated production would go to our bottom line, and everything turns out fine.

Except this would basically destroy the market economy. Nobody would invest in companies anymore, lest their hard-won gains be taken from them abruptly in some similar, future upheaval.

But what people aren’t talking about and what’s getting my attention, is a forthcoming rapid demonetization of the cost of living. — Peter Diamandis

What to do, then? It turns out there’s a solution that will likely unfold as a natural consequence of total automation of jobs. It’s called demonetization, and it will cause most prices to plummet. After all, robots don’t take vacations; they don’t need healthcare for their kids; they don’t go on strike; and they perform their tasks vastly more efficiently than can humans. They work much better and much cheaper.

Thus, though we may all one day find ourselves unemployed, our expenses could decline by as much as 90 percent. A meal at a fast-food restaurant would cost 50 cents, and a ride in a driverless taxi would set us back about 30 cents per mile, less than half the cost of car ownership. Dirt-cheap housing will be built using 3-D printing. Meanwhile, online education already is basically free, and the smartphone in your pocket comes with a slew of products and services that 30 years ago would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Given a small stipend from the government and/or a small stake in the big corporations, people would have more than enough cash to pay for basic necessities even if they were out of work.

It’s also important to bear in mind that non-human employment will likely emerge over time and not all at once. Economic downturns in recent decades have tended to resolve themselves with “jobless recoveries” as businesses bought new software first and then hired real people. This hints at workforce automation building momentum slowly over several decades.

Instead of being eliminated, your job might merely get cut back, bit by bit: they’d offer to keep you on at reduced hours that drop even further over the coming months and years. Of course, your pay would decline, but meanwhile your personal expenses will have plummeted due to all that cheap automation everywhere in the economy. So who cares? You just got a bunch of extra hours away from work while retaining essentially the same lifestyle.

(If you’re worried this optimistic scenario won’t play out according to plan, there are a number of ways to adapt your work life to reduce or delay your risk of being replaced by a machine.)

If business and government can coordinate properly (and that’s a BIG “if”), automation might supplant us gradually, so we retain a declining level of employment while prices also decline. We could actually achieve a soft landing into a life of prosperous leisure.

That’s not Doomsday. That’s more like Paradise.

* * * *

UPDATE: Will we control AI?

UPDATE: Jobs are already disappearing as robots take over

UPDATE: Automation begins to clean out white-collar jobs

UPDATE: The rise of the useless class

UPDATE: How to get paid in the Age of Layoffs

UPDATE: David Byrne on eliminating humans

 

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How to Multitask

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The multitaskers perceived that they performed better, because their brains were more stimulated, but in every single study they performed worse. — Chris Bailey

When you are in a hurry, you are in danger. — airplane pilot’s adage

There’s an old Buddhist story where a businessman visits a Zen temple and says to the Master, “I need to become enlightened. How long will it take?” The old Roshi answers, “A minimum of one year.” The businessman says, “That’s way too long! I have a company to run.” The Roshi replies, “In that case, it’ll take five years.”

Many of us are busy and harried, and we cast about for productivity tools to help us get more done in less time. One of the most tempting techniques is multitasking, or doing several things at once. Pretty soon we’re driving while shaving and talking on the phone and texting and grabbing quick sips of coffee. It’s exciting! We’re getting things done.

Except we aren’t. Our brains are poorly suited to thinking about more than one topic at a time. It may feel as if we’re accomplishing more, but in fact we’re performing worse.

Yet we’ve seen people do multiple things simultaneously with apparent success. And, after all, we can walk and talk at the same time. Brush our teeth and listen to the news. Play the piano with both hands.

The piano: you read the music while managing keys simultaneously with both left and right hands. Heck, it’s like those super-geniuses who can write two separate sentences at the same time, one from each hand, on a whiteboard!

But it takes time to learn a new piece: you begin to memorize phrases and sections so they become automated as you study the next segments. Basically, you’re transforming each section into “brushing teeth”, where you don’t have to think about it anymore.

If you’re going to multitask, you must do it deliberately. Take the time now to automate small physical tasks — turning them into consistent routines until they’re memorized — so your brain is free to concentrate. The effort will pay off later. Remember: multitask rote physical stuff, not mental stuff.

Here are the main ideas:

  • Do one mental task at a time: Resist the temptation to do multiple mental jobs at once. (Examples: reading and talking, talking and texting, conferencing and texting, anything and texting.) Instead, calmly go through your list, one item at a time. No panic! You’ll get there.
  • Automate physical activities like making copies, brewing coffee, changing your tie, driving. (But be careful! Nearly any activity can require full attention on occasion — especially driving — so stop with all the texting!) Go watch a good bartender mix drinks automatically while chatting with patrons, and you’ll get a sense of it.
  • Slow down to speed up: If you hurry, you tend to perform poorly. (Remember that time in the parking lot when some bigwig was waiting for you to pull out of your space so they could use it, and they honked their horn, and you rushed and dropped your keys under the car, and hit your head as you got in, and dropped the keys again, this time between the seats? You get the idea.) Anything you rush gets worse, including multitasking.

So now you’re at work, and your boss yells, “Where’s that report, Jenkins?! And get down to Receiving and find those overnights! Also, Simmons got sick, so grab someone to fill in!” You take a deep, calming breath and say:

“It’s on my list.”

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Expertise: Complex or Simple?

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Success is simple. Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time. — Arnold Glasow

Art is the elimination of the unnecessary. — Pablo Picasso

Beginners hardly know anything, while experts know a lot. Thus skills start out simple and get complicated as you learn them. Right?

Oddly, it’s the other way around. Beginning efforts are inefficient, arbitrary, and random. And randomness can generate enormous complexity. Expertise, on the other hand, is simple and straightforward. The expert knows what to do directly and effectively.

A professional will know many more things about a given skill than an apprentice, but those things are discreet and focused. The beginner’s mind casts about in all directions for a way through a situation the expert has already solved.

The first time I tried a crossword puzzle, it took two hours and a dictionary. Within a year, I was tossing them off — in pen no less — in five minutes. (Competition puzzlers often can complete them in less than two.) My crossword skills went from inefficient and ignorant to knowledgeable and focused. Beyond the puzzle-solving techniques I’d learned, I’d also internalized a vocabulary of special words for filling in the odd corner. But those skills and words were specific: instead of struggling with a dozen approaches, I had particular ways forward; instead searching through reference books, I could call on a short list of words from memory.

Blood-flow studies demonstrate that beginners’ brains are much busier than those of professionals: learners are all over the map, while masters are homed in. “ . . . [E]xtensive practice over a long period of time leads experts to develop a focused and efficient organization of task-related neural networks, whereas novices have difficulty filtering out irrelevant information.”

Basically, the pro sees the problem as a pattern with a solution, while the newbie sees a jumble of noise. One sees a map; the other sees a maze. The expert finds pathways; the beginner wanders around.

Expertise, then, tends to be elegantly efficient and simple, with few wasted moves — it’s economical — whereas students must slog slowly through their own ignorance.

Think of the inexperienced marketer or administrator, who takes too long to explain a situation, and the seasoned pro who encapsulates the problem in a phrase. Or the office assistant who makes a series of mistakes that his boss clears up with a couple of quick decisions. Or your golf partner’s swing, with its inefficiencies, compared to the fluid power of Rory McIlroy or Jason Day.

Of course, no two problems are the same, and even the experts must slow, sometimes to a crawl, as they approach new questions. In that respect, everyone is a beginner. But the pros have tools of experience they can wield at all times to cut quickly through the randomness of novelty.

What about all that knowledge and lore, the sheer number of facts to be learned? Doesn’t that make expertise more complicated? True, your acquired skills involve a library of facts a beginner won’t have. But those facts greatly simplify the process, enabling you often to see at a glance into the essence of a problem, turning it from a puzzling predicament into a process quickly fulfilled. Your store of knowledge makes things easier, not harder, and you complete tasks more quickly, with less total energy expended.

To attain the simplicity of mastery in any field or profession:

  • Relax … and practice: Your brain will find its way through the maze of ignorance to the exit of competence, and it will do so automatically — all you have to do is practice. There’s no need to force things; your mind will grow the particular skills it needs in good time. (Still, it’s possible to “master mastery”, as with the suggestions that follow.)
  • Find mentors: Don’t re-invent the wheel if you can befriend an expert who will teach you how it’s done. Of course, you can also study books and other media that describe the skills you’re learning. All these resources will speed things up tremendously.
  • Find the general principles: Every skill has a set of fundamentals which serve as shortcuts to learning. If you can master these, you’ll become expert faster. (You’ll know you’re becoming competent when you discover how to break the rules now and then for even better results.)
  • Find simpler ways: Once you have the basics down, think of how you can do them more efficiently — how to perform the action with fewer steps, how to say it in fewer words, how to focus in on the important data. This will move you quickly toward the end goal of polished mastery.
  • Find the 80/20 Rule in your field: As you practice, you’ll discover areas where your efforts generate much higher returns. If 20 percent of your work gets you 80 percent of your return, then increase the 20-percent activity.
  • Search for expertise in others: When partnering or hiring, look for people who have an easy grasp of the topic, who respond to challenges in a relaxed and confident manner, and who ask questions and incorporate the answers quickly into their process. Effective mastery depends, not only on your own skill set, but on the competency of your co-workers. Leverage each others’ contributions to multiply the results.

The goal is to be effective — to arrive at the solution without wasting time, energy, or money. While the student puts in hours, the master gets results. A few well-placed words, a stroke of a pen, a simple phone call, a single idea that solves a dilemma, an elegant motion by a craftsperson — these are the home runs, the three-point baskets, the hat tricks in the game of expertise. Practice the simplicity of mastery, and your scores will soar.

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UPDATE: The seven fatal thinking flaws, and how to transcend them

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Three Ways to Bid

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If you work for an employer — like 93 to 97 percent of American workers — you get your pay from a salary or wage. If you work for yourself — free-lancer, contractor — your pay depends on the deal you strike with the client. That deal can take three forms:

HOURLY: You get paid for how much time you put into the work.

Advantages: You know in advance what your hourly income will be. If the job is bigger than expected, you’ll get paid more. Your rate is secure.

Drawbacks: You don’t now how much money you’ll make on the entire job, since the total number of hours is uncertain. And your rate is the upper limit on how much you can make per hour of effort. Also, your client doesn’t know how much the job will cost until it’s over, which can cause said client to balk at your bill.

When to use: Take your pay by the hour if the work is open-ended.

BY THE JOB: You get paid for results.

Advantages: You know ahead of time how much revenue you’ll receive. If the job takes less effort than expected, you’ll still receive the same amount. Your total payout is secure. Also, your client knows how much the project will cost ahead of time.

Drawbacks: You don’t know for sure what your pay rate will be, as the job could take much longer than you hoped. Worse, after expenses, you could lose money.

When to use: Take your pay by the job if you have a good idea of what your total hours and expenses are likely to be.

BY PERCENTAGE: You get paid a portion of your client’s revenue or equity.

Advantages: There’s no fixed limit on how much you can earn. If revenues — or stock value — go through the roof, so will your take-home. A lot of billionaires get started this way.

Drawbacks: You could earn nothing if the client’s business fails. Also, your equity participation can get seriously diluted, especially if you’re working for a start-up that goes for a second round of funding and renegotiates the cap table. And most start-ups don’t get very far, so don’t hold your breath.

When to use: Take your pay as a percentage of revenues and/or equity if the client’s company looks to blast off like a rocket and/or if the client is having serious cashflow problems right now but should get nicely into the black in the near future. (Bear in mind that most established businesses won’t do this kind of deal.)

…Of course, you can mix and match these pay methods to suit, taking a portion in up-front money and the rest as stock options or a piece of the company or a slice of revenues, then adding hourly consulting fees if the client has a last-minute need for extra help. 

In any case, your final bill can be hell to collect. Not every person you do business with — no matter how charming — is honest. The last bill is the easiest to welch on, as they often don’t expect to need your services anymore, and they know that most small contractors will give up the chase. Also, a client may sail into tight straits, and your bill gets tossed overboard.

That said, most people on salary never get rich, and the biggest opportunities find their way to independent contractors. So go ahead, make a bid.

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The Four Career Strengths

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What we have to decide — once we’re okay, once we’re not living on three dollars a day, once we have a roof, once we have health care — is we have to decide, “How much more money, and what am I going to trade for it?” Because we always trade something for it, unless we’re fortunate enough that the very thing we want to do is the thing that also gives us our maximum income. — Seth Godin

A popular career goal is to find work you love and make a killing at it. And there are a zillion ideas on how best to balance enjoyment and moneymaking. Generally, though, the more of one you get, the less of the other. Fun jobs usually don’t pay as well. It’s a binary choice: pleasure or cash. 

Joseph Campbell famously suggested, “Follow your bliss.” But Stephen Pollan replies, “To search for work that’s fulfilling emotionally is noble but quixotic, especially today.” Pollan suggests you labor for the money and then fulfill your emotional needs elsewhere with friends and hobbies.

Each has a point. On the one hand, at the end of your life you probably won’t wish you’d spent more time at the office. On the other, it’s hard to watch your kids’ faces redden with shame every time you drive them to school in your rusty beater.

Most people take the cash and put up with the boredom.

We perform our work duties repetitively — over and over, forty hours a week, month after month — for decades. Even the most stimulating hobbies grow tedious at that rate of effort. If we search for pleasure on the job, we’re sorely disappointed. (As the saying goes, “That’s why they call it work.”) No wonder we’re exhausted at day’s end and can barely keep our eyes open in front of the TV set.

Even if we labor at something we love — an art or science, a sport, an outdoor activity — we can get caught up in endless paperwork and the constant hustle for funding or clients. The calling we once loved becomes encrusted with an overgrowth of dull chores.

Maybe we’re looking for the solution in the wrong place. Perhaps there’s more to the issue than “fun versus money”.

One of the joys of life is to create value for others. And some of the sweetest words in English are “Thank you!” and “Good work!” We’ll gladly toil all day just to hear them. Besides, nearly every business produces things people want to have, so there can be at least some sense of mission, no matter where you work.

Another of the great joys is is to attain mastery in a craft or skill. The auto mechanic tunes an engine the way a woodworker turns a table leg or a stylist trims a head of hair. When we do it right, we get a type of “high” that’s hard to imitate — the well-thought-out brief; the artfully managed negotiation; the report that solves the production problem.

Most jobs have moments of social fun. I sometimes visit a fast-food restaurant where the workers enjoy each other’s company, joking and kidding, and are warm and cheerful to the customers. At most offices, you can get a similar experience during lunch breaks and around the water-cooler. 

Of course, the money we earn is fundamental. It’s a great pleasure (and often a relief) to deposit those paychecks into our accounts.

Since it’s hard to get too much positive feedback from others, and because we can never sustain ultimate perfection in the things we do, the creation of value and the pursuit of craft are two stimulating goals that can help meet our need for career satisfaction. The fun we find at work, and the paychecks we receive, begin to seem almost like extras.

It appears, then, that we have four ways, not merely two, to fill out a satisfying work experience:

  1. Create value: The goods or services we provide — whether to a client, boss, or co-worker — add benefit to people and give meaning to the tasks we perform. Any way we can improve value will add to our experience in the workplace.
  2. Master the craft: To do great work, we must test ourselves and rise to the occasion every day. A good job well done is like a badge we pin on our souls.
  3. Have fun: We can look for and share positive social moments at work. Beyond the enjoyment, they help bond us to our cohorts and improve teamwork. 
  4. Get paid: The more we emphasize 1, 2, and 3, above, the more our earnings can improve, either here or at the next job.

Notice that “fun” has dropped a couple of ranks, and “value” and “craft” now provide most of the focus.

When you stress value creation and high quality, your work morphs from “boring routine” to “meaningful calling” and your experience changes from “punching a clock” to “answering a challenge”. The job no longer feels like drudgery and, instead, takes on a sense of purpose. Both Joseph Campbell and Stephen Pollan would be proud of you.

The fun and money? They’re just icing on the cake.

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How Positive Thinking Works … and Doesn’t

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Once you get past physics, reality is entirely negotiable. Taylor Pearson

Positive thinking — or visualizations, or affirmations, or “imaging”, as they call it in sports — is an approach to problem-solving where the user imagines, or envisions, the successful outcome of a project. 

It’s widely used in athletics, hypnosis, psychological counseling, and in some religions. Professions with payoffs that are hard to predict — sales, sports, the arts — often dabble in this approach. Business, where results really matter, is an arena where visualization techniques might offer great potential.

The theory is that outcomes — both good and bad — are controlled by our thoughts rather than merely by environment or genetics. You may have a difficult boss or co-worker, but you could imagine yourself getting along smoothly with this person — and, if you do it correctly, your mental pictures would result in an improved relationship. If your sales numbers are poor, you might visualize future reports with strong numbers, and somehow that would translate into better results down the line. Or you might “see yourself” as a slender and fit person, and this would cause excess weight to melt away and a rack of abs to appear.

At the simplest level, this process has been called “skull practice” — you’re simply rehearsing in your mind the behaviors and/or results you want so that, in real life, your nervous system automatically seeks out resources and performs actions that lead to your objective, and good results follow.

The most important assertion is that this kind of mental rehearsal can affect a much wider variety of outcomes than we normally believe can be altered — personality, health, financial situation, friendships, love life, etc etc. Sure, you can rehearse a speech in your head, but can you rehearse a change in your personality or bank account? The theory says yes.

Really? Can this stuff work? Can we use positive imaging to improve our results in the workplace and elsewhere? Or is it all a bunch of malarkey? 

In America, visualization descends from a late-19th-century philosophy called New Thought, which taught that the spirit of God is in everything, and that failure to understand this leads to wrong thinking and illness. New Thought also asserted that “thoughts are things” that can generate new matter out of imagination. In the 20th century, several popular books moved the conversation along: Think and Grow Rich, The Power of Positive Thinking, Psycho-Cybernetics, Creative Visualization, and, recently, The Secret.

You can guess that there might be a certain amount of baggage and confusion accompanying these ideas. The entire field has an aura of magic, of the miraculous, that can turn off practical people. On one side we find enthusiasts making extraordinary claims, and on the other we have skeptics who believe the whole movement is a bunch of charlatans spouting unscientific rubbish. 

True, there are plenty of visualization coaches out there who are overweight. And studies have suggested that career criminals have strong self-esteem. On the other hand, formal research points to something useful:

  1. Science hints at benefits from “positive thinking”: “ . . . some evidence suggests positive thinking might have a strictly biological impact as well.” And it can improve health through stress reduction
  2. Emotional stress can influence gene expression: Soldiers with PTSD showed changes in the way their DNA controlled cellular activity. This opens the door for the possibility of changing ourselves at the genetic level through stress reduction and/or positive thinking. “ . . . it may be possible that positive thinking, through some physiological byproducts that, let’s say, reduce stress or lower blood pressure levels, could impact gene expression.” Your very DNA, then, may be malleable, and thinking might be the tool.
  3. Optimism boosts health: “ . . . people who are optimistic about their health tend to do better.

To add to the confusion, the literature on visualization and positive thinking is a mishmash of prescriptions, and some books contradict others. Here are a few of the many ways positive thinking has been presented:

–Imagine what you want, one time, and it will come to you

–Imagine what you want, over and over, until you get it

–Imagine what you want and make it intensely attractive

–Imagine what you want, then imagine the opposite, then choose what you want

–Imagine what you desire, then want, believe, and expect that it is true

–Imagine what you want and never allow bad thoughts to enter your mind

–Imagine what you want and then resolve any contradictions that arise in your feelings

At least they all involve imagining what you want. That’s a starting point.

Let’s try to remove the chaff. Then maybe we can get to the wheat.

First, there is what I call the “Stupid Brain Theory” of positive thinking. Basically, the theory is that “whatever we dwell upon we draw to ourselves,” so that if we focus on the problems we’re having, the problems get bigger. This is based on the idea that the mind is attracted to anything with strong emotional content. Why else would we fuss and worry about some issue, only to have it turn out badly? We must, perversely, have been attracted to the very thing that causes us pain. Therefore we should counteract all negative thoughts with positive ones. (This notion carries weight with evangelicals — many of whom are drawn to positive thinking — since it can be explained as “tests from God”.) 

More likely, we wallow in failures because we don’t realize there are better options. We try to make the best of a bad situation, and end up with … a modified bad situation. We’re not stupid; we’re just ignorant of the possibilities.

Then there’s “The Secret Theory”, which basically states that the great people of history all practiced positive thinking, but for some reason this tremendous power has been kept away from the mass of humanity. (That is, until the book The Secret came out, of course.) But the idea that billions of people have been so foolish and limited as to have failed after all this time (and access to the Internet) to find for themselves this wonderful tool … well, it beggars belief. 

It’s much more probable that we’re simply brought up from birth to “know our place” and to refrain from daring to imagine more. As well, many difficult roadblocks crop up in our lives where it’s hard to imagine workarounds, so that we sometimes adopt the stance that “it can’t be helped”, and we give up.

Also there’s the “Try Hard Theory” that says you’ll get everything you want if you just want it badly enough and are willing to work super-hard (and do your affirmations every day for 30 minutes). It’s possible this is true, but it’s also a distressingly difficult method. The whole point of visualizations is to get what we want, and it kind of cancels the benefit if we must suffer and struggle endlessly in the process.

Now let’s see if we can distill the core principles — the useful stuff:

The evidence:

  • Stresses of life sometimes leave us with pessimistic attitudes about our potential
  • Parents and authority figures often straitjacket us into their systems of struggle
  • Modern technology opens up possibilities for solving nearly every human problem
  • Optimistic attitudes are correlated with good outcomes
  • Sports stars, business leaders, and great artists often swear to the benefits of visualizing

The process:

  • See in your mind the outcome you desire
  • Choose and expect that outcome
  • Allow the outcome to arrive as it will
  • Refine the process to suit you

All you need see in your mind’s eye is the result you want. (If, instead of visualizing “I am worth four million dollars”, you focus on the process — i.e., “First I get a job, then I make money to invest, then I peel some off to start a business, then I hire an accountant …” — you’ll become lost in details and never get to the result.) 

Then you make what you desire into a choice, not a wish; this will charge your mind with the expectation of obtaining the result. You’ll start to notice yourself taking an interest in things you previously ignored; this is your mind running its search for the contents of the result you’ve chosen.

In fact, the act of daring to choose what you want, despite the apparent odds, may be key to the entire process. We yearn for what isn’t ours, but we choose what belongs to us. Perhaps it’s the simple act of choosing that makes things possible, that brings our desires to fruition.

It’s important not to limit yourself to what you think is practical or logical. This kind of worry will cause you to edit your desires until they resemble what you merely assume is available, and you’ll be back where you started. There’s a big difference between “It can’t be done” and “I don’t yet know how to do it”. You’ll be surprised at what is attainable.

By the way, if you imagine “I’m great at sales” or “I’m a terrific administrator” but you still have an old belief like “I’m not allowed to have my own success” or “I’m a bad person”, the old attitude will sabotage the new one. So address the deepest concerns first, then work your way down the list to the smaller items (like that Tesla roadster you have your eye on).

As you practice, you’ll find that some approaches work better than others. Perhaps bedtime is a good moment for you to do visualizing, or maybe the morning is better; it could be that reciting aloud your affirmations works well — or, instead, silence is golden. Try various ways and see what works for you. Every brain is different, so tailor the process to fit yours. And there is a TON of literature on the topic, so there’s plenty of counsel. (See above for links to the most famous works.)

The great lesson of modernity is that nearly anything is possible. The old days of restrictive tribal loyalties and self-abnegation are gone, replaced by endless possibilities opening up for us in the future. Rather than staying trapped in the old attitudes of scarcity and impossibility, our task now is to engage that future. And this is the moment when visualization — affirmations, “positive thinking”, call it what you will — can serve us as we create wonders. 

A wise person said, “When you take a stand [for something in your life], the world will arrange itself to agree with you.” You might as well try it and see.

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UPDATE: “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things.

UPDATE: Choose your role in life

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