Sep 022011

When A Positive Attitude Isn’t Enough

I will start by saying I think it is very important to stay positive whenever possible!  Further, I think it’s always possible, but we’ll get to that later.  That said, I believe that “staying positive” can sometimes lead you to think that a positive attitude is, in and of itself, sufficient for success.  Your positivity (yes, it is a word!) can lull you into thinking that positivity alone will get you where you want to go.  It can look as though you’re brainwashed and it can become a vicious cycle that only breaks when some naysayer penetrates your positivity and compels you to take a look at results, which gives you a reality check on what your positive attitude has yielded.

Again, I want to clarify that I’m not a naysayer.  In fact, a good portion of my work, particularly in the area of coaching, has to do with helping clients stay positive and on track to achieve their goals.  The difference is that I like to work with what I like to call “reality-infused” positive thinking.  This involves staying optimistic about reaching goals, but meticulously tracking progress and making adjustments to ensure that you keep moving toward your objectives, in reality, not just in your positive thinking.  Such practice, where you set objectives, take action, get feedback, and then use that feedback to accelerate your progress toward your goals, is often referred to as “deliberate practice”.  It has been proven to be one of the most effective ways, if not the most effective way, to reach your objectives and even achieve “greatness” in your chosen endeavor.

So, a positive attitude, in and of itself, is usually not sufficient to allow you to reach your goals in the most effective and efficient manner possible.  Even so, maintaining a positive attitude is important in almost all achievement scenarios.  It’s therefore critical to understand how to maintain a positive attitude, even in the face of a great deal of potentially negative and stressful external input.  As I’ve written elsewhere in an article about the GAMES Approach to overcoming fears and managing extreme stress situations, the structured way to maintain your positivity consists of five elements.  As per an adaptation of the approach the NAVY Seals use in training to help recruits overcome extreme stress scenarios, such as the Underwater Pool Competency Test, those steps, in brief, are the following:

[G]oal-setting:  This involves creating very short-term and achievable goals, so that you are not overwhelmed by a bunch of extraneous thoughts and concerns and can remain focused on the task at hand.  So, for example in the case of the Underwater Pool Competency Test, when you were underwater and the instructor tangled your breathing apparatus, you wouldn’t think to yourself, “I wonder what he’s going to do to me next…”, or “I’m not sure how much more of this I can take…”, or “I wonder how the candidate next to me is doing…”.  Rather, you would say to yourself, simply, my goal is to untangle these knots – nothing more and nothing less.  You would then say to yourself:  I will employ the knot untangling procedure we learned in training step-by-step.  Then you would execute step one, step two … etc.

[A]rousal Control:  This element focuses mainly on breathing.  Taking deeper breaths with longer exhales simulates the body’s relaxation response and helps to mitigate some of the effects that the Amygdala’s panic response can create.  So, in the Pool Competency example, when the instructor tied your hoses or pulled your mask off, rather than immediately starting to try to breathe rapidly (which you couldn’t anyway if what the instructor did interrupted the air supply), you would calm your mind with a decent exhale and then calmly get to work on accomplishing your goals and following procedures to address the issue, step-by-step.

[M]ental Rehearsal:  Often referred to as visualization, mental rehearsal involves running through in your mind whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, envisioning all the steps, then a calm reaction to any stress and ultimately, a successful outcome.  Mental rehearsal is seeing yourself doing it over and over again successfully, as if in a movie.  You can visualize the scenario from a first-person perspective, where you are seeing it through your eyes as you perform the actions, or from a third-person perspective, where it’s as if you are seeing it through the eyes of someone else who is watching you perform the task successfully.  You should visualize the scenario in as much detail as possible, so it looks and feels as realistic as possible.  There is a great deal of research out there that indicates that your mind has a hard time differentiating between a scenario vividly visualized and one that actually occurred.

[E]ndurance:  This element is a recognition that this pro-active approach to mastering the fear response and accomplishing your goals is not something that will happen quickly.  It is a war of attrition against your Amygdala’s fear response and against a host of other factors that can come between you and your objectives.  You will have to have a great deal of endurance and determination as you do as many iterations as necessary to overcome the obstacles you encounter in your particular endeavor.  You will need to commit to stay at it as long as necessary, bravely confronting and conquering the challenges you encounter, knowing that by doing so, you will greatly increase the probability of achieving greatness in your chosen endeavor.

[S]elf-talk:  As has been discussed and proven in many other contexts, the Navy SEAL commanders came to the realization that in becoming an effective Special Forces team member, what you say to yourself, particularly in times of stress, is very important.  You can say as many as 1,000 words to yourself in a minute, but at a minimum, you are likely to say several hundred words.  If you are filling your mind with negative thoughts, you don’t increase your chances of success; instead, you increase your probability of failure.  Discipline yourself to focus on positive self-talk.  Repeat encouraging phrases to yourself.  Find specific phrases or words that are particularly calming for you, or particularly motivating for you.  Use them constantly to prepare for scenarios and use them during scenarios that occur, in the “heat of the battle”.  Be your own best fan.  Be your own cheering section.  Again, this is not mindless positivity.  It is another tool in your toolbox to help you keep moving forward toward your goals.

I encourage you to add the GAMES Approach to your toolbox.  Use it in high-stress situations and calmer scenarios as well.  See it as just another weapon in your arsenal as you fight the battle to accomplish all your objectives.  Use the elements of the GAMES Approach to complement and enhance your overall positivity.  I am confident that if you do so, you will be amazed at the versatility of the elements of this approach.  If it works for you as it has for me and several of my clients and colleagues, you will be very pleased with how this approach allows you to maintain level-headedness even as you encounter exceptionally challenging obstacles and potentially fear-inducing situations en route to accomplishing your objectives.  Maintain your positive attitude, always, but enhance its strength with some or all of the elements of the GAMES Approach.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin