There’s so much mindset advice out there to make you more successful … but is it doing you more harm than good?
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A lot of advice about business and success focuses on mindset — those mental habits we can adopt to make ourselves more productive and effective.
In my experience (and my reading of the research), some of them are useful, and some are completely counterproductive.
In this 20-minute episode, I talk about five practices that I’ve seen actually work:
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Hey there, good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant.
My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital, and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. If you want extra links, extra resources, or the complete show archive, you can just head on over to Copyblogger.FM.
So it’s been a little while since we’ve talked about entrepreneurial mindset or success mindset. And I have been reading Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, which I could not resist. When I saw the title I had to pick it up.
It gave an interesting springboard, because there’s a lot of advice about how you should think. Or what kinds of mental habits you should adopt if want to be more successful. If you want to have a better career, launch a business, or improve your business. A lot of the standard advice, a lot of the typical advice is not only not supported by the evidence, in some cases it’s actually countered by the evidence.
So Burkeman’s book talks a little bit about that. It’s a good read. You might want to pick it up.
I’m going to talk about a few things that he brought up in his book. A few things that I’ve seen the research on that I think are pretty compelling, and then a couple of things that I have noticed tend to work well for a lot of people. They might work well for you too.
So one of Burkeman’s things that he writes about is some interesting research that was done on affirmations. Affirmations are the Stuart Smalley thing. You know, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough. Gosh darn it, people like me.” Those are affirmations. Statements, positive statements about what you want to be that may not be aligned with how you actually see yourself today.
And the theory was that you would say these things to yourself and you would convince yourself that they were true. That’s not supported by the research so much. In fact, there’s some interesting findings that if your affirmations are really divergent from how you see yourself, they’ll actually make you less successful at the kind of tasks that researchers assigned grad students and psychology experiments.
So they seem to work better for people who already pretty much believe in themselves, which you could sort of argue makes them a complete waste of time. So just telling yourself, “I am successful, I am wealthy,” etc., doesn’t really seem to work particularly well.
Closely related to that is visualization, or sometimes called creative visualization, where you spend a lot of emotional energy vividly picturing the scene that you’re going to be part of. So you’re going to picture yourself with all the things that you want — the material things, the freedom, the relationships, the tiny fit body, whatever you might want.
Just by itself, if you just do visualizations it appears to make you less likely to do what you’re trying to do, not more likely. For a funny reason that is often mentioned by people who talk about visualizations, which is, your brain kind of already thinks you did it. So if you visualize, for example, drinking water when you’re thirsty, you’ll get less thirsty, which is kind of peculiar, and you’ll drink less water when offered water.
So visualization all by itself appears to move you the wrong direction. However, I do think there is some places for it. And I’m going to talk about what those are in a few minutes.
The first thing we’re going to talk about is a couple of techniques, mental habits, that the research, at least as it stands at this point, does suggest are effective in helping you do more of the things you want to do. And maybe even fewer of the things you don’t want to do.
The first one is called values affirmations, so it gets confusing because it shares that noun with the old self-help affirmations. Values affirmations — I’ve talked about them before, and I’ve written about them as well — are statements of your values, the things that make you who you are, your beliefs. Things like integrity, faith, justice, fairness, or freedom. These kinds of abstract nouns that are really about ideas and beliefs.
If you connect yourself with what those are, maybe pick a handful — five or six — that are really your guiding values and then write short writings about them, a paragraph or two. That has very good science behind it in making you more effective. So making you more confident, making you better able to power through difficulty, helping you to beat the odds.
For example, if you’re in a scenario where a lot of people who look like you or come from the background you do don’t do well, and you do this exercise, you’re much more likely to be the one that’s successful. To be in the successful minority rather than the unsuccessful majority.
Lots of experiments done on that. lots of grad students, lots of researchers writing papers that suggest that that quick exercise. It does not have to take very long at all, and you don’t have to do it endlessly. You don’t have to do it every day. But if you do this once in a while, it has quite a good track record.
The other one that has quite a good track record is Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, her observation about growth mindset, that she lays out in her book Mindset. I consider it a total must-read. And growth mindset is simply looking at difficulties, problems, obstacles, things you did not do well at, and saying, “Okay, well I’m not good at that yet. Clearly I need more work. A better kind of practice, more volume of practice. Maybe I need a teacher, maybe I need a model.” As opposed to fixed mindset, which is when you encounter an obstacle or an error, you say, “Clearly I’m no good at that.”
It really turns out there are very few things that are innately given to you as a gift, and that you can’t make better with practice. You’re never going to be the right height to play basketball in the NBA if you didn’t get the right genes.
But making art, making writing, making a business, working with people — these are all learnable skills. And it’s really about how much time, effort, and sincere, deliberate practice are you putting in.
Some of these things do come more easily to some people than others. A lot of times, it’s just an accident of your history. Maybe when you were a kid, you might not even remember this. You used to love to write stories, or you were just really interested in diagramming sentences, or something funny like that. And you got really good at it, because you did a lot of it.
You don’t even remember anymore, that was so long ago. But now you feel like you have a gift. “Oh, I have a gift. I’ve just always been good at that and never really had to work at it.” At some point in your history you probably did work at it. But it may very well be that when you were doing that, it felt like play. And that’s my favorite tip for doing more of that kind of work: Try and make it into a game.
So values affirmations and growth mindset are both well supported by evidence. We’ve got wonderful researchers out there doing all kinds of experiments. Again, roping graduate students into doing all kinds of peculiar things and then writing down what happens.
Here are some other things that I have seen work well with people I work with, with people I teach, and I can recommend with some confidence based on my observations.
The first one is, if you aren’t where you want to be today, I would very strongly recommend you expand your network of people doing what you want to do and that you get into the habit of asking for help. Now, like everything else, there’s a way to go too far with things. So you can ask for so much help that you’re not standing on your own feet. You’re not doing your own work.
But a lot of us I think err way far the other direction. We never ask for help. This, by the way, is very much a sign that you might have some fixed-mindset stuff going on. If you don’t feel comfortable asking for help in something, then it’s really hard for you to figure out what specific kinds of practice to do to get better.
Again, you can play chopsticks for an hour a day for 40 years, and you’re never going to become a concert pianist. When you have a good, rich network of compatriots, of colleagues, of people who are engaged in the same kind of work you’re engaged in. And some of them are maybe a little more successful than you right now, and some are a little less successful — and trust me, over time these things ebb and flow. Make some connections with some people and ask people to give you a hand.
Ask people to look at something you’ve written. Ask people to take a look at your website. It’s so hard to see our own stuff. So learning to ask for help can be a major, real life-changing kind of habit to build.
The other thing that I have noticed is, you’re never going to do the thing you want to do if deep down you don’t really think it’s possible for you. And again, this goes right back to growth versus fixed mindset. But it can be very strong if your identity is “I’m not the kind of person who is good at that.” And this could be an internal thing about the values of your family, it could be an external thing about how society sees you.
You have to know it’s possible before you can do it. And that’s where I think it’s quite possible that the people who do well with visualizations and affirmations, that may be why. Because they needed some kind of message that it was possible and people like them were permitted, allowed, to have the thing that they wanted to have.
So it’s possible that visualizations and affirmations may be quite helpful for that. But there are some other things that I think might work faster and better. First one being, going back to the last point, having a community.
If you have a community of people that includes lots of people who look like you, that come from your background, or they have the limitations that you might have, the constraints that you might have, maybe the assets that you have as well. If you are in a community of people doing the thing, you will see that it is possible for people who are a lot like you to be successful. And that will allow you to take the kinds of actions you need to take.
So community, again, is so tremendously helpful. And reaching out to that community and saying, “Does anybody know how I could get started with this?”
The writer Barbara Sher, who I think has really interesting ideas, talks about idea parties, where you get people together. Just people who want to do stuff, who have dreams and think about things. We’re not talking about a community of Nobel Prize winners. Just regular people.
And they get together and they talk about, “You know, I’ve always wanted to be a professional illustrator, does anybody know how you get started with that?” And somebody says, “My cousin’s a professional illustrator. Let me connect you and figure that out.”
So again, it’s going to the community and asking for help. So useful. And you never know who’s going to have that little piece that’s been the thing that’s been getting you stuck.
It’s also really important to have models. People who, from your self-identity of what’s holding you back, people who share that constraint, who are successful anyway. So whatever it is that’s on your mind, that you feel possibly entirely correctly. I mean, there are things, right? There are things in our society where it’s easier for some people to do things than other people.
Whatever you believe is holding you back, correct or not correct, find some models of people who share your trait and succeeded anyway. And then do what you can to make a connection with that person. That connection may just be following their work for a while. But you never know, you may in fact create a friendship there at some point.
Find the models who do what you want to do from the background and the point of view that you have. There are seven billion people on the planet, and I bet somewhere there’s somebody who has your constraint, who has done what you’re trying to do.
And one little side point on those visualizations, picturing that future in your mind, picturing what you want. I find that this is much more useful if you visualize exactly where it is you’re going. So “My business is going to look like this. I’m going to have this many employees. I’m going to have this much revenue. I’m going to have this much free time.”
And then you pair that time and energy with looking at where you are right now and noticing what doesn’t match. “Right now my business has one employee — me. And it has $30 a year in revenue, and I have no free time at all.” So you notice where you are, and you visualize where you want to go.
That I believe gets you out of that complacency that visualization can sometimes create, where your brain thinks you’re already there. You’re showing your brain, “We’re not there yet. Here’s where we are today, here’s where we want to go. Let’s notice the difference, and let that spark some ideas about what we should do right now.”
And that idea is not at all mine. It comes from somebody named Robert Fritz from his book The Path of Least Resistance. He calls that the pivotal technique.
The final mindset shift that I’ll share with you today — or mental habit or way of thinking — is something that Burkeman talks about quite a bit in his very interesting book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
You have to turn that switch in your mind that doesn’t want to be uncomfortable. So you have to remember that it’s totally okay not to be comfortable every second of the day. And that’s really what Burkeman’s book is about.
If you think that every moment of your life has to be bliss, and that’s how you pursue happiness, you’re just going to not feel good. Because it’s not a natural state. It’s not how human life exists. We have light and shadows. Everybody’s life, no matter how wonderful, has light and shadows. You have to learn to be comfortable with the shadows, to be in the shadows, and say, “Okay, these are the shadows.”
So some of the things that you can do to get more comfortable with this. Read Burkeman’s book if you feel like that would be important to you, cause he has concrete suggestions. Mindfulness practice, very useful for this, because it’s really all about noticing “I feel good right now, hearing that bird singing really made me feel happy.” “I feel horrible right now, because my left knee is cramping up and it hurts.” “I feel mad at myself right now, because I can’t focus on my mindfulness practice. I keep thinking about how irritated I am at my work situation.”
You’re just noticing things come and go, and that noticing starts to loosen up that tight grip that we have on “I hate it like this, I hate it like this.” And you just say, “Hm, yup, I hate it like this. I always hate it when it’s like this. That’s interesting. Oh, look, another thought.”
It just loosens that tight grip. And that’s all it is. You don’t have to be somebody who’s constantly taking ice-cold showers and doing brutal workouts that make you injured, and all the other things that sometimes people recommend to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
There are a lot of practices you can do without hurting yourself. That just get you into a state where you realize that sometimes things feel bad and sometimes things feel horrible. And this is part of all human life, all human existence. You could just be with it, and let it be what it is, and then let it move along when it’s ready. And that really works better than trying to hammer away any kind of grief or sorrow, self-doubt, impostor syndrome — all those uncomfortable feelings.
If you can just learn to say, “Oh yeah, that’s impostor syndrome. I feel that a lot when I start something new.” “Hi impostor syndrome, good to see you again.” If you can get there, and a lot times it’s a question of really just making a decision that you’re going to try to adopt that mindset, it can make all the difference. Because you will not get better at the thing you’re working on unless you can become comfortable with something you’re not too comfortable with.
So that’s what I’ve got for you. By my count, it’s five different things you can try to be more happy and successful. The values affirmations, the statements and the writing about what you believe, looking into and working harder on your growth mindset, growing your network and asking for help, understanding and seeing that it’s possible for people like you, and then flipping the switch that refuses to be uncomfortable.
Those five things — from my point of view, from my experience, from my teaching, from my own path, and from my reading in psychology experiments — are five things that seem to me to have proven the test of time. That have really shown themselves to be genuinely useful.
I do have some links for you on some more thoughts on different techniques, different things you can try. And I would love to know what’s worked for you. So if you come on over to Copyblogger.FM, you can leave me a comment and let me know what might have worked well for you.
Haven’t made this reminder in a while, but just always good to remind folks. In the spirit of asking my community for help, star ratings and reviews on iTunes are super helpful to the podcast. They help us find new listeners, and they really help us grow and make more connections.
So if you feel so moved, it makes a big difference to us, to me personally. And I am very grateful for all of you who do it. Thank you so much for your support.
Thanks so much, take care, catch you next time.
Copyblogger FM is a weekly, short-form broadcast hosted by Sonia Simone. Each week, she and a cast of rotating experts analyze the week in content marketing, copywriting, email marketing, conversion optimization, mindset, and much more.