Zebrathink - The Magic of Thinking Big 
Where zebras come to graze on thoughts

The Magic of Thinking Big

There's a classic self help book: "The Magic of Thinking Big" by David Schwartz that has a great little passage that goes something like this:

Imagine that your mind is a "thought factory". It constantly produces thoughts every day.

The production of thoughts are being controlled by two executives, namely Mr. Defeat and Mr. Triumph.

Mr. Triumph specializes in producing thoughts about why you can do something, why you're qualified and why you're feeling great.

Mr. Defeat specializes in producing thoughts about why you can't do it, why you aren't qualified and why you're feeling lousy.

You can signal either foreman at any time to snap into work and manufacture some facts to prove that you're right.

If you signal Mr. Defeat with the thought "I'm not qualified" he immediately comes up with plausible reasons why and vice versa with Mr. Triumph.

The more work you give to either foreman the stronger he becomes. You don't want to give Mr. Defeat too much work or he'll hire more guys and take over most of the thought production. So set out to fire Mr. Defeat and strengthen Mr. Triumph.

This is a great mental picture illustrating the quote:

The mind can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven

-John Milton

Can we control our thoughts?

So if you accept this premise your next likely thought will be "do I have any control over what thoughts I have?" After all if I tell you to think of a green elephant you'll automatically think of a green elephant in order not to try and think of a green elephant.

I think that opinions are divided as to if you can actually control your thoughts at all, but even if you can't there's something that you can do about this.

You can try to cultivate the positive side of everything even if you started out with a negative thought to begin with. So you might not be able to not get negative thoughts at all, but you always have a rational choice available to you about what to do with them.

If you've ever done any kind of meditation which is basically just sitting down for 5 minutes and trying to focus your mind on your breath. You'll see that your mind keeps coming up with random thoughts to break your concentration and that some are negative and some are positive.

If you don't follow a thought but return your concentration to your breath the thoughts will just disappear and your mind will come up with others in a jiffy.

That little exercise which today would be called "mindfullness" (but has existed for thousands of years) will not allow you to control your thoughts, but it will illustrate to you that thoughts will disappear at least for a while if you redirect your concentration to something else.

Reframing the situation

So what can we do with this information? I think that the answer is the psychological term "reframing".

I've come across it a couple of places both in Daniel Gilbert's "Stumbling on Happiness" and "The Book of Joy" by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, the concept is based on modern psychology.

Daniel Gilbert has a few examples of "synthetic happiness" meaning that we create our own happiness adjusted to the circumstances.

An example is that people who lost a leg will within months return to the same level of measured happiness as people who have won the lottery. Initially their measures would be wide apart but fairly quickly return to the mean. A very handy survival mechanism.

Booted from the Beatles

Another example is when Pete Best was thrown out of the Beatles before they became famous. Years later he was asked about it and said that he was happy that he was thrown out of the Beatles so that he could have is solo career.

Obviously when we look objectively at winning the lottery or loosing a leg, or being part of the Beatles or getting kicked out before wealth and fame there's no doubt in our mind that having both legs and being part of the Beatles would provide us with some real happiness.

It just so happens that the brain produces "synthetic happiness" to make up for the shortfall and there's no real tangible difference between having what we would think of as the real thing or "synthetic happiness".

Another example are people who have been incarcerated for 20 years on false charges and are then released, often they'll tell you that they wouldn't change a thing and that the experience made them who they are today.

The most prominent example of this might be Nelson Mandela but there are many more. What the hell happened here, we would all rather not go to jail?

It's probably "synthetic happiness" and "reframing" at work.

If you think that you benefitted from hardship rather than being depressed about the whole thing it's a lot easier to move on and be reasonably happy with your current life.

Road rage

Another example of "reframing" mentioned by Desmond Tutu as he used it himself in a situation.

He was driving and somebody swerved right in front of him in a car causing Desmond to have to hit the brakes. The normal reaction is to get angry at the other driver and perhaps escalate the situation but Desmond instead reasoned that the other driver might be going to an emergency or have a valid reason for his behaviour.

So "reframing" is taking a negative thought or situation and turning it on its head, so it becomes something positive. Here's a few examples:

  • Got fired? Sad but great you hated that job and now you can find something you will enjoy!
  • Girlfriend left? Sad but great you weren't right for each other anyway, now you're free to find a better relationship!
  • Lost a leg? Great you didn't die in the explosion, you live to love and experience the rest of your life!

The last example is hard to swallow I know. But it's an actual experience. A psychologist visited two soldiers in a hospital who both lost a leg in the war. The first soldier was completely broken, depressed and sobbing in his bed. The other soldier was out and about in a wheelchair feeling happy that he didn't die.

A lot of times our brain will do the reframing for us. You'll probably find that this happened with most of the relationships you went through before getting married etc. At other times it doesn't happen automatically and you have to rationally try to find the "silver lining in the cloud" and focus on it.

I think where all this leads is here. We can't control our thoughts, you'll have negative and positive thoughts. But you can always control how you think about them rationally at least if you're quick about it. So try to use "reframing" to your advantage and keep Mr. Defeat out of the driver seat.

Surviving Auschwitz

This is sort of related to Viktor Frankl's conclusion in the book: "Man's search for meaning" (he survived the horrors of the Nazi holocaust aginst all odds at Auschwitz and wrote about his experience):

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way

-Viktor Frankl

It's certainly not easy, but just knowing that it can be done should provide hope in any situation. So practise reframing small problems and irritations every day and feeling thankful for what you've got, so that you can do it with the real big problems that hopefully never happen.

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