Chapter 1: Choose Your Thoughts 1 CHOOSE YOUR THOUGHTS
I now know with a conviction beyond all doubt that the biggest problem you and I have to deal with—in fact almost the only
problem we have to deal with—is choosing the right thoughts. If we can do that, we will be on the highroad to solving all our problems.
March 2020. COVID-19 was spreading around the world, causing illness, death, and lockdowns. I was in my fifth year as Dale Carnegie’s CEO, and I watched helplessly as our offices around the world closed one by one. Every night, I woke around 3 a.m. and could not fall back asleep. Dark thoughts and worries consumed my mind. I feared the 107-year-old company I was leading might go out of business under my leadership; I agonized over the stress our thousands of team members around the world were under; I worried about my eighty-six-year-old mother, who was living alone, hundreds of miles away; I dreaded thinking about friends, family, and people who might die. Days passed without my getting more than four hours of sleep. It was one of the lowest points in my life.
Then one night when I woke, I had an idea. I picked up How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
and began flipping through it, looking for inspiration. This book had helped me handle stressful situations countless times in the past. Why hadn’t I thought to look at it earlier? I turned to the page with the quote that opens this chapter. In that moment, it was as though Dale himself were standing in my bedroom, talking to me personally. This was exactly what I needed to hear.
My thoughts had beaten me down for weeks, but now I finally stopped and really began thinking about them. I saw clearly how pessimistic and ugly they had been. Why had I allowed myself to be preoccupied with things that might never happen? Why was my mind turning to the worst possible outcomes? Why was I allowing myself to stew in this toxic negativity? Even though I knew better, I had allowed myself to be held hostage by fear—and it was ruining my sleep, health, and life.
I realized how my emotions had been so interwoven with my thoughts—I would think about horrible things that might happen, I’d feel sick with worry, and then the downward spiral would begin. Even though I believed deeply in Dale’s stress and worry principles, I had forgotten them amid this crisis. I was dwelling on all of the potentially terrible outcomes and letting my thoughts and emotions run the show.
I thought to myself, “You know what, Joe? Your problem isn’t with COVID-19. It’s with your thoughts. Choose the right thoughts, and you’ll get through this.” It occurred to me, “What if I flipped this? Instead of dwelling on the pandemic and the things I can’t control, why don’t I focus on the things I can?” And then the eureka moment hit me: “If every action has an opposite and equal reaction, then with great crisis, there must be incredible opportunity. So, where is it here?”
Before the pandemic, we had already started transitioning our company’s global training program from almost entirely in-person to online, which was no easy feat given that we had thousands of employees in two hundred operations in over eighty countries. What if we could accelerate that transition? How could we double or triple our efforts to make this initiative successful? And how could I better support our Dale Carnegie customers, leaders, and employees around the world who also faced anxiety about everything that was happening? How could I build them up? My mood began to change. I was getting excited about taking command, making things happen, leading our company through this crisis, and finding a way to thrive during the pandemic. I remembered the advice a wise friend shared with me. Early in my career, I was hesitant to make a move because I was afraid a bad economy would hurt the business I’d be joining. My friend said, “Remember, Joe, the stormy sea makes a skilled sailor, not a smooth one. You grow and become better through hard times.” Then I thought, “These are extraordinarily hard times, and if I respond well, I will become a stronger leader. How many people have had the opportunity to lead a 107-year-old company through a crisis like this one? I am standing in Dale’s shoes. I owe it to him and to everyone to lead with confidence, not cowardice. What would Dale do?” Over the months that followed, I watched with awe and gratitude as we came together as one unified company with courage and flipped our entire business model from in-person to online delivery.
I also thought about what I could do to support my family and friends. Yes, I was probably more of a nag with my mother during our nightly FaceTime calls about staying safe, but she appreciated it. I reached out to friends and colleagues around the world to check in, listen, and remind them of how important they were to me. I made even more time for my wife and kids, which wasn’t hard since we were locked in the same house together 24/7, but I was more intentional about our time together. I began to exercise more, eat better, eliminate refined sugar from my diet, take vitamins, and do all I could to help build my immune system in case I got COVID-19.
That night was one of the most pivotal of my life, and I will be forever grateful for it. Dale’s quote reminded me about the critical importance of my thoughts. I had to pay attention and be active with them. I needed to choose empowering thoughts that led me to action instead of destructive ones that dragged me into darkness and despair, spurring me into passivity. I realized that if I chose the right thoughts, I would be on the “highroad to solving” all of my problems. And if I failed to do this, I would remain in a very bad place mentally and emotionally. I saw that everything in our lives—relationships, careers, goals, health, achievements, etc.—depends on the first step of taking command of our thoughts. The good news, and the purpose of this chapter, is to show that if you do this, you can have incredible peace, confidence, and inner strength in any situation, too. Now, let’s talk about how.
Pay Attention to Your Thoughts
How often do you think about what you think? I mean really
think about the thoughts in your mind. Most of us go from thing to thing, conversation to conversation, class to class, meeting to meeting, reacting to things that happen to us. We read an email that sets us off; we see a social media post that annoys us; we find something online that makes us laugh; someone wrongs us, and we’re ready to fight. When this happens, how often do we stop and say, “Hold on, am I really thinking about this the right way? How am I seeing this?”
Too often, our mind is on autopilot. We might hear the words in our heads, “I can’t do that,” and we accept that thought as fact. We don’t stop to examine or challenge that thought; we just accept it and keep moving. We don’t even try. Or maybe we have a strong opinion about a person. We perceive that we are threatened, disliked, or judged because our thoughts tell us so, and we don’t stop even for a moment to consider if we could be seeing things incorrectly.
My longtime friend Emma stopped by my house recently to visit our family. She was telling me about how she was struggling with a colleague, Julie, who had recently joined her department, and who Emma said was condescending. “What happened, Emma? Why do you feel that way?” I asked.
“I handle the creative work for all our social media campaigns, and that includes developing images and key messages for our posts. I’ve done this for years, and I’m good at it. So I’m talking with Julie, and she starts making suggestions about how I could do my creative work better. Who does she think she is? I know how to do my job!”
“Did she actually criticize your work or say it was bad?” I asked.
“No. It wasn’t that. She was just asking me questions. ‘Have you ever considered changing this color from yellow to light blue? Or making that image a bit bigger? Or have you ever tried a different font?’ Those types of questions,” Emma said.
“Was she giving you attitude, or did she have a critical tone? Any eye rolls?”
“No, she didn’t,” Emma shot back. “None of that. But I could just tell she didn’t like my design and thought she could do it better.”
“Emma,” I said, “is it possible that Julie was just trying to help you? Maybe she was trying to contribute to making your social media posts even better. What is the thought you are telling yourself about Julie?”
“Well,” Emma said, “The thought is that she doesn’t think I know what I’m doing.”
“Okay, you could be right, but how do you know what’s in her mind? I can think of many times I’ve tried to help someone at work by suggesting ways to improve. I wasn’t trying to put them down. Why not assume that Julie has positive intent? Given everything you’ve said, I think she was trying to help you.”
Emma looked at me, said, “Whatever,” and abruptly walked away—every bit as upset and convinced she had been wronged as when she first sat down with me. Sometime later, after talking with my wife, Katie, about the same thing, Emma came back and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and it’s possible I’m wrong about her. Julie doesn’t seem like a bad person. In fact, she’s actually been pretty friendly. Maybe it was how she said it that rubbed me the wrong way, or maybe she just got me at a bad time. Honestly, I wasn’t having the best day when we talked. I was definitely irritable going into the conversation. As soon as the thought came into my mind that Julie was criticizing me, I tensed up and got pretty defensive. Maybe I should give her the benefit of the doubt.”
We give meaning to the things that happen in our lives through our thoughts, and, for better or worse, that meaning affects how we think, feel, act, and react. We all know people who are miserable no matter what happens to them. They could be in a healthy relationship but worry irrationally that their significant other will leave them. They could be promoted at work but complain about all the additional responsibility. We also know people who somehow remain unfazed and cheerful in a horrible situation. It doesn’t matter what life throws at them; they have a positive outlook. Why is that? What is the difference between these two types of people? The difference comes down to how we think.
If we tend to think negatively, we might feel threatened or hopeless. If we tend to think optimistically, we might see opportunities others do not and be more confident about the future. Whatever we think, it impacts everything. The Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius said that “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”1
For most of us, the challenge is that we are hardly aware of our thoughts and the life they create. We know the thoughts are there, but do we think about how we limit ourselves by focusing on bleak, fearful, or irrational worries? Do we know how our thoughts can lead us to feel angry, frustrated, or resentful? We have to take command of our thoughts, or they will take command of us. That’s just reality. But how do we do that?
It all starts with paying attention to the way we think. Here’s a challenge: The next time you find yourself with a strong thought pattern or emotion—write it down and observe it. Ask yourself a few questions:
- “What are the thoughts I’m having, and how do I experience them?” Some people hear an inner voice, while others think in pictures and impressions. Notice how your thoughts occur to you in that moment.
- “How are those thoughts causing me to feel?”
- “Am I making assumptions here—putting words in people’s mouths, or taking the situation out of context?”
- “Is this a helpful thought? If not, what can I replace it with?”
Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” How could we be anything else? The ideas that you take in are like the food that you eat—just like any meal, you have to digest them. Every movie you watch, book you read, and social media feed you scroll through influences your thoughts.
How and with whom you spend your time will impact your thoughts, and it’s important to pay attention to the influences in your life. For a brief time, I studied stand-up comedy, and while I waited for my turn, I watched other comedians and listened to their routines. Some of their jokes were so vile they left me nauseated—their ideas affected me. It might have taken a couple of days to get that junk out of my head. Sometimes, we have to look at our lives and rethink the people we hang out with and the things we do if they influence our thoughts negatively.
Seeing our thoughts honestly, whether that happens in a sudden aha moment or over time, helps us understand how they shape our lives. That clarity helps us choose to think differently, to adopt a different attitude about the problems we are facing. Choosing the right thoughts can be tough, and for some of us, it might be the greatest challenge we face. Although it can be hard at first, our thinking habits are the foundation for taking command of our lives. When we can consistently avoid negativity and choose thoughts that serve us, we are on the path to a healthy mindset that will help us succeed.
Why We Dwell on Negative Thoughts
Unfortunately, we are wired to think negatively. Early humans had one goal: survive. If they were always watching for danger, they could outrun hungry carnivores. Every day was a fight for food, so they couldn’t trust anyone outside of their nomadic tribes. Paying attention to danger helped them stay alive longer and pass on their genes. In other words, our instinct to dwell on negative thoughts is our brain’s way of keeping us safe. This is called negativity bias.2
What that means is we tend to remember sad or traumatic events more than positive ones. Insults are etched into our memories, but we struggle to remember compliments. We naturally assume the worst in almost every situation. When our boss asks to meet with us, our first inclination might be “Did I do something wrong?” On an impulse, I called a friend I hadn’t talked to in years just to say hello, and his first question was “Is everything okay?” He thought I might be calling to deliver bad news. This natural bias toward the bad affects our decision-making, too.3
Many times, these thoughts start with “I can’t,” “I shouldn’t,” or “I couldn’t,” and are followed with “because,” and a self-defeating reason. Let’s look at some examples of limiting thoughts below. As you read these, ask yourself, “Which of these, if any, apply to me?”
- “I am a failure unless I do everything perfectly.” This is an example of extreme thinking—when we see things as all or nothing, as if we will either succeed or fail, win or lose, without acknowledging the gray areas in between.
- “I can’t ask that person out. They’ll say no and laugh at me.” We call this focusing on imminent disaster. When we believe that disaster lurks around every corner, a single unwelcome event or piece of criticism can ruin our week.
- “I messed up my presentation, and I’ll probably get fired.” When we magnify the negative and focus more on our mistakes than on areas of good performance, we overblow the reality of the situation. Other examples include being unreasonably hard on yourself because you got a B+ on your exam when you’re used to getting an A or punishing yourself because you said “the wrong thing” in a conversation with someone you care about.
- “I should’ve gotten more done, and I didn’t.” When we overemphasize “should” and compare ourselves to the ideal, we will always come up short. We berate ourselves for “failing,” even if we had legitimate reasons for not completing our to-do list—even if that list was unrealistic in the first place.
- “I’m an idiot, and it’s all my fault.” When we box ourselves into a nonrational thought process, we make ourselves miserable. There is nothing objectively true about the statement, but because we might be frustrated or emotionally depleted, we believe these negative thoughts.
- “It’s not my fault. I’m the victim.” Unlike the prior limiting thoughts, where we blame ourselves for everything, in this case, we blame ourselves for nothing. Someone else is always responsible if something goes wrong. This belief—even if true—can disempower us and make us feel helpless. It’s not where we want to be.
Now, Michael and I are not saying that we don’t face real tragedy and injustice. We do. Very bad things do happen. And no one is saying we should wear blinders and deny the challenges before us. We shouldn’t. What we are saying is that even in the worst situations, we can decide what we will think—and those decisions will shape our action or inaction. If we dwell too long on the tragedies we encounter, we may never move on; and if we don’t move on, we may miss so much that is wonderful in life.
This is where the power to choose comes in. Yes, we may be wired to think a certain way, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have any control over our thoughts. When we practice paying attention to our thoughts, we become attuned to how each one affects us, determine whether it’s helpful in the given situation, and proceed with a thought that’s more encouraging.
Not long ago, a large nonprofit organization asked Michael to give a keynote talk. When he said yes, he felt good about it. But as the event approached, Michael regretted it: “Why in the world did I say yes to this? I just don’t see this going well. I’ve never given a talk on this topic to a group like this. And why did they ask me
to do this? They should have picked a better speaker.” As soon as Michael noticed these thought patterns, he stopped himself and said, “Wait a second. I’ve given hundreds of talks. Most have gone really well. This organization picked me for a reason. What do I need to do to show them and myself that they made the right decision?” Michael dug into preparing. He researched the group and committed to being twice as prepared as he might normally be. When the emcee introduced him to speak, Michael looked at the audience, smiled, and began his talk with sincere, heartfelt energy. At one point, he could hear his inner voice saying, “This is going wonderfully! I should do this more often!” As he thought this, he felt a renewed energy and a great connection with his audience. In that moment, he knew he wanted to give more talks in the future. Organizers told Michael his talk was one of the most inspiring they had ever had. Michael says he never would have succeeded that day if he hadn’t shut down the undermining thoughts and replaced them with empowering ones.
Choosing the Right Thoughts
Choosing constructive thoughts can be difficult, especially when we’re facing circumstances that feel hopeless. But overcoming discouraging thoughts can be as simple as shifting how we think—and we can start right now. When choosing better thoughts, remember these three strategies—and we encourage you to pick just one to work on at a time:
- Use negative thoughts as an early warning system
- Reframe your thoughts
- Practice affirmations
Use Negative Thoughts as an Early Warning System
Sometimes, negative thoughts can serve us, much like a blinking “oil low” light on your car dashboard does. We’re not happy to see that light go on, but we’re grateful because it tells us that if we don’t do something, we’re going to have an even bigger problem. We can use negative thoughts and emotions the same way—as soon as we become aware of them, we can stop and ask, “What is this thought or feeling telling me? What do I need to do now to stop this situation from escalating?”
As the CEO and cofounder of Pillar Technologies, Alex Schwarzkopf put tremendous pressure on himself to perform well. His company developed risk management technology for contractors to use at construction sites, and it was a big job. After months of working sixty-plus-hour weeks, responding to late-night emails, and working with his team on bug fixes, the chaos was starting to eat at him, and he knew something had to change.
Alex started to pay closer attention to what he was thinking and feeling. He noticed that he often entertained negative thought loops: one focused on his self-worth (“I’m just not any good at this. I’m in way over my head”), and the other reinforced his harsh self-judgment (“I am just the worst. I can’t do anything right”). He compared himself to others who seemed to have more—success, money, friends—even though his life was objectively very good.
After observing the thought loops, he realized, “I’m literally creating this as I go. Those stories, those thoughts, are making me anxious—and I know they’re not true,” he said. Like so many of us, Alex had fallen into the habit of believing his negative thoughts were true when, in fact, they were false narratives he made up about himself and other people. That’s when negative thoughts are most dangerous—when we put too much stock in them. They affect not only our decisions but our moods, too. Breaking the cycle requires that we stop living out these negative stories and act from a place of empowerment.
In Alex’s case, self-defeating thoughts caused him to feel depressed. He experienced burnout twice before he realized he needed help. “I knew I didn’t want to feel that way and that I needed to do something about it,” Alex said. He went on a retreat to reset his body and mind, and when he got back, he spent eighteen months doing different types of therapy to get to the root of his negative thought patterns. Through that work, he acquired a few tools to help him recognize those unhelpful patterns.
Now, as soon as he begins to feel anxious, Alex treats it as though sirens are wailing and red lights are blinking. One morning, Alex woke up feeling worried and down. In the past, this might have derailed his entire day, but because he had learned to view his anxiety as an early warning sign, he pulled his team together. Instead of ruminating on the thought, Alex shared what he knew about the customer-related problem that was bothering him and asked for help in dealing with it. In minutes, the group helped him develop a solution, which immediately eased his anxiety. The more he practiced noticing his negativity bias and taking action, the more confident he felt that he could shake a negative thought pattern. Just like dwelling on negative thoughts can create a downward spiral, focusing on positive thoughts can create an uplifting, self-assuring cycle.
The next time you perceive a negative thought, consider it a warning sign. First, stop and challenge yourself. Ask, “What is this thought telling me?” Then ask yourself, “What do I need to do now?” Decide what action you need to take to alleviate the warning sign.
Reframe Your Thoughts
Another way to choose the right thoughts is to rework them—take the negative thought and say, “How might I see this as something that can help me?”
Artis Stevens was a star football player in high school who dreamed of playing at the University of Georgia. He trained for years, and he was completely committed to this goal. He was highly recruited, but, unfortunately, he suffered a devastating leg injury. He received medical advice that, based on this injury, he would not be able to play football at the same level again.
“When I heard that,” Artis said, “It was like watching my dream go up in smoke.”
Artis experienced depression. His friends, family, and community came together and helped him see that, in the long run, doing well in football wasn’t as important as doing well in school. They challenged his vision for himself and encouraged him to look at his situation in a new way. “The turning point for me was changing my thoughts and my definition of success. I told myself that success meant winning on the football field. But when I changed what success meant to me, that it was about being more aligned with my purpose, I realized all of my previous work wasn’t for nothing—I could use the same skills I had developed to achieve athletically in my academics. I started viewing all my hard work as practice for my next challenge.” When Artis got into the University of Georgia based on academics and not athletics, it was an affirmation that he had taken the right approach. “I always knew that I had to work incredibly hard to get to where I was, and the idea of achieving my dreams was still achieving my dreams—it was just achieving them in a different way.”
Once Artis redefined how he thought about success, that opened up entirely new possibilities. He not only excelled in college and graduated, but he also rose quickly in his career. Today, Artis is the president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and he is bringing that same insight to the organization. Challenging and reframing your definitions of success and failure can be a critical way to take command and live the life you truly want.
We will all experience many moments in our life where we have to reframe the way we think about a given situation. It won’t always be about success and failure—maybe we’ll have to rethink how we see an opportunity or how we think about a relationship. Reframing our thoughts is a skill we must practice over the course of our lives. So what are some ways we can reframe our thoughts? Here are a few ideas:
- First, be clear about what you are thinking. In Artis’s case, he believed that success in life depended on success in football. You can’t reframe your thoughts until you know what they are.
- Second, challenge the thought. Ask yourself, “How else could I see this?” Consider the alternative. If Artis’s belief was “My success depends on football,” he could say, “My success does not depend on football,” and add the word “because” at the end. “My success does not depend on football because…” and then think about some reasons that could follow the statement, such as “My success does not depend on football because my life is more than just a sport. I have many other talents. I am smart, hardworking, and tenacious. I can contribute to my friends and family.”
- Third, do one thing in support of the statement you’ve just made. It doesn’t have to be big, but do something—even one thing can lead to the next thing and create momentum. Using Artis’s example, he might have asked a friend or family member about the talents they saw in him; he might have gone online to check the academic requirements for the University of Georgia; he might simply have written the statement above so he could look at it. Again, it doesn’t matter what the action is as long as it pushes you in a new, productive direction.
Reframing your thoughts can be like building a muscle—the more you do it, the stronger you become. Practice this technique the next time you notice a self-limiting belief or negative thought, and you will witness how reframing can begin to change everything.
Most people are familiar with the term affirmations
—these have been around for a long time, and there is a reason for that: they work. Stated simply, an affirmation is a word or phrase you say repeatedly to reinforce a belief you want to have.4
Doing this conditions the mind, much like lifting weights builds muscle. Affirmations are a way of strengthening the thoughts you want to think and rebutting the thoughts that hold you back. We believe everyone should use them.
When choosing our affirmations, there are a few key things to remember. First, we need to have faith in the affirmation we say to ourselves. If we don’t believe what we’re saying is possible, the affirmations won’t work. Second, affirmations should be written and spoken in the present tense, as if what we want is already happening. Third, avoid using “negative” affirmations. For example, if we were inclined to say, “I will stop feeling anxious,” we might instead choose to say, “I am calm and peaceful.” Finally, use affirmations every day to get the most out of them. Just like we must work out regularly and eat well at each meal to be healthy, we must also have a daily practice that includes our affirmations.
Here are a few examples of affirmations to consider:
- “I am strong and capable of achieving what I want in life.”
- “Every day, I improve and get better.”
- “I am powerful.”
- “Everything I need to succeed I already have within me.”
You can even simplify your statement down to one word. For many years, Michael picked a single word that he focused on for a full year—words such as enthusiasm, action, joy, discipline
. We can even create affirmations for people we love.
When Camille Chang Gilmore’s sons were four and five, they were both diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. When she heard the diagnosis, Camille felt so devastated that she went into her closet, fell on her knees, and cried, thinking, “Why me?” After allowing herself a moment to grieve, she acknowledged her negative thoughts and reminded herself that this wasn’t about her. It was about her boys, and it was time to get to work.
Camille got out of her head and took steps to help her sons. Camille found the best medical care they could receive and made sure the boys had good tutors. But perhaps the most important thing Camille did was to share an affirmation with them. Every day, she said, “You are…,” and they responded, “Destined for greatness!” The boys shouted this at the top of their lungs throughout their childhood.
Camille’s boys are now in their twenties and both at universities. With the encouragement of their mother, the support of tutors, and access to the right accommodations, their confidence and self-assurance have led them to succeed. Camille worked hard not to let her negative thoughts overtake her, and she coached her boys to be positive.
If your dream is to inspire people, then you might tell yourself, “I inspire others to live their best lives.” Use active words as often as you can when building your affirmations. The words should resonate with you.
Do you have written affirmations? If not, Michael and I challenge you to stop reading right now, define one affirmation that fills you with confidence, write it down, and start saying it at least five times a day, once in the morning and at night and at least three other times. I try to do this every day and have for years. Affirmations are a key part of taking command, increasing confidence, and becoming resilient.