Most high-performers know one very big secret: Words — especially the ones we tell ourselves — have tremendous power. Want to change your business, your life, your diet? It all starts with a single thought.
There was a time — long before Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask or Dumb and Dumber — when Jim Carrey was a nobody, just another struggling actor trying to make it big in Hollywood.
Carrey worked as a stand-up comic, but was finding it hard to make the transition into television and film. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was convinced that his particular brand of manic comedy would work on screen.
But Carrey refused to give up. Instead, he would travel up Mulholland Drive every night — where there was a great view of Los Angeles — and picture himself becoming a huge success.
“I would visualise having directors interested in me and people that I respected saying that they liked my work. I would visualise things that I wanted coming true,” Carrey said on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997.
“I had nothing at the time, but it just made me feel better. I would drive home and think: Well, I do have these things, they’re out there, I just don’t have a hold on them yet.”
Carrey even wrote himself a cheque for $10 million (for acting services rendered), and dated it Thanksgiving 1995, which was about three years away. “Just before Thanksgiving in 1995, I found out that I was going to make $10 million on Dumb and Dumber,” Carrey said. So visualisation had clearly worked for him.
Carrey added a caveat, however, saying: “Visualisation works if you work hard. You can’t just visualise and then go eat a sandwich.”
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Looking back on the interview years later, Oprah Winfrey said: “That was such a powerful moment for me. I was not a person who did visualisation or thought about my belief system in such a practical way. I learnt a lot from Jim Carrey on that show, and he is absolutely correct, if you can see it and believe it, it is a lot easier to achieve it.”
The real secret
There’s a pretty good chance that the story above reminded you of a little book called The Secret. And that might not necessarily be a good thing. Since its release in 2006, the book has achieved massive success — it has been translated into 46 languages and sold around 20 million copies — but it’s not for everyone. Some people (especially cynical and pragmatic business people) tend to baulk at the pseudo-science-laden cosmological talk of energy and vibrations.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss the concept of visualisation simply because of the New Age language of The Secret. The basic premise underlying the secret has actually been around for a long time.
In simple terms, this is the argument: If you spend all your time thinking about all the things you don’t have, you’ll stay unhappy. However, if you spend your time thinking about and visualising the things you want, you’ll attract those things to you.
The law of attraction
This is commonly called the Law of Attraction, and just about every uber-successful self-help book of the last hundred years has been punting this single idea. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, even Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Giant Within, these books all tout the power of visualisation and positive thinking.
And there’s no shortage of successful people who believe in this law, either.
“What you do is create a vision of who you want to be — and then live that picture as if it were already true,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“It’s sort of like a mantra. You repeat it to yourself everyday: Music is my life, music is my life. The fame is inside of me, I’m going to make a number one record with number one hits. And it’s not yet, it’s a lie. You’re saying a lie over and over and over again, and then, one day the lie is true,” says Lady Gaga (who, incidentally, is more intelligent than people often give her credit for.
She was once a member of the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, which was only open to young adolescents who scored in the top 1% on university entrance exams. Other members included Mark Zuckerberg, Google founder Sergey Brin and mathematician Terence Tao).
Will Smith, one of the few truly ‘bankable’ stars in the world whose mere presence in a film guarantees increased ticket sales, has said: “I believe, wholeheartedly, that our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, our ideas are physical in the universe. If we dream something, if we picture something, we commit ourselves to it, then we are going to command and demand that the universe becomes what we want it to be.”
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What about some examples that aren’t from the airy fairy world of entertainment? Well, there’s Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali, who both famously always visualised themselves as victorious before an event.
And then there’s the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who once said: “I am no longer cursed by poverty because I took possession of my own mind and that mind has yielded me every material thing I want, and much more than I need. But this power of mind is a universal one, available to the humblest person as it is to the greatest.”
Why it works
When an idea remains popular over a long stretch of time and keeps resurfacing in one form or another, you have to question why this is. Is there perhaps something to it?
Just for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that it’s not because there are physical vibrations or energies gravitating towards the happy, shiny people of the world. Let’s also assume it’s not about unblocking your chakras, vanquishing your bad aura, or opening your third eye.
What else could it be, then?
Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People offers one of the most convincing reasons: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”
Mahatma Gandhi said something similar: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”
It really comes down to reaping what you sow. Focus on problems and irritations, and you’ll find them everywhere, which will leave you despondent and unproductive. Focus on the good things, and you become happy and productive. You start seeing solutions instead of problems, and without knowing exactly why, your life starts to change — things start going your way.
Let’s talk about rituals
“This could be the greatest time you ever live if you control what you focus on, if you find a more empowering meaning, and if you decide to model the actions of those who succeeded before you,” Tony Robbins says.
“It can be the best financial time, the best emotional time and the best spiritual time of your life, but you better take control of your state. And if you think you’re going to do it just by today, you’re wrong. You’re going to need to find yourself some rituals. Everyone is controlled by their rituals.”
Your life (you can call it your destiny, if you like) is determined by your rituals, says Robbins. Importantly, these are not rituals like burning incense, sitting in the lotus position or reciting mantras. It’s about the simple stuff you do every single day of your life — it’s about what you have for breakfast, how often you work out, what you do just before going to bed, how you spend the first 60 minutes of your day.
Robbins himself, for example, has a very specific ritual every morning. No matter how busy he is, he always makes time for it.
“I prime myself every morning. I start off with a radical breathing pattern, and then I spend ten minutes on gratitude. I pick three things I’m grateful for, one of which needs to be very simple, like the wind on my face or the faces of my kids. The emotions that trip us up are fear and anger, and you can’t be fearful and grateful at the same time, and you can’t be angry and grateful at the same time.”
After this, Robbins spends a few minutes visualising the things he wants to achieve. “I pick three results and outcomes, I’m very committed to them and I see them as done and fulfilled.”
The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss starts his day with five rituals that he believes create the right sort of mental attitude and sets him up to have a successful day. “If you win the morning, you win the day,” he says. “And if I manage to do at least three of these things in a morning, I’ve won the morning.”
He starts by making his bed (it gives you a small win and makes you feel as if you’ve already achieved something for the day). After this, he meditates, which is something he finds most high-performing individuals tend to do.
According to Ferriss, he gets 50% more done in a day if he’s meditated because his mind is focused and not as easily distracted. Thirdly, he hangs, from his arms, for a few minutes. He says it decompresses his spine, and he does it a few times every day, just to break up work sessions.
After hanging, he makes himself some tea, usually herbal tea from China, to which he adds some turmeric and ginger. Finally, he writes in his journal, usually on things he needs to achieve and things he is grateful for.
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Begin with yes
Tim Ferriss’s morning rituals are rather esoteric, to be sure, but the exact nature of his daily habits aren’t really important. What is important is that he has identified specific rituals that help him attain his daily goals, and he sticks to them religiously.
The problem is this: Positive thoughts and words of affirmation are easy to cling to when you’ve got loads of time and few problems, but it’s tough to stay positive when life gets hectic. Maintaining a sunny outlook is near impossible when the kids are sick, traffic is a nightmare, your quarterly sales report is overdue and your landlord is demanding last month’s rent.
That’s when it’s important to have rituals to fall back on. Once you’ve created the habit, your specific mindset in the moment becomes less important. It allows you, in a sense, to ‘go through the motions’. You don’t meditate or write in your gratitude journal because you feel like it (in fact, you probably don’t feel like doing it at all), but you do it anyway because it’s become a habit.
You start off feeling rushed and irritated, but by the time you’ve meditated or written, you feel better. The same is true of preparing healthy meals, working out or volunteering at your local charity. Some days, those feelings of positivity will leave you and you’ll just want to go home and stare at the television, but if you’ve created a ritual, you can fall back on the habit and not depend on your emotions to get things done.
Begin with Yes author Paul Boynton calls this ‘The Law of Action’. The problem with the Law of Attraction is that it demands a positive attitude, something that can be hard to muster when you’re really dealing with a tough situation.
So, instead, he proffers the Law of Action, which doesn’t demand a positive outlook, but simply asks for a dogged determination to keep pushing forward.
As the title of his book suggests, he argues that, even when you don’t feel like it, you just need to keep saying ‘yes’ to life. You take the action, and the emotion will (eventually) follow. (Coincidentally, Jim Carrey once starred in a movie called Yes Man that deals exactly with this. It’s not a masterpiece, but still worth seeking out).
How exactly do you start saying ‘yes’, though? For television mogul Shonda Rhimes it literally meant saying ‘yes’ to everything that came her way for a year.
“So a while ago, I tried an experiment,” she said during a TED Talk on the subject at the beginning of 2016. “For one year, I would say yes to all the things that scared me. Anything that made me nervous, took me out of my comfort zone, I forced myself to say yes to. Did I want to speak in public? No, but yes.
Did I want to be on live TV? No, but yes. Did I want to try acting? No, no, no, but yes, yes, yes.
“And a crazy thing happened: the very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear, made it not scary. My fear of public speaking, my social anxiety, poof, gone. It’s amazing, the power of one word. ‘Yes’ changed my life. ‘Yes’ changed me.”
For Tim Ferriss, meanwhile, it meant embracing what he calls anti-complaining.
Echoing Gandhi and Covey, Ferriss says: “Word choice determines thought choice, which determines emotions and actions. It’s not enough to just decide you’ll stop using certain words, though. It requires conditioning.”
To condition himself, Ferris embraced a system created by church minister Will Bowen.
“Will designed a solution in the form of a simple purple bracelet, which he offered to his congregation with a challenge: Go 21 days without complaining. Each time one of them complained, they had to switch the bracelet to their other wrist and start again from day zero. It was simple but effective metacognitive awareness training.
“I made it 11 days on the first attempt, then I slipped back to zero. Then it was two or three days at a time for about a month. Once I cleared 21 days at around month three, I no longer needed the bracelet.”
As the new year approaches, this is the perfect time to come up with some rituals that will help you achieve your goals. These need not be large and daunting habits. Don’t vow to run 10 km every day if a single flight of stairs currently leaves you winded. Start with small thoughts and small actions, but be consistent. Success is a marathon, not a sprint. Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.
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