Negative Guessing

This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

This is the same sort of mistake as overcertainty. When you make a guess, it helps to realize it is just a guess, especially when your guess is making you feel defeated, demoralized, or otherwise unhappy. As soon as you realize your negative guess was just a guess, it takes the power out of it and you stop feeling bad.

I know a man who is cynical about the president, the governors, and politicians in general. He is glum often because he thinks he knows what they’re all after. He's sure they’re only interested in money and power and they don’t care about “the people.”

In other words, he is guessing the motivations of politicians and then he becomes depressed and bitter because of his guess.

People do that not just about other people, but about future events. “It’s not going to work out,” you might hear someone say, and she believes her guess, so she doesn’t even try. She is guessing what’s going to happen in the future. She’s making a negative guess and feeling defeated by it.

Can you see how much differently it would be to not even not bother to guess but to merely acknowledge to yourself that you don’t know? If that’s the truth, if you really don’t know, then just admit it. Not knowing may make you feel an uncomfortable degree of curiosity or frustration, but it won’t make you feel demoralized or angry. It won’t make you want to give up on a goal.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.


This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

Using the antivirus for your mind, you first write down the negative thoughts you have when you feel discouraged. Next, you will look at those thoughts, one at a time, to see if they contain any mistakes. A common mistake is overcertainty. Look at your negative statement and see whether or not you really have enough evidence to justify your explanation of the setback. You will often find your “evidence” is rather weak and wouldn’t be enough to convince you if you heard someone else say it. Zipping through your mind without examining it, the thought may pass. But write it down and look at it and you may at once have the horrifying realization that your brain is cluttered with bullpucky.

Ask this question of all negative thoughts: Does the evidence compel you to accept your conclusion? Please understand me here. The question is not: “do you have some evidence for your conclusion?” But rather, is the evidence so strong that you must accept your pessimistic conclusion? That is a much higher standard, and since it is vitally important that you refuse to accept a demoralizing conclusion unless you have to (because the consequences are so dangerous), having a high standard is the only sane way to handle negative thoughts.

Standing before a jury, would you be able to convince them that your explanation is the only one? Or the best one? If you were in the jury and heard your argument, would you be convinced?

This is the core principle of the scientific method, and the reason science progressively increases our understanding of the world. Human history can almost be seen as the progressive realization that we are talking out our asses. In other words, ever since people could speak, they’ve been saying untrue things with a lot of confidence. Slowly and surely, we have disabused ourselves of mistaken notions. How? By constantly looking through this filter: Do we have enough evidence to compel us to accept this or that notion?

Here’s one example I’ve come across recently. Native Americans cultivated their environment much more than Europeans suspected. When the Europeans landed on the New England coast, it seemed very obvious that the Native Americans lived in harmony with nature — fishing, hunting, doing a little gardening, but otherwise living the wild life.

Only recently have archaeologists discovered that the Native Americans had created this wild environment to suit them. They were semi-farming, and doing it in a way that Europeans didn’t recognize. It all looked like naturally-occurring abundance, and that’s what they all assumed, and they were quite certain about it.

But that certainty has eroded as new findings have come in. Digging through remains, scientists have found evidence of massive and repeated fires. Looking through first-hand reports of Europeans’ very first contacts with Native Americans, here and there one of them mentions some of the things Native Americans had done, such as deliberately burning areas. Adding all the evidence together, we see an entirely different picture. It was a Native American practice throughout much of the Americas to burn off huge areas of forest. Then they either planted fruit and nut trees, or simply letting grass grow, which brought large grazing animals into the area, which the Native Americans could then hunt.

When Europeans arrived, they saw large areas of grass filled with game, and incredibly rich forests. It looked like pure luck that the Native Americans could wander into their nearby forests and pick hazelnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts, beechnuts, acorns, butternuts, pecans, walnuts. But it wasn't luck at all. The whole area was created deliberately. They were farming, but not in any familiar way, so it was overlooked. Europeans drew conclusions with too much certainty, as we all do from time to time, and it prevented them from seeing what was really there.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.


This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

This is probably the most dangerous and one of the most common thought-mistakes. This is thinking in black-or-white terms. It’s also called all-or-nothing thinking. The real world has very few absolutes. Very few issues — very few causes of setbacks — are black or white. They consist of innumerable shades of gray.

Becky thinks if she’s not a millionaire, she’s a failure. Of course, if she’s not a millionaire, this belief will make her feel bad unnecessarily. Jeff thinks he must either be his ideal weight or he’s a fat slob. This kind of all-or-nothing, one-extreme-or-the-other thinking will cause him unnecessary misery whenever he is not at his ideal weight.

Edmund Burke wrote, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” If you do nothing because you can only do a little, that's based on extremist thinking. Specifically, it is the mistake of all-or-nothing thinking. It makes you defeated unless things are ideal, and since life is almost never ideal, it is a way of thinking that curtails positive action and prevents positive emotions.

Thinking in an extremist way makes it easier to think about things. You can separate issues cleanly, and then position yourself on one side or the other, end of story, no more thought required.

But reality is full of shades of gray, so although you’ve made your task easier, you’ve greatly increased your chances of being wrong. As a congressman once said on the issue of whiskey:

If you mean the demon drink that poisons the mind, pollutes the body, desecrates family life, and inflames sinners, then I am against it. But if you mean the elixir of Christmas cheer, the shield against winter chill, the taxable potion that puts needed funds into public coffers to comfort little crippled children, then I’m for it. This is my position and I will not compromise.

Almost every issue is like that. But the way our brains are set up, it keeps pulling us to one side or another in an effort to avoid living with the ambiguity. But ambiguity is reality. It would be in your best interest to live in that ambiguity, although this is difficult to do. But just because you don’t do it perfectly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing at all. (wink)

Alistair Ostell, a researcher in England, tested school principles to find out to what degree their thinking was black-or-white. Here’s what he found: People who frequently thought in black-or-white terms had more emotional problems and more health problems.

People who thought more in shades of gray were less stressed by their jobs, enjoyed better health, and got more enjoyment from their work.

There are real consequences to the accuracy of your thinking.

Learn to catch yourself making this mistake (extremism) and learn to recognize it as a mistake, and you will avoid some negative emotions you don’t need.

I once did a speech in Toastmasters (a club that helps you learn to speak in public) on the day before Saint Patrick’s Day. The assignment was to give an “inspirational speech.” I wrote and memorized a presentation about Saint Patrick, and then rehearsed it thirty-seven times start to finish, flawlessly. (I actually counted because I wanted to see how many times it took to know a talk by heart.)

A key element of my speech was the mystery: The audience wouldn’t find out I was talking about Saint Patrick until the end.

But the Toastmaster that day (the Master of Ceremonies), in her opening remarks, told the brief story of Saint Patrick — essentially summarizing my talk before I gave it. That really threw me off. When I got up to speak, I said, “The Toastmaster gave away my punch line.” Then I felt embarrassed I’d criticized her. By then I was really distracted and couldn’t think of the next line of my speech.

It was a crummy speech and I’m sure it was uncomfortable for the audience to endure.

In the Toastmasters meetings, after you talk, someone comes up to evaluate your speech. My evaluator had a lot of negative things to say.

For someone who had been anxious about speaking, this hit me pretty hard. I went home feeling embarrassed and ashamed of myself, and really down about the whole thing.

And you know what that means. You’d better know what that means by now! Whenever you feel down, check your explanations.

As soon as I got home, I checked my explanations, and I found two thoughts that qualified as irrational. They were the main source of my bad feelings: “I’m not cut out for speaking,” and “I’m not an inspirational speaker.” Both of these are the mistake of extremist, black-or-white thinking.

After I uncovered those, I came to my senses. I stopped feeling bad and I realized I had simply made a mistake. I should never memorize a speech. It just doesn’t work. I also realized that if I ever had an element of mystery in a speech again, I would check with the master of ceremonies to make sure nobody would give away my punch line.

In other words, after realizing that my fretting and negative emotions were being generated by unreasonable thoughts, I stopped fretting and actually solved the problem.

After uncovering the two extremist assumptions, I no longer felt demoralized about my speech, or about public speaking in general. My thinking became more rational and more effective — and quickly — because I knew what to look for.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.


This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

When you use the antivirus for the mind, you usually don’t need to know all the possible thought-mistakes. You can just be reasonable and really look at your statements, and even if you don’t know exactly what’s wrong, you can tell when something isn’t right about your explanations.

But it’s worth reading through this list of thought-mistakes and their descriptions. If nothing else, it will give you a clear general idea of what thought-mistakes are.

Oversimplifying is a very broad mistake, and it can show up in many different ways. One way is labeling others. If you meet someone and he seems kind of awkward, you may think to yourself, “He’s a nerd.”

He may be kind to strangers, take care of his mother, have a fascinating hobby, have a rich and varied emotional and intellectual life, but you have made the mistake of oversimplifying by giving him a single label to sum up a single facet of his complex personality. It’s not fair and it’s not correct and if you make this mistake under certain conditions it can cause depression, anxiety, or anger — unnecessarily.

Al Seibert, the author of The Survivor Personality, says labeling is turning people into nouns, which is “a child’s way of thinking. It limits understanding. It strips away what is unique about an individual and restricts the mind of the beholder to inaccurate generalizations.”

Seibert is concerned with what makes a good survivor. And he has found: “A more effective way to view people, and one that allows better understanding, is to assume that every person is more complex, unpredictable, and unique than any label.”

Another way to oversimplify is to tell someone else their motivation. For example, John bought flowers for Jeanne partly because he felt guilty for staying so late at the office, partly because he just loves her and knows she likes flowers, and partly because he enjoys how her mood perks up when she has flowers in a vase sitting on the table. But she gets the flowers and says, “You’re just giving me these because you feel guilty.”

Jeanne’s statement is an oversimplification, and so to that degree, it is inaccurate. But the emotions she feels will be in response to the oversimplification rather than to the real (more complex) situation.

It may be simpler and easier in some ways to oversimplify, but often it makes for bad feelings that are totally unnecessary and unsuitable to the real situation.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.


This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

A common (and therefore important) thought-mistake is overgeneralizing. It is necessary to generalize — to see patterns that help you make your way through the world — but overgeneralization can make you feel miserable unnecessarily.

There’s more. Because of the way our brains are constructed, we make certain kinds of mistakes, like overgeneralization. These are naturally-occurring mistakes, the kind of errors every brain is prone to make. In a way, the “mistakes” are simply side-effects of a well-functioning, incredibly capable brain.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center hooked people up to a high-resolution functional MRI machine (to track the blood flow in the brain) and flashed pictures in front of them. The pictures were of either a square or a circle. They were asked to push the button in their right hand when they saw a square, and push the button in their left hand for a circle.

The squares and circles were presented in a random order, but of course short patterns would sometimes emerge — a string of all squares, for example, or alternation between a square and a circle for several cycles.

Their brains reacted with extra blood flow when one of these short patterns ended. In other words, their brains automatically detected and generalized patterns, and very quickly. They were given no reward for detecting patterns. They were not asked to detect patterns. In fact, they were told the pictures would be flashed randomly. Yet even so, without any effort on their part, their brains automatically saw patterns in the random events and generalized — began to expect what the next picture would be. In previous similar studies testing their reaction time, the volunteers had a slower reaction time when an expected pattern was broken.

Your brain is predisposed to generalize. It automatically tries to see patterns without any conscious participation or effort on your part.

By and large, our ability to generalize is a good thing. Many positive results have come from it. For example, Ignaz Semmelweis noticed when doctors performed a dissection and then assisted in a birth, the women had a tendency to get childbed fever. He was able to detect a pattern, to make a generalization, and his ability to generalize led to the practice of using antiseptics and sterilization, saving millions of unnecessary deaths over time.

Charles Darwin saw a pattern that governs the evolution of all life on earth. Quite a generalization! From that single generalization, new understandings about diseases were discovered that greatly improved the effectiveness of doctors. In fact, whole new sciences have issued from that single generalization.

What I’m trying to say is: The mistakes our brains tend to make (like overgeneralizing) are the inevitable by-products of our great intelligence.

Your ability to recognize a face comes from your brain’s ability to complete a pattern with minimal clues. It has been exceedingly difficult to create computers that can do it, and they still aren’t as good at it as you are on a bad day without even trying. Your brain recognizes faces without any effort on your part. Your brain is so good at completing a pattern that, even in dim light — even if you can only see half of the face — you recognize immediately who it is.

But this amazing ability also sometimes causes us to see patterns that don’t really exist. We see a man in the moon. We see a horse in the clouds. We see the big dipper, the little dipper, Orion’s belt. Our brains can take the most scant clues and see a pattern, without us making even the smallest effort to do so.

But especially given our brains’ bias toward negativity, we also see patterns that create pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism — patterns our brains have created out of minimal clues — patterns that don’t actually exist.

The woman I used to work with who had two failed marriages concluded, “All men are pigs.” From only two examples, she created a generalization that included three billion men! Her cynicism, her unwillingness to allow any men to get close to her, was the side-effect of two common mistakes our brains tend to make: 1) the brain’s amazing ability to see a pattern with minimal clues, and 2) our brain’s tendency to look for evidence that confirms an already-existing conclusion. In other words, your brain tends to overgeneralize and then the world seems to prove you’re right about it.

The two primary mistakes that turn generalizations into overgeneralizations are:

1. Holding the generalization as a fact rather than an hypothesis. Any generalization you make is a guess. You will have some degree of certainty about your guess — you can be quite certain your guess is correct, you can be very uncertain about your guess, or anywhere in between. When you have more certainty about your generalization than the facts justify, it is an overgeneralization. You’ve gone too far.

2. Generalizing from too few instances. Researchers have discovered that people don’t have a very accurate sense of what “chance sequences” look like. People expect sequences of coin flips, for example, to alternate more than they actually do. So truly random sequences can often look like a pattern to us.

In a series of twenty coin tosses, you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting four heads in a row; you have a twenty-five percent chance of getting five in a row; you have a ten percent chance of getting six in a row! And yet we sometimes predict a pattern from only one or two incidents — a person has two mishaps in one afternoon and concludes, “Everything is going wrong today. That’s overgeneralization, and it causes unnecessary suffering.

Everybody makes these kinds of mistakes. Even the experts. Our brains are so ready and willing to generalize, it’s inevitable we’re going to go overboard now and then and overgeneralize. Here are a few historical examples:

Marshal Foch, a competent, well-informed military leader, said in 1911, “Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value.”On October 16th, 1929, the economist Irving Fisher said, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” The stock market crash that started the Great Depression happened two weeks later.

“Whatever happens,” said Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, “the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.” He said this on December 4, 1941. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor three days later.

In 1958, Business Week printed this: “With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.”

These were experts in their field, stating their opinions with too much confidence. It’s a common human error. From now on and for the rest of your life, be suspicious of your feelings of certainty — about your overgeneralizations or about any explanations of setbacks.

In the book, Dying of Embarrassment, I found an interesting piece of information. People with a social phobia — people who find it very difficult to tolerate dealing with a social situation — make two particular kinds of assumptions. They assume they are very likely to meet disapproval in the social situation, and they assume that the consequences of that disapproval will be really bad. But their assumptions are exaggerated. Their predictions are mistaken. Their projections of the future are distorted. They exaggerate the “social danger.” They exaggerate the threat, probably because they explained past social setbacks with exaggerations. So now they make what are called “probability distortions” and “severity distortions” and these make them far more uptight and nervous than the reality of the situation merits or deserves.

To assume something is going to turn out badly, especially, is putting too much confidence in a guess — a guess that makes you ineffective and unhappy.

When someone after a shipwreck says, “We’re not going to make it,” that thought is wrong because there is still a chance they’ll make it, so there’s no justification for certainty about doom. It’s even more of a mistake because he is less likely to survive thinking that way.

Many times you will realize you don’t know. That’s okay. In fact, finding yourself with greater uncertainty is good. When you don’t know, your mind is open. If you decide you know and you’re wrong, you shut your mind to what’s really going on.

When you scan your thoughts looking for “viruses,” overgeneralizations should be one of the first things you look for.


The researcher Martin Seligman and his colleagues have discovered that the most deadly assumption you can make about the cause of a setback is: The cause is permanent, meaning that you can’t do anything about it and it isn’t going to change on its own either. Permanence is almost always an overgeneralization — and a dangerous one at that if it isn’t true.

Whether you think of something as temporary or permanent changes your feelings drastically. I remember once Klassy and I were ready for four days of total peace and quiet at the Sands Resort at the coast. The first morning we were awakened at 7:30 AM by what sounded like a hundred people laughing and partying. People were stomping up and down the ceiling above us.

We were both bothered by this. We went down to the office and said, “The people above us are making lots of noise.”

“What unit number are you in?” asked the woman at the desk.

“Number nine.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, that party is leaving today. Checkout time is noon. And the room is not rented for the next few days.”

We went back to the room and the noises were still there but they didn’t bother us any more. Why? Because it was temporary.

Permanence says, “This is always going to be here,” or “There’s no way out of it.” It’s an overgeneralization that evokes feelings of demoralization. It makes you want to give up. That’s not a helpful response to make to a setback.

Interestingly, one of the things Napoleon Hill hammers on in his books (The Law of Success, Think and Grow Rich, and Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude) is that failure is only temporary defeat.

Hill and Seligman are trying to get their readers to do the same thing: Avoid jumping to the conclusion that this setback is permanent. It’s a deadly overgeneralization. It stops action. It kills motivation. It destroys dreams. Don’t ever do it again!

Napoleon Hill was commissioned by the richest man in the world at the time — Andrew Carnegie — to write a philosophy of success. Carnegie thought it was a shame that each person had to figure out what it takes to succeed by trial and error, only to have that accumulated know-how die with them. He thought it should be written down. Carnegie asked Hill to do it.

So Napoleon Hill interviewed the most famous wealthy people of his day: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, William Wrigley, Jr., George Eastman — over five hundred of them. He discovered how they succeeded and shared his findings in his books.

Hill was famous in his day, and well-respected. President Woodrow Wilson put Hill on his staff as an advisor during World War I. Hill also served as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt throughout most of the Depression. It was Napoleon Hill who came up with, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

In all his books, the principle he hammered on more than any other was: Think of a “failure” as merely “temporary defeat.” Or, as Seligman might put it: If the cause of the setback isn’t permanent, make sure you don’t assume it is.

If you can resist overgeneralizing bad things, if you can restrain yourself from deciding the cause of a setback is permanent, you will be healthier, happier, and more successful. An undiscourageable explanatory style moves you toward accomplishment, success, courage, determination, and persistence. It moves you closer to wins and health and happiness. Researchers like Seligman were studying depression, but they didn’t realize they’ve come up with a science of determination.

overgeneralizing influences your memory

When I was first learning to make public presentations, I had more than one embarrassing moment, but I also had many good moments. At first I made an overgeneralization that blocked out the good moments — I said to myself, “I get too nervous.” And that thought made me more nervous than I needed to be, creating still more embarrassing moments than I would have had otherwise.

It was an overgeneralization because much of the time, in fact, most of the time, I wasn’t too nervous. But by overgeneralizing, I increased my dread of speaking unnecessarily. Overgeneralizing the bad very often makes things worse.

For example, I was looking for a store in the Yellow Pages. I have always hated using the Yellow Pages because I “never” seemed to be able to find what I was looking for. This time I wanted to find a mall so I looked under “mall.” It said to look under “department stores” or “outlets.” I got a headache. Then I realized my thought was, “I always have trouble finding stuff in the Yellow Pages.”

The word always is a dead giveaway that you’re probably overgeneralizing.

You have to be careful about the “evidence” for your generalizations. Our memories can be skewed merely because some things naturally make more of an impression than others. If I look something up in the Yellow Pages and find it right away, what is there to remember? But if I search and search and get frustrated and throw the phone book at the wall, it is very memorable. This is part of the “negative bias” of reality, remember?

So just because of this difference, if I searched my own memory, I would get the impression that I “usually” have difficulty finding what I want in the Yellow Pages, even if most of the time I found what I was looking for easily. And it would seem to me I have good evidence for my conclusion — I remember plenty of times of frustration and I don’t recall many instances where I found something easily. What was there to remember?

Stressful moments are more memorable than emotionally-flat moments, and because of that, we can overgeneralize — falsely see a negative pattern that doesn’t really exist. It’s an illusion caused by the way our brains selectively store memories.

An interesting experiment clarifies this point. At the University of California, researchers showed subjects two narrated slide shows. One was a boring account of a boy visiting a hospital and watching the medical staff preparing for a surgical procedure. The other one showed the boy getting run over by a car and getting emergency care.

Before watching the film, half the people were given a beta blocker — a drug that blocks two stress hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline. The other half were given a pill containing no active ingredients of any kind (a placebo).

A week later, everyone took a test to find out how much of the slide shows they remembered. They all remembered everything equally, except the stressful parts. The ones who got the placebo remembered the traumatic parts of the story with greater clarity than the ones who took the beta blocker. Interesting, eh? In other words, because of the stress hormones, stressful events are naturally more memorable.

In Consumer Reports on Health, they had this to say about the experiment:

Mundane happenings can be difficult to remember. But upsetting events are often hard to forget...A separate, more durable system for storing emotionally charged memories has survival value, the researchers pointed out, enabling animals to remember and avoid threatening situations.

Let’s see if we can recap this point. 1) stressful events are more memorable because they are more dramatic and noticeable — they stick out, 2) the brain itself records stressful events differently so you remember them better, and 3) you see patterns at the drop of a hat — your brain can (and often does) see a pattern where there really isn’t one.

These three combine into one of the most common sources of bad feelings: Overgeneralizations. When writing this chapter, I was thinking up examples, one after the other, and writing them down. Then I started writing one down but I stopped because it was a stupid example. I crumpled it up and thought, “Maybe I’m out of good examples.”

See what I did? I overgeneralized from a single example of failure. I remember doing that when my first book had just been published and I went around to the local bookstores to ask them to carry it. Most bookstore owners said yes. I went around a few weeks later to see if my book was on their shelves and in one of the major bookstores, it wasn’t. The thoughts zipping through my head at the time were, “This is going to be harder than I thought. Maybe I was being naive. Maybe I don’t really know anything and I’m just fooling myself.” I overgeneralized and felt dejected.

Overgeneralizations are extremely common. I was going to say “everybody does it all the time” but thought that is probably an overgeneralization. When something bad happens and you say, “It figures,” that’s a demoralizing overgeneralization. When you say, “That’s just my luck,” ditto. These presume a permanence. They are overgeneralizations.

Overgeneralizations are hard to detect because you assume whatever you think is true. They would be easy to detect if someone was angry at you and said something like, “You never wash the dishes.” The first thing you’d think of is all the times you washed the dishes! But when you say something like that to yourself, you don’t question it. You just feel bad.

the grinder people

When I was young, I worked in a restaurant that served Prime Rib sandwiches, which for some reason, in the restaurant business they call “grinders.” One day a couple came in and sat in Scott’s section (one of the waiters) and ordered Prime Rib sandwiches.

Scott was very busy that day and didn’t give the couple very good service. They tipped him poorly.

Scott decided, based on this single instance, that this couple was “cheap.” He overgeneralized. He saw a pattern in a single instance. He talked it up and grumbled about it to everyone who would listen (making his hasty conclusion public and harder to change).

As it turns out, a few days later, the same couple came in and landed in Scott’s section again. And again, they ordered two Prime Rib sandwiches.

This time Scott wasn’t very busy, but since he already “knew” they weren’t going to tip him much, he gave them lousy service, and they proved him right: They tipped him poorly again. This is one of the problems with overgeneralizing. It often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

From then on, when that couple came in, no matter whose section they sat in, Scott would go talk to their waiter: “See those two people? Those are the Grinder People I’ve been telling you about!” And that waiter would then give them lousy service, and they tipped badly.

But they kept coming in. They must have really loved those Prime Rib sandwiches!

One day they sat in my section. I had been reading about this stuff and decided to avoid overgeneralizing and gave them great service. And what do you know? They tipped me really well!

After that, they asked for my section when they came in. I served them many times and they always tipped me well.

The tendency to overgeneralize is built into our brains. But there is a cure for it. The cure is simple: Catch yourself overgeneralizing. Over and over and over. Keep it up and your tendency will gradually diminish.

You may now realize this would be a great thing to change in your thinking. But then you think, “I’ll never follow through on it — I’m not persistent enough about stuff like that.” So there you have your first overgeneralization to question.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.


This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

“When I was driving to work today, the other drivers were all so aggressive,” says Karen, who looks quite harassed.

When asked about details it turns out only two drivers acted aggressive. Two drivers out of the hundreds she shared the roads with. That’s one of the most typical thought-mistakes, and you can see why it would make you feel unnecessary negative emotions. Two out of hundreds of drivers acting aggressively is really saying hundreds of people did not act aggressively and that’s not really something to get upset about.

But “everyone is so aggressive” can easily be an upsetting thought.

When I first started writing, I would ask Klassy to edit for me, and the most common thing she wanted to change was my propensity for overstating my case. I was young and I had never thought about that before. But she would often scratch out a sentence like, “This method will work every time,” and put in something like, “It works most of the time.” And her revision was not only more true, but it was more believable for that reason. I was merely overstating my case and losing the credibility of the reader in the process.

It can be misleading in writing and it can be misleading when you think it in your head. Exaggerated thoughts makes you feel extra (inappropriate) emotions. Exaggerated negative thoughts makes you feel exaggerated negative emotions. As soon as you recognize one of your thoughts is an exaggeration, your emotions calm down quickly.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.

Your Feelings Will Change Quickly

Good news: The moment you recognize one of your negative thoughts is nonsense, the spell is broken. Immediately. You don’t have to wait for some vague reward in the future.

If you think, “I’m helpless to do anything about it,” and you really look at that assumption and find you have very little evidence to justify such a sweeping allegation, your negative feeling evaporates. As soon as you recognize you have been mistaken, your demoralization vanishes, literally within minutes.

Your feelings are influenced by your thoughts, but only the thoughts you truly believe. If you don’t believe it, a thought will have zero impact on your feelings. That’s why positive thinking sometimes doesn’t work. But it’s also why as soon as you find something wrong with a pessimistic thought — the moment you realize you were mistaken and you stop believing it — your feelings change.

It’s not what you say to yourself that makes a difference. It’s what you believe. And not what you can “get yourself” to believe, but what you really and truly think is true.

When you think, “Jerry is a jerk,” and you feel angry because of it, as soon as you recognize it’s merely a label and therefore it’s an overstatement, your feeling of anger diminishes. Immediately. You now don’t believe Jerry is a jerk. Maybe you think he doesn’t speak very nicely to you sometimes for reasons you don’t know. That’s more in line with reality and not as angering.

Your new, more reasonable explanation reminds you that you don’t speak nicely sometimes and sometimes other people don’t know why. We’re all just human. That doesn’t mean you have to love Jerry, or even like him. Remember, this is not trying to do anything positive. Just take the negative nonsense out of your explanations.

If you find one of your demoralizing explanations is true, okay. Leave it alone. Don’t try to gloss it over with niceness just because it makes you feel bad. Sometimes you will feel bad, because sometimes reality sucks. But more times than not, the explanations making you sad or angry or worried are wrong. They contain mistakes.

Often something that was a big problem fizzles away into nothing under the glaring scrutiny of your earnest search for thought-mistakes. You find some mistakes, you see through the illusion, and poof — the problem disappears. Not always, but it happens.

trigger the explanation-check

So the good news is that your feelings change quickly. The bad news is that even though you know this, and even though you don’t like feeling bad, you will still forget to use it. At the time you’re feeling bad, it probably won’t occur to you to do anything about it. Bad feelings have a kind of mesmerizing, hypnotic effect. Bad feelings capture your attention.

So you need to make setbacks trigger an explanation-check. Associate setbacks, and the feeling of demoralization that follows, with an explanation-check. Associate it so many times, it becomes an automatic habit with you to check every time your setback happens. When you feel bad, you want it to occur to you that you can do something about it.

You’re reading this chapter and thinking this sounds like a great idea, and you can’t wait to feel bad so you can try it. A week from now you’ll realize you haven’t caught yourself once. Setbacks have happened, you explained them to yourself, and you went right on feeling bad but never reflecting on the fact that you had any choice in the matter. Then later you’ll look back and think, “Oh yeah, I was supposed to check my explanations.”

But if you keep trying, you can do it. Do you believe me? If you don’t, or if you try and fail, then check that explanation for this setback!

Keep trying. Make this something you focus on for the next few months. Have a necklace made for yourself that says, “Check explanations every setback” and wear it around your neck. Write it on a card and carry it in your pocket. Put it on the screensaver of your computer.

I don’t mean do one of these things. I mean do all of these things and anything else you can think of. This is serious business. The way you explain setbacks determines to a large extent how your life will turn out!

Make a sign that says, “Check explanations every setback” and post it on your bathroom mirror, on the dashboard of your car, on the refrigerator door. Put it in your closet where you’ll see it every morning. Tell your son to remind you of it every morning and you’ll give him a dollar for reminding you. And try try try. You will fail a lot. Each time you realize you’ve gone the whole day and didn’t once catch yourself explaining a setback, that itself is a setback, so check right then how you’re explaining it!

Every time you feel bad, write down what you’re thinking and argue with it. That’s how you form the habit.

A sluggish computer probably makes you think, “It’s time to run a virus scan (clean your computer of viruses and malware).” In the same way, a negative emotion should automatically make you think it’s time to clean your mind of mistaken thoughts.

What is the first thing to do when you feel a negative emotion? (I’m quizzing you now.) Answer: Clean your mind of mistaken explanations of setbacks. Do a virus scan of your brain.

You don’t really need to know anything more about the antivirus for the mind. With what you’ve learned so far, you can very effectively change your feelings and accomplish your goals with more certainty. But a few more pieces of information can make it easier.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

How to Lift Yourself Out of Most Negative Emotions

The next time you feel a negative emotion, get two pens of different color, say red and black. In red, write a negative thought you have about the situation. For example, Harold writes, “Nobody loves me.” Any negative thought is likely to be an explanation of a setback. In this case, someone was rude to Harold, and he felt bad about it because of his thought, “Nobody loves me.”

Now using the black pen, Harold argues with his statement. He imagines his least favorite person (his worst enemy) said to him, “Nobody loves you.”

Once the statement is outside his head, it becomes more objective (and less subjective) so it becomes easier to argue with. When it is inside his head, part of him, something he thinks, it is harder to recognize a thought as mistaken.

Harold stares at his written statement (nobody loves me) and tries to find something wrong with it. What can he say to that statement? How could he argue with it? Why is it a stupid thing to think? What is mistaken about it?

When you do this, you force the statement to stand trial. Really all of your thoughts ought to get this kind of scrutiny. But nobody has time for that, so only take the time when your thoughts are handicapping you (demoralizing you, making you feel upset, etc.)

So he stares at his statement and eventually writes, “That’s really not true. I can think of at least two people who love me for sure.”

That’s pretty good. Harold has found a mistake. Good for him. Do you see how that is different than trying to look on the bright side or repeating to himself, “I am loved I am loved I am loved?” Introducing legitimate doubt about a negative statement has far more emotional impact, and the impact is instant.

So he discovered his first mistake: His negative thought isn’t really true. Excellent.

But he shouldn’t stop there. He should come up with as many arguments as he can against his statement. He might write, “Maybe there is something I could do — some action I could take — that would make me more lovable. Being loved isn’t all-or-nothing anyway.” And so on.

The method is simple: Write something you think about the situation (something negative you believe about the situation) and then try find something wrong with your belief.

This is a very effective way to change the way you think about something. It’s kind of fun too, once you get going. And you can feel the negative emotion dissipate as you destroy the validity of the pessimistic assumptions that have been ruining your attitude.

Let me remind you that your arguments must be real. You’re not just playing the “devil’s advocate” here. Really look at the statement and find what is truly wrong with it. This is not glossing things over with nice thoughts.

Something many writers on positive thinking don’t make clear is that negative thinking is not just counterproductive; it is often objectively wrong. The negative thoughts are incorrect. They are exaggerations, overstatements, conclusions you have jumped to, rumors you have heard, or merely bad habits of thinking you picked up while growing up.

Your goal with the exercise is to scrutinize your own written statements long enough to discover if there is anything wrong with them. As Carl Sagan said, “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.” Check out our list of thought-mistakes to look for.

You might have deep nonsense in one area but not another. You might make good explanations for setbacks in your marriage but make lousy explanations for setbacks at work. The place where this antivirus of the mind is most useful is where you’re having difficulties.

Are you having a hard time losing weight? Quitting smoking? Getting in shape? Advancing your career? Feeling close to your kids? Where do you feel defeated? Where have you given up on a goal? Get out your two pens and work on that one.

When you feel thwarted or frustrated, check your explanations of setbacks. When you feel like giving up on a goal of yours, check your explanations. If you ever decide to do something and then later feel disappointed in yourself because you didn’t follow through, that is a time where checking for mistakes in your explanations will make a huge difference. Pull out those two pens and go to work.

Working with the pens like this is not difficult. It is easy to be negative about negative thoughts — easier than being positive. Especially when you feel negative already.

Handwriting your explanations and arguments with two colored pens is one way. Another is to write out everything you think about what’s bothering you. And then go back and argue with each sentence one at a time. This is a good variation to use on a computer. Type out every negative thought you have about the situation. And then go back and separate out a sentence and scrutinize it in a different font. Then take the next sentence and search for mistakes in that one. And so on.

Take your whole argument and print it out. Carry it around in your pocket for a few weeks. Reread it a couple of times a day for even more reinforcement and faster change.

trying even harder

If someone is in the habit of explaining setbacks poorly (with lots of mistakes), she will experience frequent feelings of demoralization — and she will often give up on her goal, starting projects but not sticking with them, deciding they were foolish goals anyway, and wondering why she came up with them in the first place.

On the other extreme, with a habit of making sensible explanations of setbacks, the same setbacks will make her feel more determined than ever. Many people wonder about this. How can a setback make someone more determined?

In my book, Self-Help Stuff That Works, I mention a study of the Berkeley swim team. The researchers timed each athlete as they swam a familiar distance. At the end of the “timed heat,” the coach told them a slower time than they really swam (in order to give them a setback).

They were all experienced competitors and they knew how their swim felt and what their time should be, so it was a small failure to discover they didn’t swim as fast as they thought they did.

After the setback, the athletes swam another heat. Prior to all of this swimming, the researchers gave the athletes a test to find out how each one explained setbacks.

Here’s the interesting thing: Those who made mistakes in their explanations felt defeated after the setback and swam their next heat slower. Those with few or no mistakes in their explanations swam their next heat faster. They actually tried harder after a “defeat.”

Why would someone try harder after a setback? For the same reason you would try harder if you played tennis with someone you know you can beat and your opponent scored a couple points in a row. You’d get riled up rather than feeling defeated. Your opponent’s scores would focus you and increase your determination to win.

For Norman Vincent Peale, his manuscript was rejected by a long string of publishers. One possible explanation is nobody wants it. Can you see how that takes away determination? It’s a thought-mistake. Has he tried everybody? No? Then he can’t say “nobody” wants it. It’s an overgeneralization. A more reasonable explanation might be I haven’t found the right publisher yet. Notice with this explanation, it might make him want to try even harder. It would increase his determination. (Read more about Peale and his manuscript here.)

If you try to talk to your teenager and he is distant and resentful, one possible way to explain that setback is that’s just the way teenagers are. That is a thought-mistake (overconfidence in a mere guess) and it reduces determination. A more reasonable explanation is I haven’t found the right approach yet. And notice again, this explanation could easily make you want to try harder, increasing determination.

A swimmer has a time slower than it should be. One swimmer might think to himself, I’m past my prime; I’m losing my edge. Can you feel how that would just suck the life right out of him? Contrast that with an explanation such as, I didn’t get enough sleep last night. You can’t do anything about being “past your prime.” But you can get more sleep.

I knew a woman who had two failed marriages. Her explanation was, all men are pigs. Very demoralizing. With a belief like that, would she feel motivated to date again? No, and she wasn’t. But what about an explanation like this: My strategy for choosing men needs improvement. Do you see how dramatically different that explanation is? What different results she would get with it?

Or how about a man who has had a heart attack. One way to explain that is I’m destined to die young. With an explanation like that, would the man change his diet? Change his attitude? Improve his marriage? Probably not. He would be too demoralized to do anything. As opposed to an explanation like this: Up until now, I haven’t been motivated to take good care of my health. Do you see how that leaves room for change? How it motivates? How it doesn’t at all demoralize?

And I know this is being repetitive, but I need to hammer on this: The second explanation has a better result, but it is also truer. Do not, I repeat: DO NOT just try to come up with a “positive” explanation. If you don’t really believe it, your new improved explanation won’t help you one little bit.

A salesman has ten people in a row say no. One explanation is, I’m the worst salesman who ever lived. Not very inspiring. Not likely to help get someone to say yes. As opposed to, I need to learn more about sales. Or even the typical sales principle, this is a numbers game. It’s just the odds. If I keep trying, I’ll get someone to say yes. It’s a better explanation because it is truer and gives you a better result.

I once wanted to speak in public but even the thought of it made me nervous. My explanation of it was I am constitutionally shy; my fear proves I can’t do it. That is full of thought-mistakes (overgeneralization, false permanence, mistaken unchangeability, extremism). A more reasonable explanation that did in fact make me want to try harder was it is normal to feel nervous; it is merely a lack of experience. It made me want to get more experience speaking.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Defeatism is Defeatable and Unstoppability is Attainable

The one kind of explanation of a setback that is most likely to make you want to give up is an assumption that no matter what you do, you cannot win. This is defeatism. It means you expect defeat. It means you accept defeat and decide there is nothing you can do to change things.

That kind of thinking takes the fight out of you, and if you ever had a chance to change things, it is now lost — only because of what happened in your mind.

But from now on, you will know how to prevent defeatism from destroying your determination. You will have the know-how to find it where it lurks in your mind, and crush it before it causes you to give up.

Defeatist thinking means you assume you can’t improve the situation. It is an assumption; never a fact. And you are not replacing that assumption with another assumption. This is not an effort to convince yourself of a positive thought. You are merely leaving the question where it really is: You don’t know. When you truly don’t know, it is foolish to assume you’re helpless. It is unnecessary and self-defeating to decide something cannot be done.

During the Civil War, the situation seemed hopeless several times to the North, even though, of course, the North eventually won. But if you read the newspapers of the day, written by Northerners and published in Union newspapers, you might easily be persuaded to think there was no possible way the North would win. Lots of writers who ardently and desperately wanted the North to win nevertheless expressed their absolute certainty of losing. They were demoralized.

For example, an ardent Northern patriot, Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune, wrote, “We have to fight for a boundary — that is all now left to us.” In other words, winning the Civil War against the South was a lost cause. All that the North could hope for was to draw a boundary and let the Southerners form their own separate government.

“I can understand the awful reluctance with which you can be brought to contemplate a divided nation. But there is no help for it,” Medill wrote, “...complete success has become a moral impossibility.”

Medill’s demoralization was not his alone. During several trying periods, it was shared by a majority of people in the North. So many setbacks (combined with the explanations people made of those setbacks) had most Northerners convinced the war could not be won by the North.

Their certainty was premature, as we now know. Their pessimism was overdone, as it usually is.

When Admiral Byrd was a boy in the wrestling match, he assumed he would lose, and he gave up. But what brought him back to life was his realization he might be mistaken about that.

If he went a step further and assumed he could win, that would have been positive thinking, which has its place. But anti-defeatism is more sure and more basic, it doesn’t require trying to convince yourself of something you are not convinced of, and always should be your first step.

The reality is, people often give up on something and decide it can’t be accomplished when it really can. They assume the situation is hopeless when it actually isn’t. And so dreams go unfulfilled. Goals are forgotten. Relationships fall apart. Finances crumble. Kids are left without guidance. And so on.

The things you have in your heart — the things you really want to accomplish — can probably be accomplished. But you have to prevent your mind from reflexively making the assumption it is hopeless.

The making of a defeatist assumption is almost always reflexive, meaning you don’t make it consciously. Here’s how it happens: You hit a setback and you feel like you’ve been kicked in the gut. In self-defense, your mind concludes the goal is impossible. It’s a natural reaction, almost a reflex. That’s defeatism. And the assumptions behind it are almost always wrong.

If a goal is sufficiently important to you, a setback will certainly make you feel bad, no matter who you are or how many times you’ve read this book. But the way you explain the setback to yourself will then bring you back quickly and help you recover from the blow, or it will keep you feeling bad, or even make you feel worse and worse.

In other words, the way you explain the setback to yourself will determine how quickly your determination comes back, and if it comes back at all.

How do you keep from giving up? How do you keep from selling out? How do you keep from letting your feeling of motivation die? This is a question of the ages. And now you know the answer.

This applies to any goal you have. If your marriage is on the rocks, the way you’re explaining this setback will determine whether you’ve reached an important turning point in your relationship, or the beginning of the end.

People who make good explanations of setbacks are more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke. Why? Because they are more persistent. They are less likely to feel defeated so they are less likely to give up on what they want. The way they explain setbacks gives them a sense that their actions make a difference — which is a fact poor explanations conceal. Good explanations prevent them from making the mistake of deciding that something (like a smoking habit) cannot be changed.

If something is changeable or preventable, it makes a big difference whether you believe it is or believe it isn’t.

For example, if you have frequent, negative shouting matches with your teenager, this is a setback. Things are not turning out like you want. So you will explain it. Let’s say you decide, “That’s just the way teenagers are.”

Is that a good explanation? Well, it’s better than, “I can’t make anything work,” but no, it is not a good explanation. Why? Because it implies that the situation can’t change until your kid is an adult. And that may not be true. It is a way of “accepting” the situation without feeling too bad about it. But it doesn’t help you accomplish your goal — having a good relationship with your teen.

Your explanations determine whether you will try again or not. Making a mistaken explanation like, “That’s the way teens are,” can kill your motivation to try again.

Sales is a good testing ground for this stuff. Salespeople hit lots of setbacks and the setbacks are important — too many setbacks and you can’t pay your mortgage! That’s serious.

MetLife Insurance Company used to hire five thousand salespeople a year, spend time and money training them, and by the end of the first year, half of them quit. Most of those who didn’t quit sold less and less, and by the fourth year, eighty percent of them had quit. This was typical of the entire insurance-sales industry, and it was a tragic waste of training expenses and a tragedy of human failure and suffering.

MetLife wanted to do something about it. Martin Seligman set up a series of experiments and here’s what he found out: Those who made the fewest mistakes in their thinking (when they explained their setbacks to themselves) were the most likely to do well. They made a lot more sales and they were much less likely to become demoralized and quit.

Think about that. In a job full of setbacks, strong explanations won the race by a mile. The salespeople in the habit of explaining setbacks with minimum mistakes were more successful and less demoralized — they did better and they felt better.

Good explanations did more than simply make them persistent. When a salesperson makes fewer mistakes in her explanations, she stops feeling so disheartened by setbacks. So setbacks themselves become less of a big deal. She then frets less about upcoming sales presentations. If a sales call doesn’t turn out well, she now knows it won’t be a catastrophe. So she has less anxiety before a sales call, and less demoralization after a rejection. This makes it easier to make the next call. This makes success more likely.

The antivirus for the mind won’t take care of everything — it is not the end-all, be-all for feeling better and getting more done. It is only one of the tools.

The other four tools in this book will help you go far beyond merely protecting yourself from demoralization. But if you fully understand the antivirus for the mind and put it into practice, you can immunize yourself against many unnecessary negative feelings. This will make the achievement of your goals easier and more fun.

a case in point

To see how the antivirus for the mind works on a specific problem, a team of researchers took thirty-three people with panic disorder who averaged five panic attacks per week per person.

Sixteen of them had weekly sessions with a therapist who provided emotional support. Seventeen of them had weekly sessions with a cognitive therapist who taught them to check their explanations for mistakes.

For instance, when a man felt chest pain, he was taught to question his explanations. His first explanation of chest pain might be, “I am having a heart attack.” And that thought basically scared him into a panic attack. This is a common side-effect of negative thoughts: A self-feeding loop. In other words, a negative thought making a negative emotion, and the negative emotion causing more negative thoughts, which causes even more intense negative emotions. In his case, a feeling in his chest scares him (because of his explanation of it) and so his heart beats harder, which he can feel, which scares him even more, etc.

The man’s cognitive therapist coached him to question his explanation and remind himself that when these feelings occurred in the past, they had never amounted to anything.

He was also coached to come up with more likely causes than the first thought that came to mind (that it’s a heart attack). It was more likely to be heartburn, for example.

In other words, he learned to doubt his automatic, habitual, negative assumptions. He learned to recognize the mistakes in his thinking. He learned that his first explanation is not the only one possible and not necessarily the best one.

At the end of two months, twelve of the cognitive-therapy people (the explanation-checkers) were totally free of panic attacks. Only four of the emotionally-supported people were free of attacks.

Among those who still had panic attacks, the explanation-check people averaged one attack a week. The emotional-support people averaged three per week.

The researchers did a one-year follow-up. The success rate had not diminished in that time. Arguing with their own negative, pessimistic thoughts dramatically changed their lives.

Hundreds of similar studies show the same results on a huge variety of negative feelings.

Similar effects to cognitive therapy can be achieved on your own using paper and pen. As a matter of fact, that’s often the most effective technique cognitive therapists assign as “homework.” It is not difficult to do.

This article is excerpted from the book, Antivirus For Your Mind.

Positive Thinking Versus Explanatory Style

A clergyman in his fifties had written the manuscript for a book. Since he lived in New York where all the publishers were back in those days, he spent his spare time going into publishers’ offices and asking them to look at his manuscript. Nobody was interested.

It can, of course, be disheartening to get rejection after rejection. With enough setbacks (and poor explanations of them) something happens that is worse than feeling discouraged. The accumulating failures drain away your motivation. Get disheartened enough and your goal starts to seem undesirable.

Even if you know how to motivate yourself, if you don’t know how to undemoralize yourself, you’re sunk. Why? Because you can be so thoroughly demoralized you lose your desire to even try to motivate yourself, making your ability to motivate yourself essentially worthless.

Thinking up goals is easy. Ideas about what you want come easily to mind — maybe even too easily. And feeling motivated to take action (to accomplish a goal you want) comes naturally to most healthy people. You want your goal to happen, so of course you’re motivated.

But if setting goals is easy and motivation comes naturally, why don’t you accomplish every goal you set? Because setbacks demoralize you if you don’t explain them well.

It happened to the clergyman. One day, while he was talking to his wife, he decided he had experienced one setback too many and his goal to get his book published became undesirable. He threw his manuscript in the trash, saying he’d had enough.

Remember this, please: When you make mistakes in your explanations, it not only nudges you toward failure and giving up and depression, it leads to selling out.

The clergyman’s wife knew how much the manuscript meant to him, so she reached into the trash can to pull it out. “No,” he said, “I’ve wasted enough time on it. I forbid you to take it out of there.” And she never did.

But the next day, she was thinking about it and got an idea. She took the manuscript (still inside the wastebasket) to another publisher. The publisher, intrigued by this unusual way to bring in a manuscript, read it and loved it. He published it, and boy is he glad he did! The book became one of the bestselling books of all time!

The irony is that the book is The Power of Positive Thinking.

The story seemed too ironic to be true, so I wrote to the Peales and asked if it was really true. I heard back from Mrs. Peale, who said yes, that’s the way it happened.

Positive thinking is different than explanatory style. With positive thinking, I’m sure Norman Vincent Peale would have felt good about throwing that manuscript in the trash. He would have kept his cheerful disposition.

With an unthwartable explanatory style, he would have simply tried again, perhaps in a different way.

We’re talking about the ability to try again after a setback — the ability to encounter a setback without giving up in defeat or feeling the goal is hopeless.

What kind of hopeless explanation would make someone throw away their life’s work? Norman must have thought something like, “My book is unpublishable.” Or “Nobody wants it.”

Mrs. Peale must have explained it differently. Perhaps, “It hasn’t been seen by the right publisher.” Or maybe even, “It hasn’t been delivered the right way yet. Perhaps in a trash can would get someone’s attention!”

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

How to Become More Persistent

The negative thoughts you have and your (occasionally) mistaken explanations of setbacks seem completely natural. The explanations do not appear in your mind as “A Possible Explanation For This Setback.” You just seem to “know” what caused the setback, usually without giving it another thought.

Your explanations feel natural, but remember this: They only feel natural because you’ve been thinking that way for a long time. Your explanations are familiar. When you change your explanations, when you remove some of the mistakes in your thinking, they will not feel as natural at first because — and only because — they are unfamiliar. But after awhile, they will feel as natural as anything.

The assumptions that flit through our minds with the greatest of ease and make us feel demoralized are common assumptions like these:

I blew my diet because I’m a pig with no willpower.

I didn’t exercise this week because I’m lazy.

I need to face the fact that I’ll never be able to do this.

That’s the way the economy is going; it’s getting harder and harder to make a living.

I’m a loser.

There aren’t enough hours in the day.

I don’t have enough motivation.

I don’t have enough self-discipline.

I’m too old.

Nothing can be done about it.

Everything is a hassle.

Nothing comes easy.

These statements are demoralizing. Do the statements contain mistakes or don’t they? You’ll find out soon enough. But I cannot emphasize enough we’re not talking about “looking on the bright side” or trying to cover ugly reality with pretty thoughts. The fundamental point we are making is that if you think a situation is hopeless and you believe you can’t do anything about it, you should look carefully at that assumption because it is usually wrong. This idea is powerful and effective, and it works with everyday setbacks as well as major disasters.

Disaster At Sea

Dougal Robertson was sailing across the Pacific Ocean with his family when three killer whales simultaneously struck their boat. (Killer whales often attack larger whales like that, striking it to stun it. Then they eat it.) The sailboat started sinking — fast! Within minutes, their boat was gone and they found themselves sitting in silence in an empty ocean, completely dazed.

The thoughts going through Dougal’s mind were filled with despair. Why, he thought, had he been so reckless as to endanger his family’s life like this? How could he have risked their lives with his selfish desire to educate them in such an unorthodox way?

He himself started sinking — into feelings of despair and hopelessness and guilt as he thought about the loss of his boat, the danger his family was in, and the foolish mistakes he had made.

They were in the middle of the Pacific on a raft and a little fiberglass dingy, without a radio, without a homing beacon, and a long way from shipping lanes. The wind and currents were moving in the opposite direction of the nearest land. They had very little food or water.

The situation was grim to say the least, and as Dougal thought about it and felt anguish for putting his family in this situation, he suddenly realized his face was showing his hopelessness.

He knew his depression would ruin any chance they had of surviving. He was the leader. They were all looking to him. His own despair would demoralize them all, and he also knew a defeated person doesn’t do what he needs to survive.

Dougal had to rise out of his depression. Driven by the necessity of so great a responsibility, he spontaneously invented the way out.

He had never read a book about cognitive therapy. He didn’t know there was such a thing. But he started exactly what cognitive therapists teach their clients to do: He debated with his own demoralizing thoughts.

His first thought was, I shouldn’t have brought them out in the ocean. “But,” he argued with himself, “Douglas had grown to manhood in our 18 months at sea. The formerly shy and introspective twins had become interested in the world, had expanded their understanding of other people and had awakened their desire to learn more.”

But I took them out on such an old boat. “It was of much heavier construction than newer boats, and sank slower than a modern boat would have, allowing us time to get off the boat and safely into the life raft.”

But I have now risked their lives. “What happened was as unforeseeable as an earthquake or an airplane crash.”

Dougal’s crash-course in anti-defeatism worked. He revived. His demoralization vanished and was replaced by a firm determination to get his family home safely. He explained their situation and what needed to be done, and they immediately started taking actions that helped them survive.

They spent 38 days on in their lifeboat and dingy, overcoming one obstacle after another without losing heart, and they all made it home alive.

Stories of survival show very clearly the power of arguing with defeatist explanations. You can see the usefulness of the principle in naked relief when shown in such harsh live-or-die circumstances. You can see that the only hope the Robertsons had of making it home alive was to keep trying. Giving up meant death. Had they succumbed to despair, the slim chance of survival they had would have vanished as quickly as their sailboat beneath the waves.

Dougal Robertson wrote a book about his family's experience. It is one of my favorite books of all time. Check it out: Survive the Savage Sea.

The Flying Kitty Hawk Brothers

My Grampa Bill lived near Kitty Hawk when he was a kid, and used to go watch the Wright brothers testing their aircraft. One time, because the Wright brothers wanted to shut the mouths of the doubters and improve the accuracy of some of the crazy stuff newspapers were printing about their work, the brothers invited reporters out to Kitty Hawk for a demonstration.

Everything went wrong. It was raining pretty hard and they were having trouble with the engine, so they didn’t get a chance to do anything until late afternoon. They made one attempt that day, and although the aircraft got up some speed, it never got off the ground.

The rain didn’t let up, so they had to wait two more days before they tried it again. This time they got about seven feet off the ground before the plane crashed.

The next day, a New York Times headline said, “FALL WRECKS AIRSHIP.” (The negative bias of the news media was in full swing even way back then.) It was more than a year before any reporters came out to visit.

But the Wright brothers continued their work, as determined as ever. Why? What kept them working when they had so many failures? It all boils down to how they explained the setback to themselves. If they told themselves their goal was impossible, or that they weren’t capable, or some other explanation that took the wind out of their sails, they would not have pursued their goal, and they would have disappeared into oblivion. Anybody who explains their own setbacks that way gives up in defeat.

But the explanations the Wright brothers made of their many setbacks must have been more sensible. They must have thought the problems were fixable. They must have believed the cause of the setbacks could be changed. Explanations like these keep people from feeling demoralized in the face of setbacks.

It’s not willpower. It’s the way setbacks are explained. Remember that.

Most people think you can force yourself to keep going even when you believe it is hopeless. But when you “know” it’s hopeless, you won’t force yourself. When you are sure you are defeated, it is irrational to persist.

If you really want a drink of water, and you have an empty glass in your hand, and you can see it is empty, you won’t bother to try to take a drink from it. You know it is hopeless.

Willpower won’t help you. When you feel demoralized, finding a mistake in your explanations is the only thing that can save you.

“Through some strange and powerful principle of ‘mental chemistry’ which she has never divulged,” wrote Napoleon Hill in 1937, “Nature wraps up in the impulse of STRONG DESIRE ‘that something’ which recognizes no such word as impossible, and accepts no such reality as failure.”

Nobody knew what “that something” was back then. In a chapter on persistence, Napoleon Hill recommended willpower for persisting after a failure. We now know better.

Nature has divulged her secret to the unremitting efforts of cognitive scientists. It isn’t willpower. It is sensible explanations of setbacks that makes people determined and persistent. Good explanations are Nature’s secret “something” that gives people strength in the face of obstacles. Those who explain setbacks in the least demoralizing way have the most persistence.

In other words, the way to become more persistent is to make sure you don’t jump to demoralizing conclusions about the cause of the setback.

Instead of gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to try again even though you feel it’s hopeless, try eliminating the feeling of defeat to begin with and then persist naturally, driven by your desire — which remains undiminished by feelings of defeat.

This article is excerpted from the book, Antivirus For Your Mind.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

How to Improve Your Explanations of Setbacks

The best way to improve your explanations of setbacks is simply to search for mistakes in your explanations as they arise in your mind.

Our minds work automatically for the most part — interpreting, concluding, deciding, judging — and it serves us well. We would get bogged down if we tried to analyze every explanation we made. So we’re not going to even try to do that. It is completely unnecessary. When things are going well and you feel good, let the good times roll.

But when things are not working — when things don’t turn out as you hoped, when your mood goes south, when you want to give up on your goal — search for mistakes!

The easiest way to find mistakes is to write down your demoralizing thoughts and argue with those thoughts on paper. Consider yourself personally challenged by those demoralizing statements and defend yourself. Imagine your least favorite person said those statements and find something wrong with those statements. Find everything wrong with them you can.

Decide right now who your least favorite person is. If you have more than one in mind, just choose one.

Now use a mental image of that person when you’re arguing with your thoughts. Imagine that person explaining your setbacks to you (with sneering derision).

The best way to do this is on paper. Writing your explanations down on paper makes them tangible and gives you something to work with. It is much easier than trying to do it in your head.

When a setback occurs, write down something you think caused the setback. For example, imagine a proposal of yours has been rejected. You write down what you think caused the setback. In this case, you think, “Nobody likes my ideas.” In other words, you think your proposal was rejected because nobody likes your ideas.

Now argue with that sentence (on paper). Imagine your least favorite person said to you, “Nobody likes your ideas!” Now look for mistakes in that explanation. You might write something like this: Nobody? That might be an exaggeration. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. I really haven’t tried everybody, and besides, it might not be the ideas, it might be the presentation, which could be changed, and so on.

After arguing with your thoughts this way, you can see that really only sometimes people don’t like your ideas. That is a more accurate appraisal of the real situation. And it is not so devastating or upsetting as the thought, “Nobody likes my ideas.”

So you have made your explanation of the setback more accurate and less upsetting.

Being less upset won’t make you ecstatic or jumping for joy, but that is not our purpose here. The aim is to remove demoralization that shouldn’t be there. The aim is to take away a feeling of defeat that is false, unjustifiable, and unreasonable.

Feeling demoralized is debilitating — it handicaps you, so the only time you should ever let yourself feel that way is when you really are defeated. Right now, you often feel demoralized mistakenly. We’re going to fix that. It might not make you happy, but it will make you feel bad less often and it will make you more powerful (more capable of accomplishing what you want).

three little snags

It sounds pretty easy to argue with demoralizing thoughts, but three problems tend to come up when you try. First, negative feelings seem to arise on their own without any thoughts causing them. That, however, is an illusion.

In fact, your negative feelings were preceded by a thought such as, “Nobody likes my ideas.” That explanation usually zips through your mind so quickly and so automatically, you don’t notice it. All you notice is the effect: The resulting feelings.

The speed and invisibility of your own thoughts is a problem. You have a difficult time arguing with a thought you don’t even know you’re thinking.

The reason you don’t know what you’re thinking when you explain a setback is that some thoughts are so well-practiced — you have thought them so many times — that the thinking goes on in the background of your mind. You explain certain categories of setback with certain well-practiced explanations, and then you feel a certain way, and all without even realizing it. As far as you know, the setback itself made you feel bad. It seems obvious that anyone would feel bad. It seems obvious that feeling bad is the appropriate response. But it only seems that way because your explanation zipped by so quickly. And it only zipped by so quickly because you have practiced that explanation so many times.

I want you to fully understand how well-practiced your explanations are. You have many setbacks every day, all of which you explain to yourself, and you’ve been doing it since before you can remember.

What happens when you do anything several times a day for that many years? What happens is that you stop being aware you’re doing it. It has gone completely automatic. This would not be a problem if we always made good explanations. But sometimes we make mistakes.

The way we explain setbacks to ourselves is the way we haphazardly got into the habit of doing it when we were younger. We’re not necessarily making the best possible explanations we could make, as you’ll find out. But now it’s automatic.

So you explain setbacks automatically, and the way you feel and what you do ensues from the way you explain the setbacks, but you aren’t even aware you’re doing it. To you, your feelings are appropriate and fitting, given the circumstances. You always feel this way when that kind of thing happens. Not because that’s the only way a person could feel when that happens, but only because you always explain those kinds of setbacks the way you’re used to explaining things like that, and your emotions in response are familiar and seem perfectly normal.

That’s why it’s hard to notice yourself making explanations. You’re explaining setbacks pretty much automatically, just as you drive your car automatically. You can carry on a conversation while you drive, allowing your driving (a very complicated process) to happen automatically. And you haven’t had nearly as much practice driving as you have explaining setbacks.

The solution to this problem is to write down your negative thoughts, and argue with them on paper. Your explanations of setbacks are slippery and hard to get a hold of. They move through your mind with practiced speed. But put them down on paper and you can dissect them more easily.

Your thoughts are more airy than a physical habit, and that’s the only thing that makes them seem harder to change. But when you write them down, it makes your thoughts real, physical, and available for scrutiny.

So when you begin to try to improve your explanations of setbacks, the first problem you’ll run into is your explanations are well-practiced and move with a lot of speed through your mind, making it hard to know what you’re thinking.

The second problem occurs even when you know what you’re thinking. You know what you think, but you believe your thoughts are true.

For example, after his divorce, a man decided, “I am doomed to miserable relationships.” His mind is made up. He is sure he is right. How can he successfully argue with his demoralizing thoughts? He is defeated before he starts.

He may even be aware of thinking the pessimistic, defeatist thought, but if he assumes he’s correct, he’ll make no attempt to argue with his thinking.

The solution to this problem is to look at your thoughts with an already-existing list of “virus definitions” (which you’ll find out about shortly). In other words, you won’t try to decide on the spot whether your thoughts are true or not. If you feel bad, you’ll write down your thoughts. Even if you think you’re not making any mistakes in your thinking, write down your thoughts if you feel bad. Then look at your thoughts through the filter of the virus definitions I’ll give you shortly. You may be mistaken about your explanation without knowing it. The virus definitions will help you discover whether or not this is the case.

The third problem you’ll encounter when you try to argue with your thoughts is not knowing which thoughts to argue with. You have a lot of thoughts going through your mind. Which ones do you write down and argue with? It’s not as hard as it might seem at first. We can be very specific about what to look for:

1. something you believe caused the setback

2. a belief that makes you feel bad

Let me give you some examples. Let’s say you planned to exercise today, but the day is over, and you are now in bed — and you didn’t exercise today. You think about it for a second and conclude, “I have no self-discipline.” And you feel like a loser.

That conclusion is what you would argue with. The setback is: You didn’t exercise. You’re trying to get in shape, and you didn’t exercise according to your plan. The thought, “I have no self-discipline” is what you believe caused the setback. In other words, the reason you didn’t exercise is that you have no self-discipline. That reason is what you would argue with. (You’re going to learn how to argue later in this chapter.)

Let’s look at another example. You’re a freshman in college and you get a failing grade on your first exam, and you feel sad. You were enthusiastic but now all the enthusiasm about school has drained out of you. That is a setback. Remember, a setback is anything that happens you didn’t want to happen. Or anything that doesn’t happen that you wanted to happen.
You didn’t want a failing grade, so it is a setback. You think, “I don’t have what it takes.” That is your explanation of why you failed the test. That is what you believe caused the setback — it’s the reason the setback happened — so that is the thought you write down and argue with: “I don’t have what it takes.”

A woman who showed up to a book-signing stayed afterwards to talk to me. She said she was compulsively perfectionistic, but she considered it a fixed part of her character so she had never tried to change it.

This is a setback. It doesn’t seem like a setback, perhaps, because it didn’t happen suddenly. But she didn’t want to be a perfectionist. Her explanation implied that she couldn’t help it. She was born that way. She thought genetics was the cause of her setback, so that was what she wrote down to argue with.

Another reason it doesn’t seem like a setback is that her explanation of the setback probably evolved before she really got a chance to form a goal of being more relaxed (less uptight, less perfectionistic). But listening to her, it was clear she didn’t want to be a perfectionist. This implies a goal of being free of that compulsion.

But the goal was never articulated because she thought it was impossible. A lot of goals are like that. You probably have some goals like that yourself. The very second you formed the goal in your mind, you dismissed it because of some explanation. So you formed a goal and hit a setback (in your mind) in the same moment.

Things you “always wished” you could do are in that category. You decided they were hopeless dreams the second you thought of them. They sit there in the back of your mind in a state of suspended animation, and until you read this, they may have remained that way. You may never have checked those explanations for mistakes.

I had one of those. When I was a kid, I wanted to play the electric guitar. But before I even fully clarified that goal in my mind, I had already killed it: “Electric guitars are really expensive, I would have to learn the acoustic first (and I’m not interested in acoustic guitar), I don’t have the patience for music lessons, and besides, everyone wants to play the electric guitar (so I’d never be able to play in a band because of too much competition).”

These are conclusions I never examined. They were self-evident conclusions as far as I was concerned. Conclusions like this destroy motivation and demote a potentially satisfying purpose to an idle daydream. The battle was over before I even knew a battle was going on.

We largely defeat ourselves. Wise people have been saying that for thousands of years. But cognitive researchers (scientists who study the effect of thoughts on feelings and behavior) have discovered how we defeat ourselves.

If you have “always wanted” to play the piano, but you think, “I’m too old now; I should have learned as a child,” you slam the door on that possibility just as completely as if you had amputated your hands. But what is stopping you? The only thing stopping you is your explanation of the setback.

The setback: You would like to play piano, but you have failed to do so.

The explanation: If you’re going to play the piano, you have to start when you’re a child, and you’re no longer a child, so now you can’t play the piano.

Let’s look at one more example of a setback and an explanation and then we’ll get to the meat of the matter. It is vitally important that you understand these first distinctions. The method I explain in this chapter rests on the solid foundation of you knowing exactly what I mean by “setback” and “explanation of a setback.”

Let’s say you want to become a teacher but you’re afraid of speaking in public. Years have gone by and you’ve never done anything about it. You feel like a chicken, like you have no backbone, and you’re a little ashamed of yourself. That’s a setback. In this case, it is something that doesn’t happen that you wanted to happen. And you feel bad because you believe it will never happen.

Your explanation of why you’re afraid to speak in public is, “I was born shy.” That is your explanation of the cause of the setback. That’s the reason you’re afraid to do it. And that is the thought to write down and argue with.

Okay. Enough examples. Now you know what to look for and what to argue with. When you feel demoralized or some other negative emotion, look for what you think caused the setback. Look for the reason the setback happened.

Rooting out negative thoughts — and seeing them for what they are — can eliminate the negative emotions they cause. Successfully arguing against those demoralizing thoughts will undemoralize you. It can, and probably will, make you feel good again. And it will make you stronger, more creative, more persistent, and more capable.

A feeling of frustration or demoralization takes the fun out of your days. So immunizing yourself against demoralization is not only good for you and good for your ability to succeed, it makes life more fun!

It takes a little work, but it is worth it. Some people try to take the easy way so they “think positive.” Let me be very clear on this point: Arguing with your negative thoughts is not positive thinking. If you handle your explanations of setbacks by trying to think more positively, it will not work nearly as well as finding out what is really and truly mistaken about your negative thoughts.

This is not positive thinking. It is more like anti-defeatist or anti-discouragement thinking. Aim at making fewer mistakes in your thinking. This is a kind of antivirus program for your mind. It is more fundamental than positive thinking, and also more effective when you feel demoralized.

You’re not trying to make yourself believe a more positive thought here. You’re not even trying to make yourself believe your negative thoughts are mistaken. You’re trying to find actual, real mistakes in your negative thoughts. No convincing is necessary, no “faith” is necessary, and trying to make yourself believe something you don’t actually believe is unnecessary.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.