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.