Meanings and Feelings

Stanley Schachter set up the following experiment: He first divided his experimental subjects into two groups and gave them all a shot of adrenaline. Then the subjects mingled with Schachter’s assistants, whom the subjects had been led to believe were given a shot too.

In one group, the assistants acted as if they were experiencing anxiety. In the other group, the assistants acted excited and happy. Asked what the shot had done to them, subjects in the first group said the adrenaline shot made them feel anxious; subjects in the second group said the adrenaline made them feel excited and elated.

The way the assistants acted influenced the way the subjects interpreted their experience. And it was their interpretations that made their experience pleasant or unpleasant. The adrenaline shot was the same in both groups, and caused the same effects: it made their hearts pound, dilated their eyes, sent glucose to the muscles, and shut down the digestive tract.

Both groups experienced the same physical changes, but the way the assistants acted created a different meaning for the physical changes, and those meanings made the difference between anxiety and elation.

Change the meaning of an experience and the experience changes.

The late Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and a survivor of Hitler’s concentration camps, often changed the meaning of events for his patients, and it changed their lives. For example, an elderly and severely depressed man came to see Frankl. His wife had died and she had meant more to him than anything in the world.

“What would have happened,” Frankl asked the man, “if you had died first, and your wife would have survived you?”

The man answered: “Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”

“You see,” said Frankl, “such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.”

The man didn’t say anything. He shook Dr. Frankl’s hand and calmly left. Frankl wrote:

Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

The meanings you make in your life can be the difference between anxiety and elation, between hopelessness and courage, between failure and success, and even, as Frankl discovered in the concentration camps, between living and dying.

You have some control over the way you interpret the events of your life. The meanings of events are not written in stone. You can create more useful meanings for yourself. All it takes is a little thought.

This article was excerpted from the book, Principles For Personal Growth by Adam Khan. Buy it now here.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Take Advantage

William Coleman had only fifty percent of normal vision in one eye and only twenty-five percent in the other. The year was 1899 and although the electric light bulb had already been invented, not many people had one because electricity wasn't available in many places. Even with electricity, the light bulbs in those days weren't very bright. As a law student, the only way William could study at night was to have his parents read his texts to him. His poor eyesight was obviously a disadvantage. Or was it?

One night William walked into a store brightly lit by a pressurized gas lamp. It was producing more illumination than he'd ever seen — it was bright enough to read by! He said it was the most important moment of his life.

Without the "disadvantage" of poor eyesight, it wouldn't have meant much to him. But since it did mean so much, he got involved in a gas lamp business — so involved he eventually owned the company.

A hundred years later, the Coleman Company is still in business with sales at about half a billion dollars a year. And even though electric light illuminates most of the world, people still use Coleman Lanterns when they go camping. More than a million of those original pressurized gas lanterns are sold every year.

If there's something you think is a disadvantage, think again. Assume there will be an advantage in it and then find it or make it. This intention is a fundamental key to a good attitude. With it, the inevitable setbacks in life won't bring you down as much and you will handle problems more effectively.

I know some people would scoff at this idea. Too airy-fairy. It might remind them of some annoyingly positive people to whom everything is great, but somehow, behind their forced smile, you can see it's all a facade. But this idea can be used with depth, not merely as a way to show a pleasant face to the world to hide your pain from yourself. It can be done with intelligence and wisdom.

I'd like to make a distinction here. Many people think that cynicism and pessimism show that they are mature. Usually these are young people, ironically enough. Somehow cynicism is cool. But it is actually dangerous and unhealthy It makes you less successful and the bad attitude it creates is contagious.

In a study at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers interviewed people who had experienced a either a plane crash, a tornado, or a mass shooting. They interviewed the survivors a few weeks after the traumatic event and then again three years later. In the first interview, some people said they could find something good that came out of the event. Some reported they realized life was too short not to pursue their most important goals, or they realized how important their family was to them. Three years later, those were the people who recovered from the trauma most successfully.

In an interview in Psychology Today, the late Carl Sagan said, "This is my third time having to deal with intimations of mortality. And every time it's a character-building experience. You get a much clearer perspective on what's important and what isn't, the preciousness and beauty of life…I would recommend almost dying to everybody. I think it's a really good experience."

Think now about something you normally consider a disadvantage. Are you in debt? Did you have a rough childhood? Were you poor? Didn't have the advantages wealthier kids had? Do you lack education? Do you have a bad habit? Has something terrible happened to you?

What's good about it? Or how could you capitalize on your "disadvantage?" If you don't get a good answer right away, that only means it's a tough question. Try living in that question for several weeks or months. Ponder it while you drive. Wonder about it while you shower. Ask yourself the question every time you eat breakfast. Live with the question and you will get answers.

As Klassy (my wife) often says, "Things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out." As I write this, Klassy is at her ill mother's house, taking care of her, and I only see her on weekends. I miss her terribly. Obviously this is a bad thing.

But I'm using this time to work on a book. Instead of moping or simply suffering, I am making the most of it, taking advantage of it. When the ordeal is over, we will have gained a lot from this misfortune. That was our commitment when it started and by thought and action we're making it come true.

Take advantage of what you have, where you are, and when you are. It's the only practical way to deal with "disadvantages."

If you have a tendency to simply feel bad about your disadvantages, even that can become an advantage. Overcoming that tendency might teach you something valuable — something you couldn't have learned without it. And you can teach what you learned to your child, making a huge difference to the whole trajectory of her or his life.

Trying to make the best of something helps create solutions. It makes things better. It is even better for your health. It keeps you from feeling as bad when bad stuff happens, and that's important because negative emotions are not good for your health. As Richard H. Hoffmann, MD, said:

The human body is a delicately adjusted mechanism. Whenever its even tenor is startled by some intruding emotion like sudden fright, anger or worry, the sympathetic nervous system flashes an emergency signal and the organs and glands spring into action. The adrenal glands shoot into the blood stream a surcharge of adrenaline which raises the blood sugar above normal needs. The pancreas then secretes insulin to burn the excess fuel. But this bonfire burns not only the excess but the normal supply. The result is a blood sugar shortage and an underfeeding of the vital organs. So the adrenals supply another charge, the pancreas burns the fuel again, and the vicious cycle goes on. This battle of the glands brings on exhaustion."

Bad feelings play havoc on your system. The idea that trouble brings seeds of good fortune allows you to consider the possibility that the bad event might not be as bad as it seems at the moment, and in a sense, makes it possible to procrastinate feeling bad. Procrastinate long enough, and you might just skip it altogether.

Volunteers at the Common Cold Research Unit in England filled out a questionnaire. The researcher, Sheldon Cohen, discovered that the more positive the volunteers' attitudes were, the less likely they would catch a cold. And even when they did catch a cold, the more positive their attitude was, the more mild their symptoms were.

that's good!

In one of W. Clement Stone's books, he wrote that whenever someone came to him with a problem, he would always say, "That's good!" This puzzled people sometimes. They might be talking about a serious problem, and Stone would answer back with enthusiasm. Years ago when I first read this, I thought it was stupid, pie-in-the-sky bullpucky. But I've thought a lot about it over the years and I've tried it, and I've decided that maybe there are some things that sound stupid but are really smart.

When anything happens, usually some aspects of it are an advantage and some aspects of it are a disadvantage. For example, when you buy a new car, you will have to take it in to get repaired less often than your old car. That's one advantage. Maybe it gets better gas mileage. There's another advantage. But it is more likely to get stolen. That's a disadvantage. And your insurance payments are higher. You get the idea.

When you first hear about a problem, your first reaction is probably to see only the disadvantages. This puts you in a bad mood — a state of mind that's not only unpleasant as an experience, but also makes you less effective at dealing with the problem. So this normal, automatic, negative reaction to problems would be a good thing to change. I suggest trying Stone's method. It will take some practice, but it can eventually become a habit.

When a problem lands in your lap, say, "That's good!" (Note: Don't necessarily say it out loud. It will make some people mad.) And then immediately start doing two things: 1) look for the advantages that might be wrapped up in this "problem" (which may be difficult at first), and 2) look to see how you can turn it to your advantage, and take steps to make it so.

This approach will make you more effective. You can plainly see why. There's no time wasted on bemoaning what already exists, and action is taken immediately to turn it to your advantage. No energy is wasted getting into a worse mood. Your attitude toward it is open. There's nothing fixed or permanent about your viewpoint. When you change the way you think about something, it changes the way you feel about it. And when you change the way you feel about it, your actions change too — in this case, for the better. Try it.

If you have trouble at first learning to do this, that's good!

If you practice this way of reacting to problems enough, you can some day be as good at it as Richard Bandler, one of the co-founders of NLP. When a student of Bandler's complained that his house was being bugged, Bandler's reply was, "What a chance to talk to these people." Bandler had ingrained this attitude so thoroughly in his thoughts that he reeled off idea after idea. Why not play hypnotic tapes over and over in his house for the listeners? Why not practice all of your deep trance inductions and put the people bugging you into trance and give them hypnotic suggestions?

Bandler didn't look for what was wrong with being bugged. Anybody could do that. He looked for a way to take advantage of it. You can learn to have the same mental habit. Find the advantage and think of the "adversity" in terms of the advantage.

Has something ever happened to you that you thought at first was a bad thing, but then later you were really glad it happened? Keep that memory in your mind whenever something bad happens. You don't know what the future holds. This might be good. You might as well assume it will be, and start making it so.

mistakes are what you make of them

A mistake might not be a mistake. You might think that you should have done this or shouldn't have done that. But it would be better to ask what advantages your already done deeds give you and exploit them in the present.

The architect Bonano erected a freestanding bell tower for a cathedral, but he made it on soft subsoil — a bad mistake which made the tower lean over. That mistake created a large tourist industry and put the town on the map. Almost everyone in the world has heard of the leaning tower of Pisa. Galileo conducted his famous gravity experiments from the tower. He was able to use that tower because it was leaning.

The compass and its use in navigation was developed in the Mediterranean because the sailors had several disadvantages: the water was very deep, the winds varied a lot in the winter, and the skies were usually overcast. So you couldn't reliably navigate by sounding, by the wind, or by the stars. Those were the three ways sailors all over the world used to navigate.

In the Indian oceans, they have the monsoon winds which are so regular (they change directions with the seasons) you could tell where you were headed by noticing which way the wind was blowing. And they had clear tropical skies so they could usually navigate by the stars.

In Northern Europe, they are on one of the continental shelves of the Atlantic so the water is shallow enough sailors could drop a lead weight attached to a rope to the sea floor to find their depth, and thus could tell where they were by how deep the water was. This was called "making a sounding," and it was a fairly accurate method of locating one's position in charted waters.

But the sailors of the Mediterranean had to develop some way to navigate without shallow waters, clear skies, or predictable winds. And because they had to develop navigation by compass, Spain, which borders both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, was the first to find and colonize the New World. Without having the know-how to navigate by compass, nobody in their right mind would have sailed across the Atlantic. There would have been no guarantee they'd be able to find their way back without a compass. They'd have no familiar landmarks, no soundings would work, wind directions would of course be unknown, and whether or not they'd have clear skies was unknown.

The disadvantage of having to sail the waters of the Mediterranean turned out to be quite an advantage for Spain.

But of course, given the mind's natural negative bias, I'm sure most people of Spain assumed their sailing conditions were only a disadvantage.

So what are you going to do with what you think is a disadvantage? What are you doing now? Aren't there things in your life right now that you consider a disadvantage? Aren't there conditions you "know" are bad? That you wish would go away?

Choose one of these bad things and ponder this question about it: Could this be an advantage in disguise? Or could I make an advantage out of it? If you don't want to ponder this for weeks, do a little concentrated pondering. Use the problem solving method. Write the question at the top of a piece of paper, "What is good about this?" And force yourself to come up with 15 answers. Write them all out.

Then take another piece of paper. At the top write, "How could I turn this into an advantage?" Make yourself come up with 15 more answers. At the end of this exercise, which will only take you an hour or two, your perspective on the "problem" will be tremendously altered. The "problem" will have lost most of its power to bring you down. This process can undemoralize you. It can give you strength and effectiveness and even good feelings.

big brother

Irwin Kahn from Franklin, Ohio, wrote to Dear Abby to tell her what happened to him. When he was ten years old, his mother sent him to a children's home. He was very hurt by this. His mother kept his younger brother and sister, but got rid of him, and she even told him why: He was too much of a troublemaker.

He was an emotional mess for awhile and developed a severe stuttering problem. But he had an assigned "Big Brother" and the staff of the children's home were good people, and this combination helped him develop some inner strength and a sense of values. At age seventeen, he left the children's home to make his way in the world. "I educated myself," he said, "overcame my stuttering, became a successful corporate CEO, and now enjoy multimillionaire status. I retired at 52."

If you think about it, what seemed a terrible disadvantage — getting booted out at age ten, rejected by your own mother — might have been an advantage. It might have been one of the best things that could have happened to him. This conclusion seems so much the opposite of what anyone would naturally think, but think about this. Because his mom sent him away, he came into the care of people who were devoting their lives to helping others. He came under the influence of a Big Brother, who voluntarily and out of genuine kindness, spent time to help a young person. Without getting booted out, Kahn would probably never have met these people or been influenced by them.

The actor Edward James Olmos grew up in East L.A. and his parents divorced when he was seven. He lived in a three room house (including the kitchen) with a dirt floor. Eleven people lived there. He is one of those who has made the best of how things turned out. "Some people say they didn't have a choice," he says, "They're poor or brown or crippled. They had no parents. Well, you can use any one of those excuses to keep your life from growing. Or you can say, 'Okay, this is where I am, but I'm not going to let it stop me. Instead, I'm gonna turn it around and make it my strength.' That's what I did."

We've got to get out of our natural negative stance. It isn't cool, it isn't helpful, it isn't even accurate. And after you change your own mental habits, you can help change others' way of thinking about this. It won't be easy. But with good persuasion skills, you can help your friends and loved ones make their attitude better.

sugar cane savior

We're talking about learning to have the attitude, learning to have the commitment to finding or making an advantage out of a disadvantage. Learning to say "That's good!" no matter what happens, and by your actions making it good. Another way of saying this is to convince yourself that, "Trouble brings the seeds of good fortune."

When the energy crisis hit in the 1970s, Brazil was hurt badly. Oil imports were taking half the available foreign currency, and they were heavily in debt. The country was in trouble. But because of the trouble, they had to look elsewhere for fuel. They had to look no further than their own back yard.

One of the things Brazil had was a huge sugar cane crop. They used it to make alcohol, and began converting their energy economy to burn and use alcohol. Today, 90% of cars sold in Brazil run on alcohol, which burns much more cleanly than gas.

The trouble brought seeds of good fortune to Brazil. Because alcohol became their chief fuel, air quality in their cities improved.

The sugar cane is ground to a pulp, and the juice is extracted and fermented. The processing plants also had a problem: All the juiceless pulp. They had to pay garbage collectors to take it away.

Trouble again brought seeds of good fortune. Uses were found for the pulp. It is burned and the heat converted to electricity, now providing fully ten percent of the total energy of the country, relieving the necessity of building new dams on the Amazon river — dams that cause flooding and environmental damage. And burning the pulp adds no permanent carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because the growing plants absorb as much as is released in the burning. The pulp is also made into a nutritious feed for cattle.

It is an old positive-thinking maxim that trouble brings the seeds of good fortune. This is one of those ideas that can make itself true. If you think you can make an advantage out of a disadvantage, you may try, and if you try, you increase the odds of it happening.

But if you close your mind to the situation — if you make up your mind it is just bad — you are less likely to think of a way to turn it to your advantage.

You have something to gain and nothing to lose by taking this idea — that trouble contains the seeds of good fortune — and burning it into your mind. Make it an automatic part of your thinking. Have it so ingrained that it is your first thought when trouble comes your way. It will give you power to overcome difficulties and prevent life from sinking you into the quicksand of despair.

If you want to get fast results, try this: Repeat this idea to yourself, and while you do, allow images of any trouble happening now in your life to come into your mind's eye. Think about what has upset you lately. Think about what bothers you. Think about anything in your life right now you don't like. And while you do, repeat this idea steadily and calmly and matter-of-factly.

Your attitude about the things in your life will sometimes change for the better right away. You truly don't know what good fortune may develop out of "trouble." You may not be able to see any good to it at all. But these are seeds of good fortune, not fruit.

cool solution to a hot problem

Henry Ford had lots of "trouble" in his career, but he was a master at finding the seeds of good fortune in his troubles. For example, on their lunch hour, some of his employees used the scrap wood left over from making dashboards and burned it as firewood. They cooked their lunches with it. The problem was all the charcoal left over. Ford needed to get rid of it. But how?

His first idea was to make his dealers take it. He said for every train-car load of his cars they bought, they had to take a carload of charred wood with it. How they disposed of it would be their problem. As you can guess, this didn't go over very well with the dealers.

Eventually, Ford's "problem" was solved — in a very profitable way. A friend of Ford's, Mr. E.G. Kingsford, bought the charcoal and packaged it with a little grill and some lighter fluid and sold it in supermarkets. Kingsford briquettes have been earning a healthy profit ever since.

One way to look at this is to think of it as seeing what you expect to see. If you expect a problem is just going to be trouble, you're not very likely to look any further. But if you expect to find the seeds of good fortune within a problem, your creativity is aroused.

In many ways, your mind tends to see what you expect to see, unless it is really obvious that what you expect is wrong. When you open your front door, you expect to see what you have always seen, but if you opened your door and saw a Giant Panda sitting there, you would probably see it. The reality of the Panda sitting there is obvious, and regardless of what you expect to see, you'll see the Panda.

But we're talking about whether something is "bad" or not. When you make up your mind something is bad, there's nothing obvious that will tell you you're wrong. Whether something is bad or good is just an opinion. It's not a reality in the same way a Panda is a reality. Since there is no obvious reality to confirm or contradict your opinion, your mind is free to see what's bad about the situation, and equally free to ignore what might be good about it. And that's exactly what your mind will do unless you deliberately do something different.

If you think it's just plain bad and you throw up your arms in helplessness, you might miss what you could do to solve the problem or turn it to your advantage. And by not doing anything, sometimes the problem can get worse.

This idea makes you open your eyes and see what "seeds" you might be able to cultivate. It turns your attention to the future, to doing something about it. It changes your attitude from one of avoidance and rejection to one of acceptance and alertness and creativity. It puts you in a better frame of mind for dealing with the "trouble."

When something "bad" happens, you can accept that it's bad or you can try to concentrate on what is good about it, or you can make something good out of it.

If you take this idea and make it an ingrained part of your thinking, you can take many of the circumstances that in the past would have just been unfortunate, and you can change them into something that benefits you. At the very least, it will change your attitude about it for the better.

Make the statement: Trouble brings the seeds of good fortune. Commit yourself to making it so. Your commitment to the statement allows the statement to come true. Because you think that thought, the thought can become a true statement (and if you hadn't thought it, it wouldn't have been true).

Use the statement like your personal motto. This motto can help you get out of the habit of automatically being against anything that happens that is apparently bad. There are some things that "everyone knows" are bad: a home burnt to the ground, a divorce, a lost job, a sick child, and there are millions of smaller inconveniences that if you asked 100 people, 99 of them would all agree that yes, those are definitely bad and there is nothing good about them. But what everyone agrees about isn't necessarily true.

There are plenty of people who got a serious illness and almost died who say it was the best thing that ever happened to them because they rearranged their lives to reflect what is truly important. The rest of their lives they really lived — because they almost died.

When something bad happens and you find an advantage in it, that doesn't make the bad thing good. But since it already happened, even if it's bad, you can at least make the future better because of it. Before September 11th, we knew there were terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, but we didn't stop them. We were following a perfectly reasonable rule that said we didn't have the right to dictate what goes on inside another country's borders.

Afterwards, we did what we should have done a long time ago — we said we have the right to go into another country to capture enemies if the government of that country isn't willing to fork them over. That is obviously right. It was an artificial rule to say that just because a known enemy is inside the borders of another country, that we cannot forcibly remove those people. We should be able to, and the horrible event of September 11th made it clear that our previous rule needed to be changed, and thousands — maybe millions — of future deaths and billions of man-hours of anxiety and terror have been prevented.

The Sultan of Oman said, "Maybe September 11th was a blessing in disguise. Maybe it will be the thing that will wake up the world so that we will, as free people, take the kinds of steps necessary to see that there is not a September 11th that involves biological or chemical or nuclear weapons. And hopefully, we can wake up the world in a way that can save those lives, tens of thousands of lives."

suppressing thoughts

You may already know that thinking negatively is bad for your life, but maybe you don't know how to stop yourself from doing it. The negative assumptions come automatically and once you think that way, it's difficult to make the thoughts go away.

But now you have a way to do it. Don't try to stop thinking anything. Simply think trouble brings seeds of good fortune. And keep thinking it over and over. Not forcing. Not with any frustration. Not trying to stop yourself from thinking anything else. Just calmly repeat that thought to yourself. Keep looking at your life through this point of view, and the idea will gather evidence to it.

Keep doing it when troubles come your way and after awhile — a month, a year — you'll start thinking that way automatically. You'll believe it. It will become a natural part of your thinking. Trouble will happen and you'll think, "Here are some seeds of good fortune." Can you imagine what that will do to your calm during a crisis? Can you imagine how much better you will be at keeping your wits about you?

Hold the thought trouble brings seeds of good fortune and think it often. Repeat it to yourself over and over. Make that thought strong in your mind. All by itself, it can transform your attitude, your expressions, and it can alter the actions you take, and through those, actually change the world in which you live, and benefit others. Think the thought. Focus on it. Repeat it.

You might as well think this way because the "trouble" has already happened. There's no sense in resisting it or wishing it didn't happen. It doesn't do you any good. If you know of another way to think about trouble that's even more practical than this, by all means, go for it. But if not, any time and every time trouble comes your way, you might as well think about it as something that carries a gift with it, a seed of some good fortune. You might as well.

past and also future

You can use this motto to deal with trouble that has happened already, but you can also use it for trouble that might happen in the future. You can use the motto to end useless worry.

Let me be clear here that not all worry is useless. If you're thinking about how to avoid a disaster in the future, and if — and this is an extremely important if — there is something you can do about it, then worry is useful. Go ahead and think about it. Then take the actions you can take to avert disaster.

Anytime you are worrying about something that you can't do anything about, worry is worse than useless; it's downright damaging. It's not only bad for your health, it has a negative effect on your relationships, and besides that, it's no damn fun.

And if you ever find yourself with that kind of worry — the useless kind — this motto can put a dead stop to it, because you can say, "Well, if the bad thing I'm worried about does happen, that future trouble will bring seeds of good fortune."

Whether that statement is true or not, it is a good thing to think. And in truth, there is no way you'll ever be able to prove it true or false. Even if ten years later nothing good has come out of that misfortune, your life isn't over yet. You never know what will happen. You never know when those seeds of good fortune will sprout.

But true or false, it is a good way to think because feeling bad is itself self-defeating and counterproductive. This motto turns your mind in a useful direction.

Adam Khan is the author of Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot, Principles For Personal Growth, and Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought.

The Shortest Distance

When it comes to solving problems, using a formal procedure works better than letting your mind wander, so I have one for you. It involves four steps, and you do them in order. These steps are ancient. You could almost say this is the method to solve a problem. Anything else is less efficient and less effective. When you look them over you may think this is all very obvious and you can easily see why this method will work. But the important thing is using it. When you are confronting a problem, use this method:

1. Clarify the problem. Attempt to write down what the problem is, specifically. Writing it down is better than doing it in your head. Use a lot of paper on this one; it’s an important process. Write something down, then try to improve on it. Keep working until you have a clear, simple statement of the problem.

2. List the causes. What has caused this problem? Usually a problem has more than one cause. List them all.

3. Create possible solutions. This is where you can use your imagination. During this stage, first come up with all the ideas you can think of. Then kick back and relax. Use your imagination. Let your mind ponder the problem in its own way, as if you were daydreaming about possible solutions. Look at it from different perspectives. How would an old sea captain look at this problem? How would Gandhi look at this problem? You don’t know how those people would actually look at the problem. But you can use your imagination and that will get you out of your habitual point of view. Let your mind wander, but keep bringing it back to the problem. Don’t work at it. Do it in a way that is playful and fun. And stop every once in a while and jot down some ideas.

4. Select your favorite solution and try it. You have a collection of possible solutions, and reading through them probably sparked some more ideas. Write them all down. Then look over your ideas and choose what you think is the finest solution among them. Now put it into action.

Your solution won’t always work. No big deal if it doesn’t — you have others to try. Take this step-by-step approach and you’ll gain traction and equilibrium and a feeling of control — something that really helps when you’ve got a problem to deal with.

Problems are an important part of life, and it’s always in your best interest to improve your ability to create good solutions. Mastering this formal procedure will help. It may be the shortest distance between a problem and a satisfying solution.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and Self-Reliance, Translated. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

How to Create a Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

There is a circular, self-feeding loop in many aspects of human nature, and you can use them to your advantage — or disadvantage. In many of these self-feeding loops, your thoughts play a major role. For example, a person with indigestion (caused by stress) notices a pain in his stomach, and then worries that maybe something is seriously wrong with him. The worry increases his level of stress, which increases the pain in his stomach, which makes him worry all the more, etc. Now at first, there was nothing wrong with him. It was only temporary stress and some indigestion. But his worry that there might be something wrong with him helped to cause a more lasting, worsening problem.

His thoughts have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He predicted something that came true largely because he predicted it.

A few years ago, I was talking with a client named Stacy. Stacy was feeling bad about herself because she read a book on self-esteem. The author had listed all the symptoms of low self-esteem, and Stacy found she had most of them. The author's point of view was that low self-esteem was bad. The result was: Stacy felt bad about herself when she discovered how bad about herself she felt!

The problem with this kind of thing is that it has a tendency to keep going down because as you feel worse, your point of view becomes more and more narrow and biased toward the negative, which makes you feel even worse, which narrows your point of view even more and makes you see more danger, misery or threat in your world, which brings you down even more, etc. It's a negative loop; a downward spiral.

When I was in high school, I had to take a speech class. I was already afraid to give a speech because of an embarrassing experience I'd had with it in fourth grade.

By the time I was in high school, I was so afraid I might look like a fool that when I gave my first speech, I did look like a fool. My attention narrowed. My heart was beating wildly. I couldn't look at the audience. I read my speech in a low monotone, and my classmates who knew me were especially surprised, and I knew it, which made the experience even more upsetting. I was normally a smart aleck, joking and laughing and not very shy. Then I got up to give a speech and couldn't even look at the audience. My teacher, a wise man, took me aside afterwards and said, "What was that?!"

"I'm really afraid to give speeches," I said.

"But in my class last semester you had no problem at all speaking up."

I knew he was right. It was a small class devoted to discussion and I frequently jumped in the fray and spoke passionately without the least bit of shyness.

He went on, "Just treat this the same way. Talk to us. Say what's on your mind. Joke with us. Be yourself."

I went on to have a good time giving speeches in that class. My mind started focusing on how I could entertain my classmates rather than focusing on the thought, "I might make a fool of myself."

That's the way to dissolve a negative self-fulfilling prophecy: Change the focus of your mind. In the example of the guy with indigestion, he could simply go to the doctor. If the doctor said, "There's nothing wrong with you," he would probably stop worrying about it. Or if he still worried about it, he could notice when he was worrying and change the focus of his mind. If he was driving in his car, he could turn on a tape or the radio.

Talk radio or a tape of someone talking about something that interests you is a great way to distract your mind. It is much harder to talk to yourself when you are listening to someone else talk about something interesting to you.

You may be thinking, "It doesn't seem like a good idea to distract myself from thoughts. As a matter of fact, it seems kind of dangerous. Like a form of denial."

I agree wholeheartedly. Alcoholics are famous for it. In fact, drinking alcohol is a very effective way to stop thinking about something. It shuts down your mind. And it is dangerous. So I want you to listen carefully to what I am about to say. Changing the focus of your mind is a very powerful and useful technique, but it should only be used when you have met these two criteria:

1. there is evidence that proves the thought is untrue, or there is no evidence either way

2. and the thought is counterproductive

If the man went to the doctor and discovered his fear was unwarranted, he could then safely change the focus of his thoughts because those thoughts are counterproductive. The thoughts harm him. But when an alcoholic has the thought, "My life is not turning out the way I want it to," she should not try to distract herself from thinking that. She should turn her attention toward it and ask, "How can change it?" (Not, by the way, "Why is life so unfair?") There is evidence that her thought is true, and it can be a very productive thought indeed.

People who get depressed often have a thought, "I'm helpless to change." The thought itself is neither true nor false. Or rather, the thought can make itself either true or false. If you thought you were helpless about something, you probably wouldn't bother trying to do anything about it, thus becoming helpless.

If a man is naked with his wife and he thinks, "I might not be able to get it up," the thought is counterproductive. That is the kind of thought that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because the thought is not a turn-on. The thought will turn him off. Then his worry becomes a reality because of his worry. That is a perfect time for him to change the focus of his mind. One place he could put his attention is turning his wife on.

make your goal a self-fulfilling prophesy

So far I've talked about how to stop yourself from causing a negative thought to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But there is also the positive side: You can help yourself achieve your goals by harnessing the very same forces for good instead of evil. You can create positive self-feeding loops. Self-confidence around people is one of the places this works. Until I got to high school, I was "shy." My mom still thinks I am. It was so much a part of my personality, she just can't seem to get over it. But anyone who knows me now would have a hard time believing I was ever shy.

If you think other people aren't going to like you, when you're around other people, you back off. You are more withdrawn. You don't talk very much. You don't open up. The person you're talking to feels, of course, that you don't like him, so he withdraws. His withdrawal is evidence that other people don't like you. See how that works?

It was easy to fix. I got the idea from Maxwell Maltz's book, Psycho-Cybernetics, A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life. When I talked to people, I started thinking to myself, "They like me." I became more comfortable and talked a little easier, and people responded. I started seeing evidence that people liked me, and the self-feeding loop was going. Now I feel comfortable around just about everyone and they feel comfortable around me.

I saw an ingenious experiment on this recently: Students were paired up and allowed to talk for five minutes. Then one person from each pair was called aside and talked to privately. Half of them were told his partner liked him. The other half was told his partner didn't like him.

Then all the pairs were put back together to talk some more, and the researchers watched and took notes. Here's what they found: When a person thought the other person liked him, he talked more personally about himself, leaned in toward the other person more, and used more eye contact. And how did his partner respond to this? By doing the same thing. His partner leaned forward more, talked more personally, and looked him in the eye more.

When a person thought his partner didn't like him, he tended to lean back, talk less personally about himself, and use less eye contact. And again, his partner did the same.

Whether you think other people will like you or not, you're probably going to be right! It will tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy either way.

The same is true for a goal you have. Assuming it can be done will help you make it happen.

When you notice yourself worrying about your goal, ask yourself if the worry has any evidence, and if there is anything you can do about it. If there isn't, then think something else or in some way keep yourself from worrying about it. Doubt and worry drain your energy, take away your drive and initiative, and these qualities are important to achievement.

You can lift yourself up by your bootstraps. This can't be done in normal life. You can't grab your shoelaces and lift yourself off the ground. But when it comes to a long term goal, you can! In the success literature like Think and Grow Rich, there is an important principle called Faith. It is the willful assumption, the deliberate assumption, that you can and will persist with your goal until you succeed. Once you have that, you've literally got it made. It makes your goal a self-fulfilling prophecy. In those books, there are stories galore of people doing it. Many people have read these stories and become convinced they can accomplish the impossible, and then actually accomplished it!

The problem, of course, is doubt, worry, and discouragement. Those also become self-fulfilling prophecies and are easier to think. If you get discouraged, you lose your drive and don't take the steps that would lead to success. And who is going to loan money to someone for a business venture when the person doubts it will work! Faith is electrifying! It moves people. Napoleon Hill says the starting point of all achievement is Desire. And he exhorts the reader to work herself into a state of white hot desire. And you can easily see that if you were in a state of white hot desire, you could achieve things that would be impossible normally.

But how does Napoleon Hill suggest you get to that state? There are some old-fashioned things about this book. After all, it was written during the Great Depression. But there are some things about it which are startlingly modern. The method he suggests is what he calls auto-suggestion. It is basically talking to yourself. What do you think would happen if you constantly pictured your goal in your mind and saw yourself accomplishing it, and winning, succeeding, and you were at the same time saying to yourself, "I will achieve this goal; I will never stop until it is mine; I have the ability; I will follow my plan and if it doesn't work, I will make a new one and follow that; and if that one doesn't work, I will keep trying, I will keep aiming for it, and I will get it!" If your mind was filled with that kind of stuff, do you see you would have a drive — a level of energy — that was far above average? Can you see how it would make you more powerful? More likely to achieve your goals?

This is how you can make your goal into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is how you can lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. You can accomplish the impossible!

I know that sounds drummed-up phoniness. And it is. You really can't accomplish something that is truly impossible. But many of the things that we think are impossible are only impossible because we think they are. So in a sense, it is true: You may be able to accomplish what we now think is impossible. And you can do it by assuming it can be done and committing yourself to doing it.

Now of course, there are not many people with the ambition to accomplish the impossible. Most of us would be content with a new house, or something else that is more mundane. What is your goal? I know you have lots of little goals like a new TV or getting in better shape or making more money. But is there something that really stirs you? Something that makes your eyes water a little when you think of it? That's the goal I'm talking about. It might be something you've written off because it was impossible or impractical. But let me tell you something: You're going to die. Even if you live to be a hundred and twenty, you're going to die. And the goal that stirs you should be accomplished before you die. You can start small or do it however you do it, but it should be done, if only because it will give a meaning to your life and make this experience extraordinary. Determine you will do it, and then get started. Make that dream into a self-fulfilling prophecy and it will truly fulfill your self.

Here's how to make your goal a self-fulfilling prophecy: Keep your thoughts on what you want, and keep your thoughts confident. When you notice you feel doubtful, attack the thoughts. Question them on the basis of their validity. Read more about that here. And then consciously, deliberately imagine your goal and say things to yourself that motivate you and give you courage and confidence. All you have to do is control your mind, which is the subject of this article.

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.


It's relatively easy to find good ideas to change your life. It's not too difficult to gain insights about what you need to do. Where it starts to get hard is translating those ideas and insights into actual changes in your life. You want those ideas and insights to make a real difference to you. Good ideas aren't enough. Insights alone don't cut it. You want real changes.

I'm right there with you.

This web site contains simple and practical methods for making real changes in your life. So let's look at how real changes can be made.

Changes start with thoughts. Not that thoughts can do much by themselves, but no changes can be made without them. When you think differently, you behave differently and feel differently, and when you behave and feel differently, you get different results in your life.

I know it's possible to behave differently in order to change the way you feel and think, but to behave differently, you first have to think it's a good idea to do so. No matter how you look at it, to change the results you get in your life, you must first change the way you think.

Fair enough, you say, but how?

Let's ask the experts. Who are the real experts in changing the way people think? Who pays the most to change people's thinking? Where is the biggest payoff for changing people's thought-habits? Who pays psychologists to find out exactly what needs to be done to change thoughts?

Advertisers and politicians, of course. These are people with a huge stake in being able to effectively alter people's thought patterns. In advertising and politics, it is survival-of-the-fittest: Those who are most effective at changing people's thinking habits are the only ones who can compete successfully and stay in business. The question is, how do they do it?

Since early in this century, observers have pointed out that political propaganda campaigns tend to use short, easy-to-remember phrases that encapsulate their message. These brief phrases are then repeated over and over again until their meaning becomes part of the thinking-habits of the population.

Even some presidential campaigns earlier in this century are still memorable: "I like Ike" was Dwight D. Eisenhower's slogan. Woodrow Wilson used the slogan, "He kept us out of the war" to get reelected in 1916. Then after the strain of World War I, Warren G. Harding's slogan, "Back to normalcy," won him the presidency. A campaign slogan from as far back as 1840 is familiar: "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," a campaign for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.

World War II can be seen, at least from one limited perspective, as a battle of political slogans. Hitler used several. They were repeated in his speeches and painted on walls and posters and huge signs. "One Reich, one Folk, one Leader!" Short, pithy, easy to remember, and in this case, it has a certain primal rhythm. Here's another he used: "Today we own Germany, tomorrow the entire world!" These slogans were repeated vehemently for years and had a dramatic effect on the minds of Germans.

Mussolini used radio to a great effect. "Believe, obey, fight!" was one of the most repeated slogans. Another was: "Italy must have its great place in the world." These slogans were repeated in messages broadcast all over Italy.

There were many different repeated ideas that played an important role in World War II. From before they could talk, Japanese children were told again and again that the Japanese people were direct descendants of Heaven and it was their destiny to rule the world.

Of course, Americans had their own slogans, chief among them, in case you weren't alive at the time, was "Win the war unconditionally." Once America was provoked into the war, there was a national campaign to promote participation and cooperation in the war effort — certain resources needed to be conserved, like gas and steel and rubber, and money needed to be raised to fund the war. People were told that Japan and Germany had to be defeated unconditionally. They had to be not just defeated, but defeated soundly, completely — unconditionally. That was a key slogan. It focused attention. It was short, easy to remember, and packed an emotional punch besides. It was very motivating.

Advertisers use exactly the same tool. It's the real thing. Just do it. When you care enough to send the very best. Tastes great, less filling. The breakfast of champions. Don't leave home without it. You've come a long way baby. You deserve a break today. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Fly the friendly skies. Everything you always wanted in a beer — and less. Sometimes you feel like a nut. It's everywhere you want to be. And so on — short, easy to remember slogans repeated over and over and over again. Sometimes the same slogan is used for decades.

For a very long time, politicians and advertisers have been refining and improving their methods. Any method that didn't succeed disappeared from the scene: The campaigner didn't get elected, the product wasn't purchased. And after all this trial and error, both politicians and advertisers have come to rely on the same simple method. Why?

Because short, pithy phrases, repeated over and over, take advantage of the way the human brain works naturally. They focus the mind, simplify the issue, and stimulate action.

Our minds don't handle complicated formulas or doctrines very well unless we concentrate our attention. It's not that we're stupid — we're the most successful species on this planet — but that's just one of the brain's limitations.

Complicated ideas require our full attention. That's fine when we're reading in a quiet room or listening to a lecture. But when it comes down to our daily experience — when we're late for work, the kids are crying and urgent tasks are taking our attention — we find it distinctly difficult to concentrate our minds on any concept that is even slightly complex. So even if only two days ago the book we were reading really made sense, today in the midst of the hustle and bustle, the ideas seem distant and ineffective. We can read the most beautiful philosophy, we can answer all the Big Questions of Life during the evening, and the very next day be right back in the soup.

Again, not because there's something wrong with us, but simply because most of the time, we need to focus on what's happening. We don't have much extra attention to devote to philosophizing about it. That's true for everyone: Rich or poor, genius or average, in free countries and in nondemocratic countries. That's just how the human brain works.

It was even true for Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography, he wrote about his frustration at changing himself. "While my Attention was taken up in guarding against one Fault," he wrote, "I was often surpris'd by another. Habit took the Advantage of Inattention."

When an advertising company repeats the same jingle in every ad they've ever created, and shows the same ad 15 times a night, it may be blatantly manipulative, not to mention annoying, but it works, and it works better than anything else.

When a ruthless dictator uses short phrases to focus ideas and make them easier to act on, it may be catastrophic for an entire generation of people, but the way someone uses a tool doesn't make the tool bad. A hammer can kill a puppy, but it can also be used to build a house. It's just a tool.

The repetition of a slogan is also a tool — a very powerful and effective tool. And it's a tool you can use to produce a lot of good for yourself. You can take advantage of the way your mind works. You can make your own propaganda campaign in your head; you can alter your thoughts and change your actions for the better.

THE REASON IT'S SO DIFFICULT to change something in your life is that to change the way you feel or behave, you first have to change the way you think, and your thinking is ingrained and habitual. You think the way you think because those ways of thinking were repeated in some form or another, either by yourself or others, enough times that the thought-pattern became a habit.

It wasn't only your parents and teachers who repeated the ideas that created your thought-patterns; you did it too. There are some thoughts you have thought many times in your life, and that repetition has created solid mental habits.

When I was in first grade, I had just moved in the middle of the school year, and my first day at class, we had "show and tell." I was fairly upset by the move, and didn't have anything to show, and I felt embarrassed at being the new kid, so I said, "I don't have anything to talk about." And every week after that, I "forgot" to bring something to show. Every week that went by would have been more attention-getting if I had gotten up to speak, because everyone began to expect me to have nothing to say. Whenever I thought of getting up in front of the class, my thought was, "I can't do it." I repeated that thought to myself many times that year.

In fourth grade, my English teacher wanted us to memorize and recite a poem every week. Whenever I thought about it, (and that was often) I thought, "I can't do it." This short phrase went through my head again and again throughout my life until about fifteen years ago, when I finally realized what had happened.

I took the Dale Carnegie course in public speaking, and the course was designed to get you up in front of a group gradually. The beauty of that, is it invoked that thought, "I can do it."

The first assignment was to sit on the edge of a long table with four other people and answer the instructor's questions about our names, where we lived, and what we did for a living. Of course, I could do that. Each speaking assignment gradually moved toward standing up there by myself, but it was so gradual, the whole way along I kept thinking, "I can do that."

One fine day I was up there speaking and having a great time. I had formed a new thought-habit. "I can do it" replaced "I can't do it."

As a child, whenever you first think a thought, it sets a precedent. You've created the beginning of a pattern. As time goes on, you experience similar circumstances, and the thought tends to repeat itself. Each time it does, the thought becomes more and more likely the next time, until you are an adult with a bunch of thought-habits, and some don't work because they were invented by a little kid who didn't know much about the world.

Now you're an adult. And sometimes you get an insight about how you can change for the better. But it's harder than you expected, isn't it? Why? Because your insight is just one little thought against the accumulated force of your already existing habit patterns. Repetition cuts a groove like a trough in the dirt. Thoughts flow down that groove much easier than they do in other directions, just like water flows down a trough much better than on flat ground.

It physically works very much like that. Researchers like William Calvin, PhD, find that when a new stimulus is introduced into the brain, it forms a pattern of connections between certain brain cells. And once a pattern has been made, it becomes a little easier for the same pattern to fire again. The more often the pattern gets fired, the easier it is to set off the pattern again. The connections get stronger and stronger the more they are stimulated that way.

Patterns that have been repeated many times become dominant and out-compete with other (less-repeated) thoughts.

So you've got some dominant patterns already formed. Okay. And a lot of them produce effects you don't like. A lot of them you didn't choose, or you chose when you were too young to make a good choice. Okay. That's where you are right now. You can't do anything about the past, but you can take over the process at this point. You can start creating your own patterns. You can start making thought habits you want — informed and mature habits.

You can do it with repetition. You can do it by taking your insights and encapsulating them into short, easy-to-remember phrases and then repeating those phrases again and again until the new thought becomes a part of your thinking.

As you read this web site, some principles will stand out as important to you, as a principle that you would benefit from applying. Not all of them will stand out that way. Some you already habitually apply, some you're not ready for yet (or many not want). Pick one principle that really stands out for you and write the principle on a card. Carry that card with you to remind you to focus on that principle, repeating it to yourself, and applying it at every good opportunity, for a week a month, or until you're satisfied with your progress on it for now.

Repeat the idea to yourself. Literally practice thinking that thought. Repeat it to yourself often. Try to say it to yourself several times every day. Give advice to your children with it, saying that principle. Share it with friends of yours. Let it come out in conversations. Eventually that thought will become "just the way you think" and at that point, you have accomplished a real change. You have translated a good idea into real change in your life.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and Self-Reliance, Translated. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

Sustaining Motivation

A woman from the UK wrote:

I read what you had to say on enthusiasm with, dare I say it, enthusiasm.

My trouble seems to be that I cannot sustain that enthusiasm for any one thing for very long. I have bursts of passion, set my goals way too high, flounder and I'm back where I started in that grey limbo that so easily and so often turns to depression and resentment.

I know you will say that in a way I have answered my own question (it's not as though I don't think about it often enough as I watch my life pass me by — I'm 42) in that I set goals too high, but lesser goals afford me little or no passion at all.

I am (ungratefully) dragging through a lukewarm existence in search of that sustainable fire...

Adam Khan responded:

Thanks for writing to me. I had a similar problem for many years. The assumption I had made was that if my enthusiasm dropped, there was something wrong with the goal. What I finally realized is that enthusiasm and desire need to be deliberately maintained. There are two ways to go about it.

The first is to sit down with paper and pen when you feel your enthusiasm wane, and argue with your own thoughts. Doubts and fears and pessimistic assumptions can, without you even knowing what happened, completely kill your enthusiasm. Now if it turns out that your doubts are legitimate, fine. Maybe your enthusiasm SHOULD die. But almost always — like 99 percent of the time — when you put your thoughts on paper and take an objective look, you will find you made faulty assumptions. And these assumptions have occurred in the background of your mind up until now.

Put it down on paper, find yourself a different colored pen, and now argue with each assumption. Come up with all the arguments against them you can think of. Read your little dialog every morning until you can feel the power of those assumptions has been killed.

The other part is to keep your desire burning hot. Here's what happens: You think of a goal. You can think of many good reasons why it would be great to accomplish that goal. You take action. You get busy working on the goal. You plan your time, you break it down into tasks, you're busy with the tasks, you run into some problems maybe, and maybe not. But the point is, you get kind of lost in the task, and in the details, and in your to-do lists and you do the one thing which you must never do: YOU FORGET WHY YOU WANTED THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE. You're not thinking about that any more. That is a big mistake.

Even though you have thought before about why you want to accomplish your goal, you will help keep your enthusiasm high by thinking often of what you want and WHY you want it. Keep a list of the reasons why this goal is a great goal to accomplish. Keep adding more reasons as you think of them.

As mundane as it seems, these two ways work very powerfully to keep your enthusiasm from fading. I heard Zig Ziglar say something once that has stuck with me: The reason motivation fades is that the world is full of demotivators. The nay-saying of friends, the problems that come up, the constant distractions, the temptations to go off track, etc. But the worst demotivators of all are what we do in our own heads. Those two methods will help you make your thoughts work FOR you rather than against you.

Good luck to you and feel free to write to me any time.


This article was excerpted from the book, Principles For Personal Growth by Adam Khan. Buy it now here.

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.

Persistence and Determination Are Omnipotent

When you run into obstacles on the way to an important goal, and you feel your motivation starting to fade, or if people have been telling you you’re foolish to keep trying, I urge you to watch Lorenzo's Oil. It’s a true story of a husband and wife (Augusto and Michaela Odone) and their five year-old boy, Lorenzo.

They were a happy family who moved to the U.S. after living for awhile in the Comoros Islands. Lorenzo began having behavioral problems, so they took him to one doctor after another, trying to get a diagnosis. Nobody seemed to know what was wrong with him.

Finally they found a doctor who did the right kind of tests. The doctor sat the parents down in a quiet room and gravely told them the diagnosis: “Your son has a fatal disease. He might live another two years, but during that time, the white matter of his brain will slowly liquefy, and then he will die. There is no treatment for this disease. Nothing can be done about it.”

They were at the best facility they could find. The tests were thorough and extensive, and there was no mistake: Lorenzo has a disease called adrenoleukodystrophy (known simply as ALD).

What would YOU do if it happened to you? They were, of course, devastated by the news. No matter how well-schooled you are in the science of determination, news like that will knock you down, at least at first.

Very little was known about the disease, but Augusto (Lorenzo’s father) started reading about it. He found the progression of the disease unthinkably horrible. Kids go blind and deaf, become autistic, lose their ability to speak, become paraplegic, have seizures, and so on over a period of two years. And then they die.

And nobody knew how to stop it.

Augusto and Michaela were plunged into a black despair that would be hard to imagine. When anyone hits a setback, demoralization is almost always the first response. The only question is, “How quickly will you recover your fighting spirit?” How soon, if ever, will you regain your determination?

The answer depends entirely on how you explain the setback to yourself. If the Odones believed the doctors, they would have given up on their son. They would have felt helpless and depressed.

But they decided there must be a way.

In other words, the setback was: Lorenzo has ALD.

The explanation the doctors gave was: It is a fatal disease without a cure. That’s a demoralizing belief, and makes four thought-mistakes: overcertainty, negative guessing, self-defeating conclusions, and false hopelessness. Many people felt sorry for the Odones because the couple were obviously living on “false hope.” But if you look at the the doctor’s conclusion (there is no cure for ALD) you can easily see it was a premature conclusion. It was not a certainty that a cure was impossible. And it was unnecessarily demoralizing to say it with any certainty.

The Odone’s explanation of the setback was not demoralizing. They believed the cure had not been found…YET. And they decided to help find the cure. Their explanation was the opposite of demoralizing — it was powerfully motivating.

Even if they wanted to do something about it, most people would not because of another set of demoralizing beliefs: Who am I to think I could help? I’m an ordinary person. How could I find a cure if all these doctors and researchers haven’t found one? These thought-mistakes would prevent most people from trying. They would give up.

But the Odones knew better. Augusto said to Michaela, “What did we do when we first arrived in Comoros? We read about it. We read about their culture, their history, their laws. That’s what we need to do now. We don’t know enough about this disease.”

So they went to libraries and started reading as if their son’s life depended on it. They stayed up late and got up early. They read books on biochemistry, biology, neurology. They read microfiche, pursued references, talked to researchers, and followed every clue they could find. They shared with each other what they were learning and what ideas they came up with, they argued with each other, and they kept trying.

Why did they keep trying? This is the crucial question. They kept trying and stayed motivated because the way they explained their setback to themselves set them on fire with determination and commitment. Please remember that. When you feel demoralized by the setback, look at your explanations. Use the antivirus for your mind. Your motivation depends on it.

They discovered several researchers in different places working on the disease, but they worked in isolation from each other. The Odones thought they might speed up the process of discovery by funding a symposium, so they did. They got all the experts together in one room to discuss ALD. Maybe pooling their insights would help them find a new approach.

The Odones were trying to find a way. And they were urgent because the clock was ticking. Every day their son was losing more myelin (the protective sheath that covers the neurons in his brain). Lorenzo was going blind, couldn’t speak, and was no longer able to feed himself.

Lorenzo’s Oil

At the symposium, in a conversation between scientists who each brought different pieces of the puzzle to the table, they concluded a particular oil might help. The Odones tracked down a manufacturer who could make it, and tried it on their boy. Their goal was to keep his level of long-chain fatty acids low. Those were the acids destroying his myelin.

The oil helped some, but not enough. They did more reading and found another line of possibility. They needed another oil extraction of a different kind but it couldn’t be made legally in the U.S. So they found a chemist in England who could do it.

And the combination of the two oils achieved the goal! The level of fatty-acids in Lorenzo’s blood became normal. The oil is now used as a treatment for boys with ALD (girls don’t get the disease) and if it is started early enough, it stops the disease completely in many of them, allowing them to lead normal lives.

Lorenzo, however, did not return to normal. He had lost too much myelin. But he recovered some of his functions (including his eyesight) and is now 28 years old.

Have the Odones given up? Of course not! They started The Myelin Project, aimed at finding a way to re-myelinate neurons. It has already been successfully done in dogs.

The movie is one of the most inspiring I’ve ever seen. If you would like to see a demonstration of determination in action, if you would like to see a real-life example of the power of persistence, if you would like to put the difficulty of your own goals into perspective, watch Lorenzo's Oil.

Adam Khan is the author of Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot, Principles For Personal Growth, and Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought.

Cultivating Fire: Keep Your Motivation White Hot

If you want to feel better and get more done, first you need at least one goal. You need something to aim at. Human beings are goal-achieving at their best. This is one of the most basic principles of success, sanity, and mental health.

Once you have something to aim for, you have two things to concern yourself with: Motivation and demoralization. You already know what to do about demoralization: Use the antivirus for your mind. That will prevent setbacks from taking away your motivation. But can anything be done to increase your motivation? Is there anything else besides setbacks that can take away your motivation?

When you first create a goal, you are already motivated. The moment you choose it, you’re highly motivated. You chose the goal in the first place because you’re motivated to accomplish it.

But what happens? Your motivation tends to fade, doesn’t it?


The question has bothered people for centuries. Why does motivation fade? The reason the question is perplexing is that motivation fades for many different reasons. You already know the way you explain setbacks can deflate your motivation, rather quickly. But there are more things that cause demotivation than that.

For example, one very significant reason motivation fades is that you think of new goals, and they seem better somehow. You haven’t gotten bogged down in the details of your new goal yet. The new goal seems clean and pristine and more appealing than the goal you are slogging toward at the moment, full of problems and difficulties (or, if you prefer, challenges and opportunities).

Interruptions and distractions are major forces that can dampen that once-hot-burning fire of desire.

But a more practical way of thinking about the causes of demotivation is that it happens simply because you haven’t tried to keep yourself motivated. Motivation will naturally fade. Motivation doesn’t last. But it can can be renewed and needs to be renewed and refreshed regularly.

When you bathe, your state of cleanliness doesn’t last forever either. You have to bathe again and again if you want to stay clean. And when you exercise, it doesn’t make you permanently fit. You have to exercise again and again to get and stay fit. So what? That’s what it takes, so that’s you do.

You may never have put motivation in the same category, but now that you think about it, I’m sure you can see that it must be in the same category.

The question is, of course, “How can motivation be refreshed?” How can you enhance your own motivation? How can you boost it when it’s sagging?


A feeling of motivation isn’t just nice, it is very powerful and important. The difference between someone motivated and someone unmotivated is like night and day. A motivated person can do far more and is far more capable.

I once worked as a waiter in a new restaurant and the bussers were all high school students from the local area — an upscale, wealthy area. These kids didn’t need the money. In fact, more than one of them only worked because his parents thought it would be “good for him” to have a job.

These kids were not very motivated. They had the potential to do a good job, but without motivation, they didn't come close to fulfilling that potential.

The waiters tipped the bussers. That’s how the bussers made most of their money. The waiters, of course, tried to motivate them by letting them know we’d tip more if they worked harder, but they didn’t really care. They were more interested in just going through the motions of their job, and talking to the opposite sex.

Then the restaurant began to hire illegal immigrants from Mexico for the busser positions. The contrast was astonishing. These Mexicans did about three times the work of the high school students. Why? They weren’t physically healthier or smarter than the high school students. They definitely weren’t more well-rested — most of the Mexicans worked two full-time jobs.

But they were motivated.

When they worked hard, we tipped them more. And the money we gave them was worth a lot more back in Mexico than it was in the U.S. Many of them had a wife and kids, and were often supporting their parents and sisters back home, and they were saving up their money to start a business or buy a house back in Mexico.

They were very motivated and the contrast between them and the well-fed, young, well-rested high school students was sharp and dramatic.

Motivation makes a huge difference. Imagine what a difference it could make to you and your goals.

Whether or not you achieve your goals depends almost entirely on your motivation. Think about that. Let it sink in. It is entirely possible that you will never achieve your goals. But if you do, it was because you were motivated. If you don’t, it was because you weren’t motivated enough.

And it doesn’t really matter if you are motivated right now. Motivation changes constantly, like all feelings. And your feelings of motivation can be cultivated and grow, or they can be neglected and wither. It’s largely up to you.

Tremendous things are possible to someone who is motivated and can stay motivated. And there are people all over the world who accomplish extraordinary things, many of them merely ordinary people with ordinary talents — but with extraordinary motivation. And it's not something they were born with.

Listen to me very carefully. This is important. They weren’t born with motivation. The reason they now have extraordinary motivation is that they're doing certain kinds of things that cultivate their motivation. And they do certain kinds of things that prevent their motivation from withering.

Cultivate is the key word. You don’t cultivate an apple tree once and for all. It’s an ongoing task. If you pull weeds and add water and fertilizer and prune it, the tree can grow robust and healthy.

Let it fend for itself, however, and it will probably become weak. It’ll be choked by weeds. It’ll dry out. It’ll be infested with pests. The leaves will have holes in it, the branches will grow too close together or sprawl so it will produce fewer and smaller apples. It might even wither and die.

Here you are now, with a goal and somewhat motivated. Let’s see what we can do to cultivate your motivation. Let’s see what we can do to make your motivation healthy and robust. What is motivation’s water and fertilizer?

Here are seven of the most potent ways of growing and maintaining a lasting, energizing feeling motivation.

1. Prune your goals.

2. Make a list, put it in order.

3. Keep the level of challenge just right.

4. Measure your progress.

5. Read and listen to motivational material.

6. Take the time to think.

7. Refresh your goals.

I once heard a phrase that has stuck with me ever since. When you make a list or chart your progress or put a motivational slogan on your bathroom mirror, you are creating “a structure of fulfillment.” You’re making your progress easier. You’re making it easier for your goals to be accomplished. You’re making the fulfillment of your desires more likely.

Think of it like a trellis. Many bean plants are vines, and if you just let them grow naturally, they’ll grow along the ground, making them more vulnerable to pests and rot, and they won't get as much sun if there are other plants around. But give them a trellis to climb on, and they will produce more beans. It is literally a structure for it to fulfill its potential yield. It won’t yield as much without that structure. It won’t do as well.

The same is true of you. If you make structures to help you, you can fulfill more of your potential. A good part of cultivating a feeling of motivation is creating structures of fulfillment that make success easier or faster. Success is motivating. Focus is motivating.

The seven principles above give you structures of fulfillment. They will help you keep your motivation high. And your high motivation will help you accomplish your most heartfelt goals.

This article is excerpted from the book, Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, 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.

Motivational Principle Number One: Prune Your Goals

The more goals you have, the less likely any one of them will be achieved. The more goals you have, the slower your progress on any one of them. Slow progress is demotivating. Anything you do that slows down your accomplishment or makes your goal seem less possible will suck out your motivation like a lamprey.

Prune your goals so you have fewer goals, and you automatically preserve your motivation better.

There is only one problem with this: Complexity will keep creeping in. The natural drift is toward complexity.

You have only 24 hours in a day. Time is limited, and if you want to stay motivated, your goals need to be limited too. Not limited in the sense of setting only small goals, but limited to a small enough number that they don’t bog you down with complexity. Keep them trimmed and your motivation can stay high. Keep them trimmed and progress will be rapid and enlivening.

Stephen Hawking, the physicist and mathematician, has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a disease that handicaps his movement and speech. Hawking wouldn’t wish his disease on anyone, but in many ways it is the secret of his success. His condition has forced him to limit the scope of his activities. Many common distractions and diversions were unavailable to him, so he concentrated on what was available (using his mind) and became a world-renowned thinker and theoretician — the top thinker in his field. His condition forced him to keep his goals pruned, allowing him to focus.

I’m referring to this as “pruning” goals rather than “dropping some goals” because the process has to be continual. Just as tree branches keep growing, your list of goals will keep growing. You don’t prune once and for all — you can’t. You have to keep doing it.

Every year, you prune an apple tree and the tree becomes healthier, it produces more apples, and the apples are bigger. That’s the purpose of pruning, and the same goes for you and your goals. Your goals can reach greater fruition, and can happen faster, if you keep your goals pruned to just a few, or even one.

You may only have one main goal right now. You may not have any goals to prune at the moment. But give it some time. Goals tend to increase and accumulate, weighing you down and slowing progress, until you are overwhelmed with too much to do and too little result showing from all your effort. This is very demoralizing. The way to prevent it or cure it is to sit down and list your goals, and then try your best to prune some of them. Either give them up, or put them in a file to be accomplished later.

This is hard to do. And it’s hard for the same reason it’s hard to throw away something you own, even if you haven’t used it in years. After all, you may still want to use it in the future, right? In effect, that object represents a goal. It might be an old tennis racket you haven’t used, but it represents a goal to play tennis “some day.”

There is a certain degree of built-in greed we all have. We want to own, we want to accumulate. Not just physical possessions but also future accomplishments. That’s why giving up a goal is difficult.

But it has to be done. You have to throw away perfectly good and desirable goals. You have to curb your natural greed by practicing the virtue of simplicity. Learn to appreciate simplicity and focus, and appreciate them so much you are willing to suffer the pruning.

The more goals you have, the more distracted you are. And I’m not just talking about your stated goals. Someone might spend three hours a day watching television and yet not think of it as a goal. They might spend more actual uninterrupted time watching television than any other activity, and not ever consider it one of their goals. But it is functioning as a goal. And a very important one, given how much time they spend on it. Relaxation or entertainment or escape must be an important goal of theirs.

If you do something like that, where the amount of time you spend on something doesn't match how important you feel it is, it's time to prune that goal. You don’t have to go overboard. Everyone needs a certain amount of downtime. But you can prune until it reflects your true values.

To stay motivated you need to be very selective about what goals you choose to attempt. And you need to regularly prune the extra goals you have accumulated. Keep your goals narrowed down to only a few or even just one, and you will be able to focus, and focus is one of the most important factors of motivation. You are more motivated when you are more focused. And the more goals you have, the less focused you are.

The fewer your goals, the more focused you are. The more focused you are, the faster your progress, and fast progress is enlivening and motivating, so it can become an upward spiral. To help make this happen, keep your goals pruned.

This article is excerpted from the book, Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, 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.