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.
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.
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."
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.