Northern Europe is on the continental shelves of the Atlantic, so the water is shallow enough that 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 very 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. 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 sailing 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.
The lesson here is simple: When you think something 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. It’s too airy-fairy. It might remind them of some annoyingly positive people they know 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, rather than as a way to merely show a pleasant face to the world or hide your pain from yourself. It can be done with intelligence and wisdom.
Many people think cynicism and pessimism are good in some ways. But they aren’t good. Negative attitudes are actually dangerous, unhealthy, damaging, and 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 something good 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, Carl Sagan said of his fight with cancer, “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 have that 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? Are you frustrated with your career? Not making as much progress as you’d like? Feel stagnant?
Pick one thing in your life you normally think is a bad thing.
Now ask yourself, “What’s good about it?” Or if there is really nothing outright good about it, how could you make something good about it?
If you don’t get a good answer right away, that only means it’s a tough question. And it means when you find a good answer, it will probably make a bigger difference. Try living with the question for several weeks or even 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.
And your answers will help you make things turn out better for you. As Klassy 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, and not even every weekend. 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 my commitment when it started and by thought and action I’m making it come true.
It is not putting your head in the clouds to take advantage of your reality — what you have, where you are, and when you are. It’s an entirely practical way to deal with “disadvantages.”
If you have a tendency to simply feel bad about your disadvantages, even that can become an advantage. Trying to overcome your tendency might teach you something valuable — something you couldn’t have learned without it. And you can teach what you learned to your children, which could make a difference to the whole trajectory of their lives.
Trying to make the best of something that has already happened helps create solutions. It helps make things better. It is even better for your health. It keeps you from feeling as bad when bad stuff happens. It lowers your stress, and less stress is good for you. 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.
Frequent negative emotions play havoc on your system. The idea that something good may come from your misfortune allows you to consider that things might not be as bad as they seem at the moment, and in a sense, makes it possible to procrastinate feeling bad. Procrastinate long enough, and you might just skip it altogether. This makes for less stress and better health.
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 were to catch a cold. And even when they did catch a cold, the more positive their attitude was, the more mild their symptoms were.
IT WORKS IN BUSINESS TOO
W. Clement Stone became rich selling insurance and then running an insurance company. In one of 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 one of his salespeople talking about a serious problem — a problem that cost Stone’s company a lot of money — and Stone would answer back with enthusiasm: “That’s good!”
Years ago when I first read this, I thought it was over the top. Too much. 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 are a disadvantage. For example, when you buy a new car, it will probably need less repair work than an older 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. The point is, almost any event has both good and bad aspects to it.
When you first hear about a problem, your first reaction is probably to see only the disadvantages. This is a natural reaction. You focus all your attention on the bad aspects of the event. This puts you in a bad mood — a state of mind not only unpleasant as an experience, but also one that makes you less effective at dealing with the problem. If you react like this to unexpected or unfortunate events often or habitually, it will cause extra stress, so it’s bad for your health. The habit 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:
- look for the advantages that might be wrapped up in this “problem” (which may be difficult at first), and
- 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. You don’t waste any time bemoaning what already exists, and your thoughts turn immediately to how you can turn it to your advantage. No suffering is endured getting into a worse mood than is absolutely necessary. Your attitude toward the circumstances is open.
Your point of view — whatever it may be — is not something fixed or permanent. It can be changed fairly easily. And 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.
And remember, if you have trouble at first learning to do this, that’s good!
THE ORIGINAL MISTAKEN ASSUMPTION
The people of Japan and Germany were defeated in World War Two. Many of them probably thought this was a bad thing. But aren’t the majority of the people in those countries far better off than they would have been if they had won the war? Wasn’t that really the best thing that could have happened to the majority of the ordinary citizens?
At the time, however, they didn’t know that. And I’m sure many of them were very distressed about this “bad” turn of events.
Haven’t you had a similar experience? Something happened you thought at first was terrible and you got upset about it, but later you were really glad it happened? If you can think of a time when this happened to you, keep that memory in your mind whenever something bad happens.
You don’t know what the future holds. The new “bad” event might be good. I’m not talking about fooling yourself. You’re making an assumption anyway. You really don’t know if this might turn out to your advantage. You might as well assume it will be, and start making it so.
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 built 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. People came from all over the world to see the leaning tower of Pisa. Galileo conducted his famous gravity experiments from that tower because it was leaning.
Of course, an historical example is all fine and well, but what about you? Don’t you have things in your life right now you consider a disadvantage? Aren’t there conditions you “know” are bad? That you wish would go away?
Choose one right now and suspend your negative judgment about it for a moment and ponder this question: Is it possible your disadvantage is an advantage in disguise? Or could you make an advantage out of it?
If you don’t want to ponder this for weeks, you can do a little concentrated pondering. Write this question at the top of a piece of paper, “What is good about this?” And force yourself to come up with 15 answers and write them down.
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 totally altered. The “problem” will have lost most of its power to bring you down. This process can undemoralize you. It can restore lost motivation. It can give you strength and effectiveness and even good feelings.
UNWANTED AND UNLOVED
Irwin Kahn wrote to Dear Abby. When he was ten years old, Irwin’s mother sent him to a children’s home. He was very hurt by this. She kept Irwin’s younger brother and sister, but got rid of him. Ouch! His mom said Irwin was too much of a troublemaker.
He was an emotional mess for a while and developed a severe stuttering problem. But he was assigned a “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 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 — being unwanted and unloved — might have been an advantage in disguise. This conclusion seems so much the opposite of what anyone would normally think. But the fact is, 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 his time to help a young person. If he hadn’t been rejected by his mother, Irwin would not have met these people or been influenced by them. Instead, he would have been raised by a mother who clearly didn’t care about him.
We’ve got to face the facts: Our natural negative bias makes us automatically reject certain kinds of events, but depending on your attitude, those events could really and truly turn out to contain a hidden advantage which you will only see if you look.
When the energy crisis engulfed the world in the 1970s, Brazil was hurt badly. Oil imports were taking half the available foreign currency, and the country was heavily in debt. But because of the crisis, Brazilians looked elsewhere for fuel. They had to look no further than their own backyard.
One of the things Brazil had was a huge sugar cane crop. So they used it to make alcohol, and started using alcohol as fuel. Today, 90% of cars sold in Brazil run on alcohol, which burns much more cleanly than gas. Almost all the cars sold in Brazil can burn gasoline and ethanol equally well, and most fuel stations sell both. To this day, Brazil is the only country in the world with true fuel competition. It has helped their economy tremendously, especially when oil prices have spiked (something that seriously hurts the rest of the world because there is no widely available alternative fuel that most of the cars can use). Brazil just passed Britain to become the sixth largest economy in the world.
They found advantages in their disadvantage. 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. So they had hundreds of thousands of tons of juiceless pulp. They had to pay garbage collectors to take it away.
But you and I have to drill it into our noggins that a disadvantage (like tons of pulp) may be an advantage in disguise if we think that way. Brazilians did. And they found things to do with the pulp. They burn the pulp to generate electricity, 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.” It may one of those ideas that makes itself true. If you think you can make an advantage out of a disadvantage, you may try, and if you try, you greatly 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. Practice asking the question, “What’s good about this?” Make the question come to mind naturally and easily. 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. It will give you a path to better future.
When Henry Ford was running the Ford Motor Company, he had to overcome one problem after another (just like the rest of us). He was exceptionally good at turning problems into opportunities. 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. It was starting to accumulate. Ford needed to get rid of it. But how?
His first idea was to make his dealers take it. He said for every train carload 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.
By thinking about it, a problem became an opportunity in disguise. Ford actually profited from his “problem.”
The actor Edward James Olmos grew up in East L.A. and his parents divorced when he was seven. He lived with ten other people in a three-room house (including the kitchen) with a dirt floor. Growing up this way is obviously a disadvantage, right? Olmos sees it differently, and that’s why he is successful. He said, “Some people say they didn’t have a choice. 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.”
Sometimes there is a blessing to trouble without any intention to make it that way. You might get in a fender-bender and the cop who shows up asks you out on a date and you end up marrying.
But often, when something bad happens, it’s just bad, or at least it seems that way. There doesn’t seem to be anything redeeming about it. And since we’re usually in a negative state of mind when trouble strikes, we’re in no mood to try to find anything redeeming about it!
Here’s the problem with that: Your mind will tend to see what you expect to see, unless you have strong and clear evidence to the contrary.
If you see the “bad” event as bad, you are not likely to get any clear evidence you’re wrong. It happens sometimes, but not very often. 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 if you don’t do anything to stop it.
And by seeing what’s bad, sometimes you can actually make the situation worse. If you think it’s bad and you throw in the towel, you might miss what you could have done to solve the problem, or even turn it to your advantage. And by not doing anything, sometimes the problem can get worse.
This question, “What’s good about this?” makes you open your eyes and see what opportunities 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. 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.
Am I beating this to death? Maybe so. But then tomorrow when someone doesn’t call you back or you burn your dinner or you see your child’s report card and it’s bad, how will you react?
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 creates benefits for you and the people around you. And maybe for the world at large. At the very least, it will change your attitude for the better.
There are some things that “everyone knows” are bad: a home burned 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.
DO NOT STOP YOURSELF
You may already know that “assuming the worst” 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. Trying not to think something negative makes you fixate on the negative. There is a better way.
Simply ask yourself the question, “What’s good about this?” Or even, “What might be good about this?” And keep asking it over and over. Not forcing. Not with any frustration. Not trying to stop yourself from thinking anything else. Just calmly repeat that question to yourself. Keep looking at your life through this question. Ponder it.
Keep doing that when troubles big and small come your way and after awhile — a month, a year — you’ll start thinking that way automatically. You will start to trust it. It will become a natural part of your thinking. Trouble will happen and you’ll automatically and naturally start wondering what is good about it or how you can turn it to your advantage.
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?
Ask the question. All by itself, it can transform the quality of your experience, and through the change in your experience, it will change your attitude, your expressions, your behavior, alter the actions you take, and through those, actually change the world you live in, and it will benefit others. When something “bad” happens, ask the question, “What’s good about this?”
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For 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.
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