The Most Successful People Learn How to Focus on the Positive
Adapted from Firestarters: How Innovators, Instigators, and Initiators Can Inspire You to Ignite Your Own Life, published by Prometheus Books.
"When you look at people who are successful, you will find that they aren't the people who are motivated, but have consistency in their motivation." -- Arsene Wenger, French football manager
We all have people in our lives who seem to accomplish more in one workday than others accomplish in an entire week. Productivity follows those people regardless of what they are doing. PTA president. Nonprofit volunteering. Coordinating multiple kids' sporting events. Think about entrepreneurs who thrive on starting multiple businesses. The stress seems to propel them when it would destroy others. What explains this mountain of productivity? Why are some people able to be serial entrepreneurs when most would struggle with a single business? Firestarters form connections between seemingly disparate events in their lives, learn what works across situations, and are able to generalize this knowledge to other activities. We call this cognitive convergence, the ability to detect micro-signals in diverse situations that allow a Firestarter to ignite when others fizzle.
Cognitive convergence can be powerfully positive. Firestarters are able to make associations between similar situations and use lessons learned from one sphere of their lives to inform actions and thoughts in seemingly unrelated situations. They look for patterns of success, and then they pounce on situations that have proven to be generators of that success. Then they replicate that success.
This creates an overall sense of positivism and optimism. Firestarters reason that when problems arise, they will find a solution. They assume that the things they touch will work out -- not because of pure chance but because of the strength of their actions.
Related: 3 Powerful Ways to Stay Positive
Think about those in your life who approach problems from an optimistic perspective. Optimists tend to bring a "glass half full" mindset to multiple situations. This isn't an accident; it's a pattern. It works. When you believe positive things will happen, you find a way to make this vision a reality.
What others view as setbacks, Firestarters see as opportunities to learn and grow more. It goes beyond resilience. It is the reason why Donald Trump easily overcame obstacles in his presidential campaign that would have downed other candidates. It is also the reason why President Barack Obama, even after eight years of embattled politics, authentically gave a final speech at the end of his term that was 100 percent as optimistic as when he campaigned in 2008.
It is the reason why Tom Brady believed his team was going to win when they were down 28-3 in Super Bowl LI. He was mentally locked into the idea that he could overcome a deficit that would have deflated others. It didn't matter to Brady that no other Super Bowl team had come back to win after trailing by more than 10 points. It wasn't important to him that there were less than two quarters left in the game. It didn't matter that it had so far been the worst game of the season. He didn't let self-doubt overwhelm him. Brady expected to win, and his teammates bought into it. As a result, the Patriots completed the most improbable comeback in the history of title games in professional sports.
Cognitive convergence is a learnable state of mind. There are, however, debates about just how to accomplish it. Learned industriousness theory and behavior-based psychology in general hold that any learnable category of performance can be strengthened by reward. We all can imagine rats in cages repeatedly pressing levers to get food. In the behavioral psychology sense, we are all rats, pressing levers repeatedly in many areas of our lives. Despite being ensconced in psychological lore, some major opposing psychological theories (e.g., cognitive evaluation theory) hold that rewards can seem controlling and often undermine enjoyment and task choice for interesting activities.
Which is it? Do rewards propel or thwart action? The reality may be more nuanced than simply saying rewards either help or hinder. Take creativity, for example. Researchers examining tasks that require effort in the form of creativity find that it is increased by three specific reward conditions:
- Reward promised or expected for creative performance.
- Reward offered for performance or another task following reward for creativity.
- Action on a similar task after being rewarded for creativity.
These findings are consistent with the effects of reward on effort in other arenas (e.g., physical effort). From a learned industriousness perspective, Frestarters develop internal reward sensations to overcome aversion to the mental strain. Strain is something that people naturally find aversive. Firestarters overcome this aversion by seeing and anticipating the positive outcomes that result from the strain. Not only is the aversion to the strain reduced, but Firestarters seek it. It's an adrenaline rush that they often love and also works to their advantage.
Here are three ways to engineer your own cognitive convergence over time:
First, affirm your vision. Free yourself to imagine the greater positive outcome that you are working toward. What will your fire allow you to accomplish? Momentary strain can be no match for a bright and positive vision of the future.
Second, reward yourself for mission-relevant actions and results. When you achieve an outcome of significance, celebrate. Plan a timeline of celebrations that integrate with future opportunities that you perceive. When you capture an opportunity or find ways to increase your fuel supply, take a moment for yourself and remember the benefit that the strain produced. Celebrating your success is refreshing. It creates an aura around you that others seek to replicate. It's the universal "I'll have what she's having" moment from When Harry Met Sally.
Third, practice keeping your eyes open. Don't persist on one task blindly. Identify your other passions or things that interest you. As you get close to igniting other passions, note their similarity to other areas of your life where you are successful. Find ways to integrate your existing expertise and passion into areas that intrigue you but where you previously haven't allowed yourself to get off the sidelines.
Cognitive convergence also relates to the role identity perspective we discuss in the book relating to the Innovator, Instigator and Initiator types. People are motivated to maintain consistency between their public and private selves. Accordingly, we are constant observers of our own actions, tweaking and modifying as needed to ensure our action-based reality matches our internal identity. Since we have multiple identities, multiple acceptable actions align with whichever identities are most salient. Someone who views herself as an Innovator will find a way to make creative interventions happen across situations.
Our actions converge with our overall perceptions. You are more likely to fly a plane if you identify as a pilot wannabe than if you identify as an acrophobic. Our actions also converge across situations. A lesson you learn as a pilot can be applied to other realms of your life. You may utilize experience with knobs and dashboards used to keep a plane aloft to help an entrepreneur friend design viable ways to measure her organization's success. This design would be "uniquely you." It represents a convergence of your experience across situations that few, if any, could replicate.
In summary, Firestarters don't let life dictate their actions. They've learned that action rewrites the script of life. They are industrious. And since research proves that industriousness can be learned, you can add positivism through cognitive convergence to your life by taking a more active role in that learning.
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