Phrases like “visualize success,” or the importance of having a “winning attitude,” have been thrown around so much that they’ve almost become parodies for team-building office culture. Because they are so cliché, and often used as an excuse for unfair situations (corporations like to distribute the book, Who Moved My Cheese? whenever they lay off staff), it can be easy to forget the truth at the heart of these phrases: We are fundamentally in control of how we approach a given situation.
This is where and when our attitude comes in; how ready we are to react and interpret the world in a certain way, usually dominated by emotion. We can see the way some of the most successful people in our society have been able to do this to create an advantage for themselves and the people around them.
Think of possibilities beyond “realistic”
Of all his characteristics, Steve Jobs is well-known for what his colleagues describe as his reality distortion field. He had an uncanny ability to seemingly will his goals or visions into the physical realm. For example, software engineer Andy Hertzfeld, who worked at Apple on the first Macintosh product, writes that Jobs was never satisfied with realistic estimates,
“As if he could make it happen faster through sheer force of will… You might think that impossible schedules and uncompromising perfectionism would lead to an oppressive work environment, but most of the time, the ambiance of the Mac team was spontaneous, enthusiastic, and irreverent.”
Each of us has an innate tendency to rise, or fall, to the level of our expectations. It’s why professor Tyler Cowen would offer strong Masters candidates PhD admissions. He writes,
“At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.”
This ability should be wielded with careful discernment as author Michael Shermer observes, “There was, however, one reality his distortion field could not bend to his will: cancer.… Out of this heroic tragedy, a lesson emerges: reality must take precedence over willful optimism, for nature cannot be distorted.” In her TED talk, neuroscientist and professor Tali Sharot suggests striking a balance between optimism and realism; if you were a penguin that wanted to fly, try putting on a parachute before you do it.
Exaggerate the importance of willpower
In The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene writes, “What we must understand about the attitude is not only how it colors our perceptions but also how it actively determines what happens to us in life—our health, our relations with people, and our success. Our attitude has a self-fulfilling dynamic.”
He continues, “Do not be afraid to exaggerate the role of willpower. It is an exaggeration with a purpose. It leads to a positive self-fulfilling dynamic, and that is all you care about. See this shaping of your attitude as your most important creation in life, and never leave it to chance.”
As the prior example with Tyler Cowen showed, it helps to surround yourself with people who believe in you and can appreciate how hard you’ve worked. Like his model Steve Jobs, recording artist Ye operates as though reality is malleable, almost willing things to happen, refusing to acknowledge limitations. This philosophy has manifested itself in the deadlines he sets, his creative process, the scope and scale of his projects (musical and otherwise), his boundary-breaking career, and his seemingly unshakable optimism. For example, in the jeen-yuhs documentary, a young Kanye West tells his mother, professor Donda West, about MTV featuring him. He asks her, “Can you believe it?”
“I can believe it, the way you are,” she says. “You play tracks like Michael Jordan shoots free throws. Anybody that does something that much and that long and is that good, it’s gotta pay off. You can’t go over there and do nothing but blow up.” This is how West developed his positive, and expansive, attitude, and how he could remain so motivated in the face of adversity. This also leads to more people believing in him and supporting him along the way.
If you’re working in a career path that involves creativity, how much you believe in yourself and your abilities influences the outcome. If you don’t believe you’re a creative person, you’ll get in your own way. In order to improve, you may need to unlearn criticism and self-limiting beliefs you’d learned in the past.
When you’re faced with a pivotal moment full of uncertainty, you may need to appear more confident than you really are, believing that you can lead yourself and your team to the best outcome no matter how the chips fall.
Whatever happens, you can manage it
Former Disney CEO Bob Iger writes in The Ride of a Lifetime,
“Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion.…Optimism sets a different machine in motion. Especially in difficult moments, the people you lead need to feel confident in your ability to focus on what matters, and not to operate from a place of defensiveness and self-preservation.”
This type of optimism is crucial. It’s not about delusion, positivity, manifesting, or anything like that—but instead, “Believing you and the people around you can steer toward the best outcome, and not communicating the feeling that all is lost if things don’t break your way.” Anyone can be optimistic in the good times, but cultivating optimism and trust in the bad times—that’s where a positive, expansive, attitude is truly tested.
Willpower and attitudes won’t be able to fix everything. Still, it helps to deliberately exaggerate its role in our minds, so that we influence reality as much as we can. Some situations involve a self-fulfilling dynamic; in those cases, changing our attitudes can be enough to change some of the things we thought that we had no power over.
Herbert Lui is the author of Creative Doing, a book of 75 prompts that unblock creativity for your work, hobby, or next career. He writes a newsletter that shares three great books every month and is the editorial director at Wonder Shuttle.