Embracing the Negative Space: Mental Contrasting
A key ingredient these days takes positive thinking beyond goal-setting and general mindset to a promise: You’re more likely to succeed and reach your goals if you vividly imagine yourself doing so. It’s an attractive concept: Who doesn’t want to vividly imagine themselves experiencing phenomenal success?
But what goes along with this is the corollary: A type of magical thinking that you have to banish all thoughts of failure because even imagining failure will create failure. It’s uncomfortable to picture failure. It feels bad. Being told to avoid imagining failure has its attractiveness. I believe the opposite is true: Imagining failure is one of your best tools for achieving success. Imagining failure helps you better foresee the obstacles that might get in the way of success. And the better you are at predicting the hazards in your path, the better your chances of avoiding them.
NYU psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen has spent more than 20 years researching mental contrasting, an alternative to positive thinking that includes visualizing obstacles that can interfere with reaching goals. She found, in domain after domain—with groups of subjects trying to lose weight, build social relationships, find jobs, improve work performance, and recover from surgery—that people who imagine barriers and impediments are more successful at reaching their goals than those engaging only in positive visualization.
The Road to Success Is Not a No-Speed-Limits Superhighway With Zero Traffic
If that were the case, investors wouldn’t invest in index funds and then underperform the indexes by making deposits and withdrawals at the worst times. The road to success is littered with obstacles, whether those obstacles are market movements outside of your control or the results of your decisions in the face of those movements.
Identifying these obstacles in advance is what clears the path to success because then you can figure out how to address and avoid them.
Mental Time Travel—Thinking Backwards, From the Future
One of the best ways to identify the obstacles is by engaging in mental time travel by doing a pre-mortem—an exercise in which you imagine having failed to reach your goal. We’re all familiar with post-mortems, originally the term for examining a dead body to determine the cause of death, and now a way we generally think about deconstructing why something has gone wrong.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could identify why something failed before it happens? That’s part of the pre-mortem’s power. As an investor, a pre-mortem on why you failed to achieve your goals may significantly increase your chances for success.
When We Imagine the Future, We Tend to Start With the Present and Think Forward
It’s natural: The future is inherently uncertain, and the further your project, the more uncertain everything seems. It feels more comfortable starting on the solid ground of the present. It turns out the better way of reaching your future goals is by imagining you’re in the distant future and failed to reach your goals, and think your way backward to figure out how you got there. In other words, instead of imagining the reasons you might fail, you imagine the reasons that you have failed.
Professors Deborah Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, and Nancy Pennington called this process prospective hindsight. They found working backward in this way was 30% more effective in identifying obstacles.2
If you want to summit a mountain and you’re trying to plan the best route to the top, standing at the foot of the mountain doesn’t give you much of a view. You can see only what lies immediately ahead of you. But once you’ve gotten to the top of the mountain, you can see the entire landscape below. From the summit, you can see obstacles not visible from the base, as well as alternate routes that might have been safer or more efficient.
No One Plans to Panic
When we’re caught up in the emotions of the moment, say in the aftermath of some big upturn or downturn in our portfolio, that’s when our decisions will be at their worst. No one plans to sell in a temporary panic or cash out for a small gain and miss sustained market gains. But a pre-mortem makes it possible to identify these possible missteps and come up with strategies to avoid them. The pre-mortem process is more effective if you work through it in collaboration with your financial professional. Because financial professionals work with so many investors and have seen the obstacles that trip up even the best-intentioned client, they can offer a valuable outside perspective, helping you identify roadblocks that you might otherwise miss.
The Value of Positive Thinking
I’m not suggesting that it’s not useful to think about success. Rather, if you only imagine success, it creates an incomplete view of the future, just like only imagining failure creates an equally incomplete view. Setting positive goals and imagining yourself achieving them is necessary to create a complete picture.
“Backcasting” is the positive version of a pre-mortem: Imagining that you’ve achieved your goals and work backward to figure out why. Backcasting will be a more fun and natural exercise. That’s partly why the positive thinking genre is so popular—because it feels really good to imagine success. Doing a pre-mortem doesn’t feel good, so we avoid it. We might even believe that imagining failure will create failure.
But when you engage in mental time-travel from both potential destinations, you get a much more complete view of the landscape that might lay ahead. That’s why the most successful investors are willing to explore the negative space by not just imagining success, but also imagining failure. The process I’m describing is like planning a drive to a destination.
Why dig up a tattered old map for directions when you can use a top-tier navigation system—one that includes real-time updates that identify areas with delays due to traffic or construction? If you can see those hazards more clearly, you can create the clearest road to success.