Embracing the Negative Space: Mental Contrasting
Positive thinking has become one of the most popular genres of self-help books. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, first published in 1952, has sold more than five million copies worldwide and remains a favorite. 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 own attractiveness.
In Fact, I Believe the Opposite Is True: Imagining Failure Can Be One of Your Clients’ Best Tools for Achieving Success
Imagining failure helps clients better foresee the obstacles that might get in the way of success. And the better they are at predicting the hazards in their path, the better their 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 their control, or the results of their decisions in the face of those movements.
Identifying these obstacles in advance is what clears the path to success because then you and your clients 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 clients, with your help, imagine having failed to reach their 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. A pre-mortem on why a client failed to achieve their goals may significantly increase their 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 you project, the more uncertain everything seems. It definitely feels more comfortable starting on the solid ground of the present.
It turns out the better way for clients to reach their future goals can be by imagining they’re in the distant future and failed to reach their goals, and think their way backwards to figure out how they got there. In other words, instead of imagining the reasons they might fail, help them imagine the reasons that they have failed.
Professors Deborah Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, and Nancy Pennington called this process prospective hindsight. They found working backwards in this way was 30% more effective in identifying obstacles.3
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 clients are caught up in the emotions of the moment, say in the aftermath of some big upturn or downturn in their portfolio, that’s when their 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 clients work through it in collaboration with you. You’ve worked with many investors and have seen the obstacles that trip up even the best-intentioned client. You can offer a valuable outside perspective, helping clients identify roadblocks that they might otherwise miss.
The Value of Positive Thinking
I’m not suggesting that it’s not useful to think about success. Rather, if clients 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 themselves achieving them is necessary for clients to create a complete picture.
“Backcasting” is the positive version of a pre-mortem: Clients imagine that they’ve achieved their goals and work backwards to figure out why. Backcasting will be the 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 many avoid it. Clients might even believe that imagining failure will actually create failure.
But when clients engage in mental time-travel from both potential destinations, they’ll 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 identifies areas with delays due to traffic or construction? If you can see those hazards more clearly, you can create the clearest road to success.