Evolution has provided humans with a number of incredible algorithms that have turned us into the most dominant lifeform this planet has ever seen. But evolution has also snuck in some programming that makes us act like idiots. Our job is to figure out which is which, and turn up our reliance on the ones that help and entirely mute the ones that hold us back.
The trick is knowing how to assess what’s helping and what’s hurting. For me, the answer is very simple: Do and believe that which moves you toward your goals. Everything emanates from there.
Once you know which algorithms to run and which to terminate, the question becomes how to actually stop the original program from running. The answer is… you don’t. Nature is far too clever to let her algorithms be turned on and off so easily. They’re buried deep in our hardwiring. But although you can’t turn them off (at least not quickly), you can use them as the trigger to run the new, more useful one that you want to take its place.
Without knowing what your specific goals are, I’ll stick to some of the universal ones. What follows are three mental upgrades that will work for anyone, regardless of your specific goals.
1. Replace criticism with compliments
We’re geared to see the things that are wrong. You don’t avoid getting eaten by a lion by noticing all of the things that are right. And although this may be a tremendous strategy to avoid large predators, it’s a pretty terrible way to manage your interpersonal relationships.
According to the Harvard Business Review, high-performing teams have a 5.6-to-1 positive-to-negative comment ratio. People give more weight to negative comments than they do positive ones. This, combined with the fact that people often lead with what’s wrong, and you’ve got a recipe for a default communication style that makes people feel like they’re constantly under attack—even when that’s not the intention.
To combat this problem, when the impulse to criticize someone important in your life arises, instead of letting that become actual speech, turn it into a trigger to find an authentic compliment. This is a powerful strategy for two reasons:
You get what you focus on. If you dwell in the negative thoughts that come to mind, the relationship will be tinged with negative associations. If, on the other hand, you force yourself to migrate your thoughts to positive elements of the other person’s behavior, you will reinforce those ideas.
By externalizing your authentic feelings of appreciation, not only do you ensure that your communication as a whole will be balanced to the positive, the people who are most important to you will know exactly what you value in them.
When you communicate what it is that you value in others, you’ll be amazed by how much their defenses lower and their self-esteem builds. Also, once your aggregate interactions are balanced toward the positive, you’ll be able to address any conflicts or issues that need to be addressed without putting people on the defensive. Think of it like a bank: You can only make withdrawals once you’ve made sufficient deposits.
2. Use the pressure to perform as a reminder that all of life is but practice
Whether in business or life, we all have moments where the pressure is on. A little pressure can improve our performance, but too much and your performance begins to degrade. That’s why when the stakes are legitimately at their highest, you have to force yourself to reframe the situation and see it as practice rather than performance.
When I was a kid, I hated getting nervous and anxious so much that I promised myself that when I’m an adult, I’ll never again do anything that makes me uncomfortable. Needless to say, when that promise collided with my ambition, something had to give. What gave was my fear of discomfort. I made myself a new promise: I’ll always do the things that scare me most.
To that end, I now host a weekly show called Impact Theory where I interview the world’s top thinkers, many of whom are my personal heroes. And I do it all in front of a live audience. There was one episode where I was crashing and burning, misstating facts, flubbing words and losing my train of thought. In the middle of my tailspin, I felt the algorithm for pressure kicking in.
I became hyper-aware of the audience, how many eyes were on me, and the fact that I only had one chance to get this right and currently I was embarrassing myself.
By choosing to view it as practice, the situation become an opportunity rather than a test.
Then I remembered that the very feeling of mounting pressure was my trigger to run the mantra that all of life is but practice. This wasn’t a moment to perform, but rather to practice. I didn’t need to do this perfectly, I just needed to have the guts to sit there in front of everyone and practice so I could improve. As long as I walked off set better than I’d come on, I could consider it a win. Instantly the pressure dropped. By choosing to view it as practice, the situation become an opportunity rather than a test. I now had the rare and exciting chance to practice crawling my way out of a hole and rebuilding trust with my audience. Something I had never had a chance to do before.
When pressure builds, remember that every aspect of your life is just practice. Whether you’re starting a business, raising kids or establishing a morning routine, you’re in the process of learning. If you look at any one moment as the finish line or the sum total of who you are, then every moment becomes final and the pressure overwhelms. Instead, consider every day as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself. This will help you transform a moment of panic into one of empowerment.
3. Substitute feelings of insecurity with the excitement of skill acquisition
Here’s the hard truth: We all suck at some of the things we want to be good at. If you’re like most people (and statistically speaking, you are), you’re not the best in the world—even at your chosen profession. There might even be someone in close proximity to you who makes you feel insecure about your skill set. Maybe it’s a co-worker, a family member or someone on Instagram, but chances are, there’s someone who seems to do effortlessly what takes you a tremendous amount of effort just to get lesser results.
That bet is easy to make, because such is the nature of the human mind—it’s riddled with insecurities. That’s why it’s essential to take Carol Dweck’s advice. She’s the Stanford researcher and professor who wrote the book Mindset and introduced the world to the transformative power of the word yet. You’re not good enough. Yet.
People have an easy time believing that winning isn’t forever, but somehow fail to recognize that loss and failure are equally temporary.
The next time insecurity rears its ugly head, instead of being paralyzed by it, use that very feeling as the trigger to tack on the word yet. That word will make all the difference in your life. It takes things from the world of the perpetual and permanent to the world of temporary and transient. People have an easy time believing that winning isn’t forever, but somehow fail to recognize that loss and failure are equally temporary. Once you realize that you can get good at anything that you’re willing to put the time into, insecurity loses its power. By remembering that you’re simply not good at something yet, you remember that you’re in control. You can decide to get good whenever you want.
The key to making this work for you is in truly believing the intoxicating idea that you can acquire any skill you set your mind to. Believing the opposite—that today’s version of yourself is the sum total of who you will ever be—confines you to insecurity. So don’t focus on what you’re not good at today. Focus on what you need to do to get good at mastering the skill you’re missing. This moves your mind from the self-defeating loop of not being good enough, to the empowered mindset of the learner.
How to start installing these new algorithms
Undoing innate, or even learned, brain patterns sadly isn’t as easy as downloading the latest driver for your computer, but it actually is startlingly simple. It’s a process called brain plasticity, and it’s how we learn new skills and habits. Although the science of myelination is outside the scope of this article, it remains the backbone of learning a new skill and it happens largely through repetition—neurons that fire together wire together, as they say.
So if you’re to put any of the above to use in your life, the key is repetition. Don’t be discouraged when you make some progress only to slide back. Stick at it, and any new mental habit or skill can be yours. Although you might never be able to silence the negative voices or counterproductive impulses, with enough practice, their mere presence will act as a reminder to run your new algorithms. Over time, you will find the time gap between unproductive thought and the running of your new, upgraded algorithm will get so short that only you will know that your virtuous cycle started with something outdated.