Remember Roger Bannister?
Until 1954, it seemed impossible for a human to run a mile in under four minutes. Then Bannister did it, and his record stood for only 46 days. In the next 67 years, more than 1,500 runners beat the four-minute mile.
What changed? Only a belief in what’s possible.
Most powerful ideas
Quick, name history’s most powerful ideas!
Democracy? Yeah that’s a pretty good one. It’s held up well for around 2,500 years.
Compound interest? OK, less sexy, but it sure does work.
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out?” Hmm, odd that you would mention that one, but it’s practical—I like it, I like it.
How about: “What you think, you become.”
I know, right? Let that wrinkle your brain for a minute.
The idea that our thoughts become our reality? That’s something we tend to forget, even if we know it’s true. We prefer to tinker with external factors—to switch our diets, change jobs, try a new life hack. Don’t get me wrong, these do help you move toward a better life. But the most successful people in history know this: Your thoughts create your reality.
Ancient wisdom of a growth mindset
In 600 B.C. a spiritual teacher named Laozi—also known as Lao-Tzu—walked the Earth.
His teachings became the Tao Te Ching (though the authorship of it has been debated), a book which, in part, teaches that your thoughts and willingness to open yourself to emotions and experiences shapes your reality: “If you open yourself to the Tao, / the Tao will eagerly welcome you. / If you open yourself to virtue, / virtue will become a part of you. / If you open yourself to loss, / the lost are glad to see you. / ‘When you do not trust people, / people will become untrustworthy.’”
Around the same time, an Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama left his palace to devote his life to discovering truth and enlightenment. Today, over half a billion people are practicing Buddhists, making it one of the world’s largest religions.
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought,” teaches Acharya Buddharakkhita’s translation of the Dhammapada, a collection of Gautama Buddha’s teachings.
What does the King James version of the Christian Bible say? “Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats: / For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee. / The morsel which thou hast eaten shalt thou vomit up, and lose thy sweet words.”
The prophet Muhammad? “Riches are not from an abundance of worldly good but from a contented mind.”
The world’s major spiritual traditions agree: Mind creates matter.
Not religious? Neither am I, but I shun wisdom that’s stood the test of time at my own peril. How about a secular tradition, Stoicism?
Roman philosopher Seneca noted, “It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.”
When an idea develops independently in all corners of the globe and persists for more than 2,000 years, it might just be worth paying attention.
Our grandparents’ teachers
Then came that whole Dark Ages fiasco, but around the turn of the last century, the idea that thoughts equal power made a serious comeback.
The law of attraction faction was finding its legs when in 1903 James Allen wrote a bestseller called As a Man Thinketh, which argued that actions result from thought: “Bestial thoughts crystallize into habits of drunkenness and sensuality, which solidify into circumstances of destitution and disease: impure thoughts of every kind crystallize into enervating and confusing habits, which solidify into distracting and adverse circumstances: thoughts of fear, doubt, and indecision crystallize into weak, unmanly, and irresolute habits, which solidify into circumstances of failure, indigence, and slavish dependence: lazy thoughts crystallize into habits of uncleanliness and dishonesty, which solidify into circumstances of foulness and beggary: hateful and condemnatory thoughts crystallize into habits of accusation and violence, which solidify into circumstances of injury and persecution: selfish thoughts of all kinds crystallize into habits of self-seeking, which solidify into circumstances more or less distressing.”
Napoleon Hill followed up in 1937 with his famous Think & Grow Rich, the 1960s edition of which sold over 100 million copies. Six words in Hill’s book, “You become what you think about,” inspired Earl Nightingale to write The Strangest Secret. The album, released in 1956, earned the first Gold Record for spoken word after selling over 1 million copies.
Four years later, in 1960, Nightingale and Lloyd Conant co-founded the Nightingale-Conant corporation, a company that has since produced a wide variety of audiobooks.
It would be fair to say then that this idea—that thoughts have power—is the foundation for today’s multibillion-dollar personal development industry, and the reason you’re reading this SUCCESS article right now.
Modern science catches up
Not all ideas are good because they persist. I have grave concerns about astrology, which has somehow survived for thousands of years. Then again, we Sagittarians are very skeptical people.
Let me take you scientists into a warm and loving embrace to share the good news: Science has finally joined the party and confirmed what our top minds have known for millennia—our minds create what shows up in our reality.
Last month I picked up a copy of SUCCESS magazine because I knew I’d be in it and, you know, I’m vain.
David Bayer’s article grabbed me; he’d clearly done serious thinking about mindset.
I signed up for his email list, and 13 automated messages and many Google rabbit holes later, I learned some fascinating science about the power of thought:
Thoughts create happiness.
In a 2021 study published in the Psychologica Belgica, researchers found that placing a priority on positivity moderately increased well-being, happiness and overall life satisfaction in participants. However, researchers also found that placing a priority on happiness—that is, creating a goal to remain consistently happy—“leads to feelings of depression and loneliness, and partly diminishes the happiness felt.”
Positive mindsets reduce stress.
A small clinical trial published in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion found that “positive thinking training” increased feelings of positivity and reduced rates of stress and anxiety among hemodialysis patients. Additionally, the program “increased [the participants’] ability to deal with stress and anxiety through raising their awareness of their abilities, innate talents and strengths.”
Our own experiences can guide us.
A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology utilized a “Taking in the Good Course” developed by one of the researchers to teach participants the “HEAL” framework—that is, “Have a beneficial experience,” “Enrich it,” “Absorb it” and “Link positive and negative material.” After completion of the course, researchers found that participants experienced increases in “composite measures” of positivity, happiness and cognitive performance, as well as “individual measures” such as self-compassion and gratitude. At a two-month follow-up, participants continued to report a boost in happiness and cognitive performance, but only “borderline significant improvements in positive emotions.”
Negativity steals our power.
Stress and anxiety negatively impact myriad areas of our lives—including the workplace. In a study published in the Kansas Journal of Medicine, researchers utilized the “Health and Work Questionnaire” and found a potential negative correlation between perceived stress levels and employee productivity. That is, “higher stress scores were associated significantly with lower productivity scores.” While high levels of stress impacted all subscales of the “Health and Work Questionnaire,” researchers found a particularly high impact on work satisfaction.
Others’ mindsets influence our own.
If we know that our thoughts create our reality and that a negative mindset is keeping us from what we want…
Then how do we create the life we desire?
The growth mindset
As a younger researcher, Stanford University professor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., was interested in knowing why some people cope with failure and choose to be a learner and others don’t. Like any good researcher, she experimented on children, giving them tough challenges to solve or the opportunity to tackle harder puzzles.
While many buckled, some licked their chops, saying, “I love a challenge.” What was up with those weirdos?
The short version: They had adopted a growth mindset.
A tale of growth and fixed mindsets
You’ve met people with a fixed mindset. They fret over looking good and cover up their mistakes. They care about their position in the pecking order.
Individuals with a fixed mindset believe we’re assigned a fixed amount of talent at birth and that this determines how far we go in life. They need to prove themselves and desperately seek approval from teachers, peers, bosses and society. Their primary goal? Look smart!
Those with a growth mindset believe that talent is only part of the recipe for success and that with hard work and study there are no limits.
They crave challenge and don’t mind failure, seeing it as a necessary stop on the way to Victory Town, and they could care less how they’re judged. Their No. 1 goal is to improve.
We’re born with a growth mindset. You’ll never see a baby afraid to try and fail. But social convention and an antiquated education system teach us to fear “doing it wrong.”
We know our mindset literally creates our reality. Now you know you have a choice between a fixed and growth mindset. I think our choice is clear.
But how can you develop a growth mindset? If only there were some tools we could use…
Growth hacking your mindset
Mad Men’s Don Draper died in Silicon Valley sometime around 2010; 20-year-old programmers in hoodies killed him.
What I mean is that, with their limited budgets, many startups can’t afford traditional advertising, so they devised a smart, inexpensive way to market their services and find customers: growth hacking.
If you’re familiar with the lean startup methodology, this tune will sound familiar: to rapidly experiment with marketing tactics, measure results closely, identify what works, then modify your experiment repeatedly—all in the pursuit of relentless growth and reduced marketing costs.
For example, in its infancy, Airbnb tried out tactics to sign up new users. But when it added the ability for users to quickly and easily share their listings on Craigslist, growth exploded.
Cultivating a growth mindset: hacks from Silicon Valley
If thoughts create reality, adopting a growth mindset speeds us toward success and rapid experimentation can help us uncover the best growth strategies, then why the heck can’t we apply growth hacking to cultivating a growth mindset? Here are five techniques you can use to do exactly that:
1. Target one small
customer segment belief first.
Sit and think. What’s the one mental habit you’ve picked up that hurts your growth most?
My own is judgment. I judge people for how they drive and lose my mind when I see someone litter. Political debates on Facebook suck me in and come away feeling dirty.
I know that this tendency to judge is not serving me. It robs me of my mental energy, and I’ve targeted this part of my mindset to work on; that is, to replace judgment with compassion.
2. Run a (thought) A/B test.
A/B testing is Startup 101: Run two different ads on social media and see which one performs better. Keep the winner, then test it beside a new ad. Repeat.
We can do the same thing with our attitudes. For one week, just observe one belief you hold, like “my work is boring,” and keep a written record each day of how you feel and your experience (ex: “Mood: six out of 10. Got into two arguments with my boss.”)
In week two, decide to adopt the opposite belief. (Side note: if you think you can’t possibly change your thoughts, ask yourself, “If I’m not in control of my thoughts, who is?”)
This might look like, “There’s always something interesting happening at work if I look closely.” Again, record your outcomes. Stick with the belief that brings the best results. Repeat with other parts of your thinking.
3. Apply some analytics.
Startup entrepreneurs know that if they want to growth hack their business, they need to know what their users are doing.
In my business, So You Want to Write?, I use Google Analytics to see which webpages users are landing on, what they’re doing and whether my marketing campaigns are effective.
Most of us could use more analytics in our lives. This can mean keeping a journal of your thoughts and moods. Each night before bed, ask yourself, “What thoughts dominated my day? How did this influence my mood? What was the effect on my productivity?”
When you know what’s going on in your mind, you can adjust your mindset to the one that best serves your growth.
4. Encourage a viral mindset.
Encouraging your users to share your content is one of many ways to generate inbound links and win the internet.
Use a similar approach to create a positive mindset loop.
Let’s say that today you’re exceptionally mindful of the times you want to judge someone (awareness is the second step in changing a behavior, according to the transtheoretical model). Reward yourself for this in some way, whether that’s a literal pat on the back or leaving work on time.
In this way, you reinforce healthy thoughts and your subconscious will want more, kicking off a virtuous viral cycle and cultivating a growth mindset.
5. Leverage third parties.
Growth hackers are masters of riding others’ coattails. Need to grow your email list? Write a guest blog post for a big audience. Need to start a multibillion-dollar payment processing company (ahem… PayPal)? Convince eBay to use your technology.
We can do the same to build a growth mindset by attaching ourselves to people with great attitudes. You are the average of the people you hang out with the most.
Also: By reading the best books, we expose ourselves to healthy, positive thinking that we can adopt as our own.
How I developed a growth mindset
I’ve growth hacked every part of my external life. I’ve racked up more than 10,000 Pomodoros. I spent a king’s ransom on supplements and bulletproof coffees, collected a library of journals, incessantly planned my year/month/week/day, joined the 6 a.m. club (sorry, Sharma, I just can’t go to bed at 8 p.m.) and tamed the smartphone beast.
These outer habits improve my life infinitely. But as the returns diminished, I started doing the inside work to cultivate a growth mindset. Doors open much easier these days.
If you’re not where you want to be in life, it might be time to turn your focus inward.
I’m curious, what’s your experience with changing your mindset? Let me know in the comments below.
This article was published in October 2019 and has been updated. Photo by shurkin_son/Shutterstock