Three Key Steps to a Better Job, Career, and Life

I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks now about what would be the best post to kick off the new year, and this is the one on which I settled. Why? Because I have repeatedly observed that these three steps (the ones I outlined in November’s Washingtonian interview) are the ones essential to making the kind of significant progress that most clients are seeking. I can’t think of a more relevant and powerful prescription than:

  1. Creating and maintaining a positive attitude
  2. “Showing up” on a daily basis
  3. Establishing and nurturing relationships

Today I will focus on the first of these, primarily as it relates to one’s work life.

Creating and maintaining a positive attitude

Maintaining a positive attitude in the face of discouraging developments on the job or in the job search is no easy task. The key is to become extra vigilant about monitoring your own state of mind, guarding it against falling into negative patterns of thinking which can all too easily become self-reinforcing. As I posted two months ago (“Making Better Choices,” November 13, 2011), evolution has primed us to be overly sensitive to the downside of a given situation. You can improve your ability to overcome this negative bias by practicing “thought shifting” on a regular basis.

Fortunately, we all have a built-in detector that can alert us to dysfunctional thinking, and the consequent need to generate more positive alternatives. it’s called “how we’re feeling” (emotionally). Start practicing noticing how your thoughts about events (as opposed to the events in and of themselves) impact your emotional state. For example, if you’ve just received a less-than-sterling evaluation at work, it would be “natural” to feel anxious and depressed. But it’s highly unlikely that anxiety or depression are going to be very helpful in addressing the issues that resulted in the negative evaluation. What will be? A most-likely-somewhat-forced slanting to the positive of your thinking about the situation. It’s an old cliche, but one genuinely founded on truth, that stepping up to, and into, an opportunity is far more likely when you hold a space in your head that can envision success. A space that needs to be repeated frequently because your natural inclination will be to sink into nervousness and despair. Accepting a negative evaluation more as a valuable piece of data and less as an indicator of impending doom will help maximize your chances of addressing the issues that need to be faced. I want to be perfectly clear here: I am not saying that you should ignore negative developments or sweep them under the rug. Just notice your tendency to “negativize” or even “catastrophize,” a tendency to which you can be quickly alerted by noticing how you’re feeling, and then engage in compensatory thinking.

Here’s an example: you turn on the news after a taxing day at work and hear that the stock market dropped five hundred points. You begin to worry that it’s 1929 all over again, that we’re about to enter a Depression, that you’ll have to postpone your retirement, perhaps even sell your house. It’s possible that this line of thinking could “turn out to be true” (I put the phrase in quotes because it assumes an ability to foresee or predict the future that none of us has). But it will be a lot less likely to be true for you if you are also able to imagine scenarios that don’t wind up in that demotivating place, scenarios that allow you to think more broadly, offensively as well as defensively. A breadth of imagination can help you develop more creative approaches that will increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.

Practice “thought shifting” on relatively inconsequential matters to begin with: a weather forecast that might predict rain that could interfere with a planned activity, a poll that suggests declining popularity for your favorite political figure, a delayed takeoff. Then move on to more personally disturbing examples:a ten pound weight gain, a salary freeze, an overdrawn checking account. In all of these cases yes, it may be wise to anticipate the worst, but be careful that you don’t tilt your thinking so strongly in that direction that you become frightened, dejected, and immobilized.

For more ideas on ways to counteract overly negative thinking, see my blog posts entitled “Choosing Your Thoughts“, and “The Trap in Believing Your Thoughts“.