Why Most Positive Self Talk Doesn’t Work And What to Do About It

I have always been a huge proponent of positive self talk. I use it all the time in my own life.

When I have to have a conversation with someone that I’m dreading, or I’m just tired and have a long day ahead, I look at myself in the mirror and say, something to the effect of, “you can do this! You have what it takes. You’re smart and capable and savvy.”

Makes you look pretty ridiculous if anyone ever walks in on you in the bathroom—but whatever.

If it works, it’s worth it. Right?

But to be honest, I wasn’t really sure if it was working. I had never thought to measure if it was actually improving the outcomes of my life, or if it was just making me feel better.

Recently, I heard something that made me rethink my un­challenged love for positive self talk.

I was listening to one of my favorite business authors, Dan Pink present at a conference.

He’s a really smart guy who has written a few New York Times Bestsellers, including one I love called To Sell Is Human.

He said something about self­ talk that really caught my attention.

Namely, he said, it just plain doesn’t work.

At first I felt myself getting a little defensive. “It doesn’t work?! What do you mean it doesn’t work? It has to work!”

But then I listened as he went on.

Basically, he said, research shows that positive self talk like “you can do it!” doesn’t have much of an impact on performance because the self ­talk has nothing to do with performance itself. It isn’t clear or directive.

Self talk doesn’t have any clear plan to follow.

On the other hand, if you were to talk to yourself like this: “I’ve done presentations like this dozens of times before and every time I’ve told the story about that one business owner,that’s gone really well.”

Or if you were to say, “Your biggest weakness when you’re facing a hard day is you get overwhelmed too easily. So watch out for that.”

That’s the kind of positive self talk that works.

That positive self talk gives you a clear path you can follow ahead.

Positive self talk that works isn’t just “rah­rah you can do it” self­ talk but it comes with a plan.

Makes sense, right?

In case you were wondering if this works, I tried it.

A few weeks ago I had to have a hard conversation with someone I loved and I was nervous. I gave myself this positive self ­talk beforehand.

I told myself, “your biggest weakness in these conversations is that you let your emotions get the best of you and you lose sight of what you’re trying to communicate.” I also said to myself, over and over again, “Don’t forget—the objective of the conversation is ______.”

And you know what?

That conversation went better than I could have expected. I stayed cool and collected and was able to direct the conversation in the way I wanted it to go.

Turns out Dan Pink was right.

And if I can change the way I talk to myself, I just might be able to have a small hand in shaping the future in front of me.

Five Things I’ve Learned Since Quitting My Full Time Job

It’s been five full years since I quit my full-time job to go after my long-time dream of traveling and writing books. It’s been a crazy, wild, totally unexpected, sometimes heartbreaking, other times completely exhilarating, ride.

I’ve learned more about myself and about what it takes to achieve success in the past five years than I have in the rest of my life combined.

People ask me, “do you ever regret quitting your job?” The short answer to that question is no.

The long answer goes something like this.

Quitting your job won’t solve your problems

There were a lot of things I hated about having a full time job and I was convinced getting rid of the job would solve them. I hated the scheduling conflicts, the office politics, the bureaucracy, the overwhelming wave of insecurity I would feel under observation.

I hated evaluations. 

I hated what felt like my boss “breathing down my neck”.

I hated not having the flexibility to take a day off when I needed—or spontaneously, because after long winter, it was finally sunny outside.

Here’s the thing. There are a lot of perks to working for yourself. The spontaneity thing, first of all. The freedom to make your own choices. That rocks. But quitting my job did not make me feel less insecure. It didn’t solve all my scheduling conflicts.

Nope, that’s just me—expecting too much of myself, thinking I could do more than I actually can.

Quitting your job does not solve all of your problems. Our problems have this strange habit of following us.

There’s no such thing as a “perfect” work environment

There are some good work environments and some bad ones. I quit a job once because my boss would yell at us—the entire team—on a daily basis. Pretty sure he thought it was motivating. I just thought it was unprofessional and unhelpful. So I quit.

But even the most wonderful work environments are not perfect.

Work environments reflect the people inside them—endearing and imperfect as they are; and truly great work environments are fought for and won. They’re built with hard work and honesty, over a long period of time.

Even when I have total control over my work environment, it’s still not perfect because I’m not perfect. It’s a little manic at times, like I am. And although it typically is conducive to creativity, it runs on stress and caffeine.

The workplace I create is a reflection of me and it’s amazing how even the people I invite into that space get wrapped up in the tornado of my gifts and problems.

No workplace is perfect.

If your workplace is awful, quit.

If it’s average or above average, ask yourself what you can do to contribute to the work environment and make it the kind of place you want to be.

We must abandon the mythology of “total freedom” in our work.

I couldn’t wait to quit my job so I would have “total freedom” to work when I wanted to work, to write whatever I wanted to write, to change plans at the last minute and to take a day off whenever I felt like I needed it.

Let me tell you, after five years of working for myself, there is no such thing as “total freedom” in your work. At least not as far as I’ve found.

[If you have discovered this secret, please email me. I pay cash money.]

The search for the elusive “total freedom” in my work has led me on more than one wild goose chase and has probably prevented me from making the progress I really desire. You’ve heard the old adage, “creativity needs boundaries”. I’d say that applies pretty well here.

The trick is finding the right boundaries so your creative energy can flow and you can thrive.

Someone has to be the boss.

I was so excited to quit my job so I could duck out form under the weight of my the dreaded “boss”. From my artistic position, even the best bosses were stifling my creative energy and preventing me from achieving my goals.

But here’s the deal. Someone has to be the boss.

Someone has to make sure the company is being productive, that money is coming in, that systems are in place to keep everyone on track, that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do based on those systems and that everyone is given permission to succeed and grow.

Someone has to be the boss.

The boss has to be concerned about wasted time and energy and about the bottom line because, ultimately, he or she is concerned about making sure everyone leaves at the end of the week with a paycheck.

Even when you work for yourself, there’s no escaping “the boss”.

The boss just might be you.

Every creative person wishes they didn’t have a boss. This is impossible. Instead, ask yourself who you want your boss to be.

I was an ungrateful and selfish employee.

I was such an ungrateful and selfish employee, taking things for granted that were huge blessings to me—like bonuses, paid days off, a 401k, a steady, regular, consistent paycheck, unending access to office supplies.

I took too many breaks and didn’t maximize my productivity like I know now I could have. I didn’t see how my actions (or inactions) impacted the company or organization as a whole.

Now that I run my own business I see it and feel it.

I feel the price of every box of pens, of every time I have to buy toner. I feel every hour I take off and every day I don’t work. If I don’t do something, it doesn’t get done.

So I see very clearly how my actions impact the organization’s bottom line, which in the end, impacts me.

So these days, I treasure every long lunch, every day off, every printed piece of paper, and every day I’m lucky enough to call this my job.

When You Find Your Voice, You Change the World

You know that feeling you get that you were made for something bigger than what you’re doing? It isn’t that what you’re doing—in your professional life, your family, your relationships—is totally unimportant.

It’s just that you sense a powerful potential inside of you that hasn’t quite been unlocked.

It might feel like something is getting in your way, or maybe that you’re getting in your own way. You may even wonder if you might be mistaken altogether.

“Maybe I’m wrong about having great potential,” you think to yourself. “Maybe that’s just selfish.”

If this is you, I want to say this: I get it. I’ve been there.

Heck—I’m still there at times in my life.

And I want to say, resolutely, you are not wrong about the powerful potential inside of you. You were made to do something great. The world needs to you to unlock and uncover that powerful potential you have.

This is the very power you have to change the world.

I call it finding your voice.

One of the biggest misconceptions about “finding your voice,” if you ask me is that is this frivolous or extraneous activity—that it is a nice thing to do, in your free time, if you’ve got some extra money on your hands.

But I don’t see it this way at all.

Finding your voice is the most important thing you can do for yourself and for the world.

Let me give you an example.

I just got home from a week-long trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Some of you may be familiar with the conflict and devastation that is happening in that part of the world but if you aren’t familiar, just know this: it’s truly heartbreaking and painful and there are many convincing sides to this one, long, painful story.

I wish I could flesh it out more for you here, but that will have to wait for a later time.

For now, just trust me on this one: on both side of the conflict, you’ll meet people who, for all intents and purposes, don’t have a voice.

I met two women while I was there who each fall on different sides of the conflict. One was an Israeli. The other was a Palestinian. And although they disagree about many things in life, they agreed on this one thing: it was time to start speaking up.

It was time to find their voice.

So they started a blog.

They began sharing stories from their own lives and the lives of their friends who were a part of the conflict, so that those who hadn’t experienced it firsthand could see what it would be like to live on either side.

Their goal wasn’t to broker some kind of political deal. It wasn’t to take sides. It was to show their humanity by simply sharing their voices.

We talked about the changes they were seeing, the confidence they had, the passion, the drive, the friendship, the community, the healing that was coming from this simple but powerful commitment to put words on paper.

And as we sat around a table—a group of bloggers and writers from the United States and these diverse women from across the world—something occurred to me:

One of the most powerful things in the world is voice.

Your voice. Their voice. Our voice.

I can attest to this. I’ve also seen dramatic changes in my life since I set out to discover my unique voice.

I’ve watched my anxiety dissipate, my income grow, my passion unfold, my friendships deepen, my marriage become more fun and fulfilling, the number of days I spend depressed in bed lessen and my career path become more clear.

I have more energy to give generously to those who need it.

I have more clarity, more compassion, more integrity, more power over my own circumstances.

When we learn to speak up about what matters most to us, things change.

People change. We change. The world changes.

You may not feel like you have anything to write about. You may wonder if your words really matter. You may assume someone else is doing it better than you. But let me urge you against this destructive way of thinking.

If you don’t find your voice—no one will.

No one can do it “better” than you. There is only one you.

Your voice will not be easy to find. It will not happen overnight. But it does matter. It matters more than just about anything else.

Your voice can change the world.

And I want to help you find it.