The Bright Side of Negative Visioning

positive thinking

It’s the 2008 summer Olympics, and gold-medal winner Michael Phelps is poised to break his own record for the 200-meter butterfly swimming race – a competition that no one could touch him in.

But then this happens: After Phelps’s first turn, his goggles fill with water, and he cannot see. Not being able to see should mean he won’t know exactly when to turn again – and will lose precious seconds each turn.

What did he do? More importantly, what had he done that prepared him for this moment? It’s a surprising practice that contributes to the well-being of numerous people I work with, and it’s what I want to share today.

Whether you’re a leader, entrepreneur, business owner, or anyone with a desire to bring about a desired future, you might add Phelps’s practice to your tool belt.

Positive thinking alone can backfire

If you’ve been dosed up on positive thinking mantras of “Just think positive thoughts and you’ll attract positive outcomes,” you might have thought that you weren’t thinking positively enough or affirming yourself enough.

It turns out that positive thinking alone can backfire. In Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, cognitive psychologist Timothy Wilson notes how positive self-affirmations alone can actually make people feel worse about themselves and their abilities to achieve their goals.

A variation of positive thinking is actually helpful. Positive visualization and what I call deliberate daydreaming and what psychologist Jerome Singer pursued and called positive constructive daydreaming does help people maintain hope and take active steps toward fulfilling their goals and feeling fulfilled in general.

It’s a practice of actively imagining yourself taking steps to do what you desire. Writing in descriptive detail helps. But that alone might not suffice.

After all, Michael Phelps’s longtime swimming coach had led Phelps and other swimmers through detailed positive visualization for years. Based on several studies, other coaches have adopted this technique, too, since the 1990s.

But that practice alone would not have helped Phelps in his water-goggled moment. What did?

The power of negative visualization

Unknown to Phelps’s coach, Phelps had been practicing something else he created for himself: negative visioning. Call it “constructive catastrophic thinking,” if you want, but Phelps had already imagined in detail how he would respond in this moment of crisis. He already knew precisely how many strokes he would take before he reached the next wall. So, unable to see, he counted his strokes and made agile turns.

That is Phelp’s Genius Maneuver – his ability to bring his genius traits with him to face and finesse a major unbidden surprise.

And he won.

Not everyone can practice this challenge visualization and Genius Maneuver on their own. We often need support and guidance to do so.

You’ve probably heard me say that every big idea begets a series of challenges. If you’re awake and alive to the quest of this one life, you expect to face challenges. The difference in whether you flounder or flourish often will be in how you choose to respond to those challenges.

You’re not going to attract challenges by anticipating them. They will come if you’re fully awake and alive. Your fulfillment might depend in part on how well you anticipate those challenges.  

I take our clients and our Inner Circle through a refined strategic visioning process now. It includes a healthy detailed vision to rise wisely this year. It also includes a detailed envisioning of top challenges and of at least one internal obstacle within our control. And then we envision and write down our Genius Maneuver.

Team leaders, entrepreneurs, creatives, and a host of other business artists practice these moves.

Wonder is neither a positive emotion (drawing you toward the stimulus) or a negative emotion (repulsing you away from the stimulus). It hovers in the space between positive and negative, allowing you to receive the astonishing surprise of what is. Sometimes it cracks you open to seeing beauty in the unexpected places.

And sometimes tracking wonder helps you take blind turns with just a little more grit and grace. What’s going to be your Genius Maneuver this year?

If you have something to share or ask, leave a comment below. I try to respond to everyone.

Thanks for running with me,


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