By David J. Schwartz
Best Line #1: Remember, you see in any situation what you expect to see. See the good and conquer fear. All things do work together for good if you’ll just develop clear vision.
Best Line #2: Always give people more than they expect to get.
In Act Two, Scene Two of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we come upon the title character’s dialogue with Rosencrantz and a timeless quip that I still think about frequently:
There is nothing either good or bad, but the thinking makes it so.
This was written sometime between the years 1599 and 1602. Over four hundred years ago. It demonstrates the humanity we share across all centuries. The thinking, either good or bad, is a struggle we each must actively manage on a regular basis.
It requires skill. And the skill requires practice. I’ve yet to find anyone who naturally has the right attitude, the right perspective, all the time.
Mostly because we can’t easily recognize what the “right” attitude is. Positive thinking, of the Norman Vincent Peale variety, can certainly be helpful. And Radical Acceptance, a’la Tara Brach, is a fabulous way to sidestep the insecurities that dampen our thoughts. Then there’s Stoicism. William Irvine’s excellent book (review here) translates its wisdom for modern life, leading us to a more resilient way of thinking about the world.
But I think the best book on the topic infuses their collective wisdom and combines it with a bias toward action. Which is what David J. Schwartz does in this book, The Magic of Thinking Big. It’s an older book, written in 1959, and it has some of the vestiges of language at the time. There’s a strong Dale Carnegie vibe that veers towards the promotional at times, given all the testimonial anecdotes that are used in place of actual research. All the same, the book really does a great job of keeping the simple things simple.
For example, this line kinda makes me laugh:
But how does one develop enthusiasm? The basic step is simple: think enthusiastically. Build in yourself an optimistic, progressive glow, a feeling that ‘This is great and I’m 100 percent for it.’
I can’t imagine anyone writing a more simple line of advice. Want to develop happiness? Start thinking happily!
It might not feel very useful but I think the simplicity here gives clarity to the fact that, well, it really is just that simple. Our bad attitudes are Gordian knots that cannot be delicately unwound; they must be cut. With clear action. In fact, every book I’ve read on the topic of mental health eventually leads to this same advice: to fix the thinking, change the thinking. And then stop thinking.
Schwartz gets us to this plainspoken fact much quicker than most and all it requires is for us to accept the simple truths we often want to overthink or avoid.
For this week, I’ve tried to introduce some of the distinct concepts with the following articles:
Monday: Capacity Is A State Of Mind
Tuesday: Advice For Seeking Advice
Wednesday: A More Selective Consumer
Thursday: The Chief Meaning Officer
I’ll introduce two more themes below. As you’ll see, the information isn’t mindblowing. I find it to be more hygienic, really. We all fall into bad thought habits on occasion. We need a regular practice for cleaning those things up.
There is nothing profound or elegant about brushing our teeth. The same applies here. But we should remember these ideas and return to them just as regularly; it will clean out the emotional plaque and attitudinal debris. We’ll feel better. Others around us will, too.
The Three Attitudes
When it comes to attitude, which some say is everything, there are three components that Schwartz argues to be the most critical:
Grow the attitude of “I’m activated”
Grow the attitude of “You are important”
Grow the attitude of “Service first”
Being “activated” essentially means being enthusiastic. But when you’re facing something tedious, it’s easy to lose this enthusiasm rather quickly. For such situations, I refer back to the guidance of Thursday’s article on infusing everything with meaning and purpose. But if you struggle to find meaning in something mundane, the next best step to cultivate enthusiasm is learning. As Schwartz writes,
To get enthusiastic, learn more about the thing you are not enthusiastic about.
Case in point: there are people out there who love vacuum cleaners. They run small repair shops and sell only the highest-end brands. They can talk all day about vacuums. They often do. Why is that? Are they born with a genetic marker that predisposes them to such interests?
Of course not. But everything is fascinating once we turn our frustrations into questions. So while I tend to be unenthused by certain things like baseball and large parties, the underlying frustrations can turn into a learning opportunity that harnesses my curiosity and leads to some element of surprise.
Or so I’d like to think. It gets to an axiom I’ve heard interviewers and journalists use many times in the past:
Everyone is interesting.
Which is to say that everyone can be good company if you are “activated” enough to learn something about them. We usually take the opposite approach. We look for others to activate us; meanwhile, they look for us to activate them. A stalemate ensues. Boredom overtakes us.
Assuming the attitude of “I am activated” changes this quickly. It leads us to engage with others, find common ground, discuss whatever animates the person, and makes them feel important. This, in turn, helps us foster Attitude #2: that you are important. Because doing the deliberate work of making others feel engaged, and thus important, has the nice side benefit of making us feel the same.
Then we get to the third attitude, which I love the most: “service first.” This attitude does a lot for those who truly know how to foster it. And nevermind the notions of altruism that this may suggest. The reality is that service is the first step towards fulfilling your own needs. Particularly when it comes to anything monetary. As Schwartz writes:
You can’t harvest money unless you plant the seeds that grow money. And the seed of money is service.
And when service is our aim, it is important to think about providing as much as possible. There is something very wise and very proven about the following:
Always give people more than they expect to get.
More than they pay for. All that we can give them. Be persistently generous and generously persistent. To overcompensate with as much as possible is to generate a level of surprise and appreciation that will return more to you in time. Especially in this day and age. It is the only way I know to solve that terrible challenge of becoming useful. As billionaire Elon Musk said:
My goal is to try to do useful things … You know, with Tesla, I want to try to make things people love. Like, how many things you think you could buy that you really love, that really give you joy? So rare. So rare. I wish there were more things. That’s what we try to do. Just make things that somebody loves.
That’s so difficult.
That thing you love? That product or service that gives you joy? It’s impact invariably came by virtue of delivering you more than you expected. It might even continue to surprise. If so, it is all in a prevailing attitude of service first.
This is something that Tesla is well-known for. They don’t just deliver a car. They deliver secrets, too. Delightful easter eggs that make for a lovely car-driving experience. All in the name of giving you more than you expected.
A Bias Towards Action
As mentioned earlier, the thing I probably love most about Schwartz’s book is the way in which he directs all these motivational affirmations towards action. It’s one thing to be optimistic. It’s great to feel important, too. And service is a lovely thing. But we still foster doubts, develop ideas, and think up a whole list of “ought-to’s”. How we “ought to” do this or that. But without an explicit, deliberate commitment to truly act on those items, we can find ourselves feeling the strain. As Schwartz correctly observes:
Act on your ideas and gain mind tranquility. A good idea if not acted upon produces terrible psychological pain. But a good idea acted upon brings enormous mental satisfaction.
Nevermind the outcome. Success may or may not arrive. The real objective can be simpler and more reliably-met: producing the feeling of relief in action. In every case I can imagine, things are never as bad, as hard, or as regrettable as we expect. Once we start to act.
So why do we ever hesitate? I think the answer relates to our tendencies in affective forecasting. As covered in Daniel Gilbert’s excellent book, Stumbling On Happiness (review here), we often have a faulty mechanism in our minds that wrongly predicts how we will feel with any given venture.
We avoid acting on many ideas because we are unsure they will be successful and thus suspect we will be unhappy if we try. As if the lack of success is what makes us unhappy. The truth, at least in my experience, isn’t that a lack of success is the source of despair. It is the lack of effort. The lack of confidence. The lack of agency and the gnawing sense that we’ve already been deemed a failure by not attempting that thing we “ought to” try.
Which is to say the trying, the effort, is where the happiness truly rises. As Schwartz writes, that effort relieves the strain. This, in turn, allows my happiness to break through. Or, at minimum, that effort eliminates the doubts and fear and teaches me something new. Which gets me to another of Schwartz’s lines:
Destroy fear through action.
Indeed. The only way out of fear is through it. Or as Joseph Campbell once wrote:
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
There is a tremendous amount of wisdom that I’ve not covered in this brief review. I haven’t mentioned the 10-year visioning exercise that Schwartz offers (and has been further co-opted by other great teachers like Debbie Millman). Nor have I talked about the values he places on persistence, experimentation, and the strong view he posits on how there is always a way forward. This view is quite inspiring and I turn to it regularly. In fact, I’ll just offer one more passage that I especially like on that theme:
Tell yourself, “There IS a way.” All thoughts are magnetic. As soon as you tell yourself, “I’m beaten. There’s no way to conquer this problem,” negative thoughts are attracted, and each of these helps convince you that you are right that you are whipped.
As written in Monday’s article, passages like this challenge my rationalist, probablistic tendencies. It recalibrates my attitude every time I start to narrow in on constraints and limitations. Chances are, we all need to read something like this regularly.
Hence the reason I think this is the best book for strengthening our attitudes. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a book worth reading every quarter for a good, proper refresh. Here’s the link to Amazon.