— Investigator, Department of Children and Families
In the last two posts, we’ve dealt with the subject of pressure. One was about time pressure of constant deadlines. The other was about performance pressure that came from unachievable goals. In both cases, the pressure damaged employee morale, and in one case hurt the company’s reputation. So it seems like a safe bet for companies guilty of extreme pressure to dial it back.
But what if, in your line of work, low morale comes with the territory?
The Department of Children and Families Investigator’s job is to investigate child abuse and neglect. Not a cheerful subject in itself. On top of it, the investigator has to deal with another kind of pressure: confronting people.
If positive thinking is at a premium at a typical company, I can only imagine what it feels like to work at the DCF. But if they are to help those families and kids, they need to believe it can be done.
Positive thinking is huge for any individual or company. Not fake positive. Real positive. If you’re not sure you can get to real positive, your first step is to sell yourself on positive thinking. This is how it’s happened for me.
Shortly after I moved out to California to join a startup, I was wallowing in self-pity. Nothing was as it had seemed from a distance. Instead of the up-and-coming company I thought I was getting into, I found a seedy joint with some shady things going on inside.
For one, the company was nowhere near the financing deal they had so eloquently described on the phone. Which meant they had no money to pay me. In the meantime, my much-hyped equity stake was vanishing right before my eyes. I came to California to make millions, but I couldn’t afford the essentials, like food and rent. If you consider self-confidence and trust to be essentials, I was missing those too.
That year I complained to a lot of people. One of them gave me a book. It was called The Secret. The Secret, as you might know, is the Law of Attraction. If you don’t want bad things in your life, stop worrying about them. All you have to do is think positive and good stuff will happen. Right?
Wherever you stand on the Law of Attraction, you likely agree that it’s hard not to worry about bad things. We worry about weather, traffic, and the neighbors’ dog “decorating” our lawn. How, then, can we just let the Law of Attraction take care of our livelihood and our dreams? It’s much easier said than done.
The book did not create a dramatic shift in my life. It would be another ten years before I stopped worrying about food and rent. But it shifted something. I started paying attention to what was going on inside my head. And I sought inspiration as much as I did money and physical comforts.
I’ve come a long way towards positive thinking. I still have a way to go, but I am no longer at the mercy of everyday stuff. And I’m happy to say neither is my company, Axero. A few months ago our servers crashed. Not something an intranet company with a few million subscribers likes to hear. But our employees got online, delegated tasks to each other, and within a few hours everything was back to normal. There were no consequences, other than to reinforce our strengths and make us even more resilient.
For those who find positive thinking a challenge, like the DCF Investigator who left today’s comment, I’d like to list a few of my favorite sources. Some I’ve used for personal growth. Others have helped me manage people and run my company. Ultimately, positive thinking is a personal experience. So, I’ll put it all out there and let you choose the ones that work for you.
Focus on the present
The things we worry about have usually already happened or have not yet happened, but we think might happen. When our worries live in the past or the future, we can’t do anything about them. Because we are not there. We don’t like the picture our mind is painting, but we feel helpless to change it. Helplessness might be the most negative feeling there is. If you want to think positive, think present moment. What is going on that I can take part in right now? What can I change? Where can I find clarity? What can I make—or what can I make better?
Pay closer attention
Many good things came out of my disastrous first year in California. The least expected was that I became a photographer. I didn’t have a nice place to stay—I was camping on someone’s couch. My work was driving me crazy. In my desperate moments, I would take my camera and walk around Rancho Cucamonga looking for something to catch my eye. The city would never disappoint.
A few years later, I was holding a photography exhibit in San Diego. A girl came up after looking at my work and said: “You must see the world as a beautiful place.” I never thought those words. I mean, I sure as hell wasn’t sitting at my desk, pulling my hair out and thinking, “The world is a beautiful place.” But I knew that if I took an interest in the most mundane things around me, my mind would quiet, my heart would open, and I would feel like I am in the right place at the right time.
A favorite quote of mine is this one, by writer Francine Prose:
“Each time, perhaps because I’m older and have experienced more, I find things I never noticed before. Not only is it a great source of pleasure, but I inevitably feel as if I’m getting a sort of pep talk from Tolstoy: Go deeper. Try harder. Aim Higher. Pay closer attention to the world.”
I find it true in both my art and my work that, if I want things to speak to me (preferably not in Russian) and inspire me, all I have to do is look closer. How hard is that?
Great. How is that an uplifting thought, Tim?
It’s a fantastic thought because it sets you free from false expectations. You can stop expecting everyone to be perfect and find humor in the ordinary insanity of human beings. Including yourself, which is the best part.
Paradoxically, knowing that you’re insane can help you let go of your emotions and think logically. Okay, your emotions don’t actually go anywhere. They take their time and run their course. But your decisions are no longer based on your feelings alone. I make better choices because I know how easy it is for me to be my worst enemy. And when I am, despite my best self-help tactics, well, at least I can laugh.
Sometimes the closer you look and the more logically you think, the more you realize you want out. It happened to one of our best employees. Bryce had been doing an outstanding job at customer service. But the pressure was getting to him. Bryce started to burn out.
People rarely call our customer service line to say they love our product. They call when they’re unhappy and stressed, sometimes to the extreme, sometimes cursing. It’s a privilege to help them and get important feedback—but only when you’re in the right frame of mind. Bryce’s mind was flashing red: “I hate customer service. It’s turning me into a bitter old man.” It was time he moved on to something else.
At work, we need to be mindful of our occupational hazards. Any job can suck you dry if you let it. Know when you’re running on empty. In this way, Bryce may not be that different from our DCF Investigator. Constant complaints took a toll on his gift for compassion.
For jobs that require infinite compassion, two options exist: (a) be a Buddha, or (b) give yourself a break when you need one.
Set your intention
The most positive thought for me is knowing what I want. I don’t just want to know the answer when someone asks me. I want to remember what it is when life disappoints. I use different techniques, like affirmations or writing a promise to myself in longhand and signing and dating it. Sometimes I’ll tell friends or put it on Facebook.
It doesn’t even have to make any sense. Most times it doesn’t. The more outrageous, the better. Our brains love consistency. Act on your bad thoughts, and it rewards you with more of the same. But if you surprise it with something a little crazy, like a winner’s pose when you feel like a loser, the consistency principle works in your favor. Your brain might get so confused that it produces a positive thought!
What emotion is most consistent with winning?
There are many ways to practice gratitude in your life. At work, the most positive thing you can do is to thank your colleagues, especially if you’re a manager.
At Axero, we made it into a ritual. Every Monday, I try to point out something we did right during the past week and thank people. Saying thank you is an art. I wrote about it at length in Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Chapter 23, Say Thank You. Here, I’ll just say that some people like to be recognized publicly, some prefer it one-on-one, and others prefer it in their unique way.
Taking charge of your mood will always be a challenge. It may even be the greatest challenge of all. While we struggle to stay positive, it doesn’t take much to do it for others. We can brighten up someone else’s day—or just as easily ruin it. This power stays with us, even when we feel like the most downtrodden creature on Earth. Never forget it.
If you believe in positive thinking, you might like my book, because it will help you overcome negativity in work.