EXCERPT – Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work

To do well in life, we must first think well. But can we actually learn new mental habits? Thinking For A Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work answers that with a resounding yes–and shows how changing your thinking can indeed change your life. Read an excerpt here.

ISBN: 0446529575
Warner Books

Chapter 1
Understand the Value of Good Thinking

“Nurture great thoughts, for you will never
go higher than your thoughts.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

What Were They Thinking?

“Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.”
—Dwight D. Eisenhower,
thirty-fourth president of the United States

What one thing do all successful people have in common? What one thing separates those who go to the top from those who never seem to get there? The answer: Good Thinking! Those who embrace good thinking as a lifestyle understand the relationship between their level of thinking and their level of progress. They also realize that to change their lives, they must change their thinking.

A Different Way to Think

I’ve been a student of good thinking all my life, so I know how important it is for making progress. In the first book I wrote back in 1979, titled Think on These Things, I said, “Your life today is a result of your thinking yesterday. Your life tomorrow will be determined by what you think today.” The title of that book was inspired by the words of the Apostle Paul, who admonished us,

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

My father, Melvin Maxwell, often quoted those words to me. He felt they were important. Why? Because he is an example of someone who changed his life as a result of changing his thinking.

If you met my dad, he would tell you that he was born with a naturally negative bent to his thinking. In addition, he grew up during the Depression, and when he was six years old, his mother died. He was not a happy or hopeful child. But as a teenager, he began to see that all the successful people he knew had one thing in common: they filled their lives with positive thoughts about themselves and others. He desired to be successful like them, so he embarked on the daily task of changing his thinking. To his delight, after much time and effort, his thinking changed him.

People who know him today see Dad as a totally positive person. They would be surprised to find out that he started his life with a negative mind-set. This change in his thinking allowed him to rise to a level of living that seemed above his potential. He went on to be the most successful person in his professional circle. He became a college president and touched the lives of innumerable people. To this day he is my hero.

Changing from negative to positive thinking isn’t always easy, especially if you have a difficult time with change. For some, it’s a life-long struggle. Do you know what most people’s number one challenge is when it comes to making positive personal changes? It’s their feelings. They want to change, but they don’t know how to get past their emotions. But there is a way to do it. Take a look at the truth contained in the following syllogism:

If you are willing to change your thinking, you can change your feelings. If you change your feelings, you can change your actions. And changing your actions—based on good thinking—can change your life.

Who Will Change Your Mind?

Most people in our culture look to educational systems to teach them and their children to think. In fact, many individuals believe that formal education holds the key to improving lives and reforming society. James Bryant Conant, chemistry professor and former president of Harvard University, asserted, “Public education is a great instrument of social change. . . . Education is a social process, perhaps the most important process in determining the future of our country, it should command a far larger portion of our national income than it does today.”

Many educators would have us believe that good grades lead to a better life, and that the more formal education you have, the more successful you will be. Yet education often can’t deliver on such promises. Don’t you know highly educated people who are highly unsuccessful? Haven’t you met college professors with Ph.D.s who cannot manage their lives effectively? And conversely, don’t you know of dropouts who have become very successful? (Think of Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Federico Fellini, Steve Jobs.)

William Feather, author of The Business of Life, remarked, “Two delusions fostered by higher education are that what is taught corresponds to what is learned, and that it will somehow pay off in money.” Educational reformer and former University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins observed, “When we listen to the radio, look at television and read the newspapers we wonder whether universal education has been the great boon that its supporters have always claimed it would be.” Perhaps we would be better off if we took the advice of Mark Twain, who said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

The problem with most educational institutions is that they try to teach people what to think, not how to think. Contrary to what Francis Bacon said, knowledge alone is not power. Knowledge has value only in the hands of someone who has the ability to think well. People must learn how to think well to achieve their dreams and to reach their potential.

Why You Should Embrace the Value
of Good Thinking

Georgia State University professor David J. Schwartz says, “Where success is concerned, people are not measured in inches or pounds or college degrees or family background; they are measured by the size of their thinking.” Becoming a better thinker is worth your effort because the way you think really impacts every aspect of your life. It doesn’t matter whether you are a businessperson, teacher, parent, scientist, pastor, or corporate executive. Good thinking will improve your life. It will help you to become an achiever. It will make you a better businessperson, teacher, parent, scientist, pastor, or executive.

Take a look at just a few reasons why good thinking is so important:

1. Good Thinking Creates the Foundation for Good Results

In As a Man Thinketh, James Allen, philosopher of the human spirit, wrote, “Good thoughts and actions can never produce bad results; bad thoughts and actions can never produce good results. This is but saying that nothing can come from corn but corn, nothing from nettles but nettles. Men understand this law in the natural world, and work with it; but few understand it in the mental and moral world (though its operation there is just as simple and undeviating), and they, therefore, do not cooperate with it.

It may seem obvious that the quality of people’s thinking leads to the quality of their results. I believe most people would agree that:

  • Poor thinking produces negative progress.
  • Average thinking produces no progress.
  • Good thinking produces some progress.
  • Great thinking produces great progress.

Yet, one of the reasons people don’t achieve their dreams is that they desire to change their results without changing their thinking. But that’s never going to work. If you expect to reap corn when you planted nettles, you’re not going to get corn—no matter how much time you spend watering, fertilizing, or cultivating your plants. If you don’t like the crop you are reaping, you need to change the seed you are sowing! Do you want to achieve? Then sow the “seed” of good thinking.

My friend, Bill McCartney, is a three-time Big Eight Conference coach of the year and two-time UPI coach of the year. In 1990, he led the University of Colorado football team to a national championship. He understands what it takes to win in sports. What may surprise many is that he says the mental aspect of the game is more important than the physical. Coach Mac observes, “Mental is to physical what four is to one.” No matter how gifted athletes may be physically, if they don’t have what it takes mentally, they won’t succeed.

I was reminded again of that truth at a recent leadership conference. I told the attendees that I was working on a book called Thinking for a Change. During one of the breaks, a man named Richard McHugh came up and told me a little about his experience as a competitive bull rider. After the conference, he sent me a letter telling the whole story. He wrote,

To make progress in any field, you have to take action. But the success of the action you take depends entirely on how you think beforehand. What Claude M. Bristol wrote in The Magic of Believing is true: “The successful people in industry have succeeded through their thinking. Their hands were helpers to their brains.”

2. Good Thinking Increases Your Potential

Author James Allen believed, “You will become as small as your controlling desire, as great as your dominant aspiration.”5 Or to paraphrase the words of King Solomon, wisest of all ancient kings, “As people think in their hearts, so they are.”6 If your thinking shapes who you are, then it naturally follows that your potential is determined by your thinking.

In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, I wrote about the Law of the Lid, which states, “Leadership ability determines a person’s level of effectiveness.” In other words, in any endeavor with people, your leadership is the lid. If you’re a poor leader, your lid is low. If you are a great leader, your lid is high. I believe that your thinking has a similar impact on your life. Your thinking is the lid for your potential. If you’re an excellent thinker, then you have excellent potential, and the words of Emerson ring true: “Beware when the great God lets loose a great thinker on the planet.” But if your thinking is poor, then you have a lid on your life.

Achieving your potential comes from making progress, and progress is often just one good idea away. That was certainly true of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart. He explained, “I guess in all my years, what I heard more often than anything was: a town of less than 50,000 in population cannot support a discount store for very long.” But Walton did not think the way his competitors thought, and for that reason, his potential was greater. While other merchants followed popular thinking, Walton thought for himself and struck out on his own. That has paid off in a remarkable way. Today Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer, employing more than one million people and achieving annual sales in excess of $191 billion. Every week more than 100 million customers visit Wal-Mart stores.7 How’s that for potential! No wonder Jack Welch, former chairman of General Electric, said, “The hero is the one with ideas.”

The greatest detriment to many people’s success tomorrow is their thinking today. If their thinking is limited, so is their potential. But if people can keep growing in their thinking, they will constantly outgrow what they’re doing. And their potential will always be off the charts.

3. Good Thinking Produces More Good Thinking IF . . . You Make It a Habit

Albert Einstein observed, “The problems we face today cannot be solved on the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Look around and you’ll see that is true. The world keeps getting more and more complicated. Does that discourage you? It doesn’t have to. Many years ago, I came across a quote that made a tremendous impression on me. It said,

The good news is that no matter how complicated life gets or how difficult problems may seem, good thinking can make a difference—if you make it a consistent part of your life. The more you engage in good thinking, the more good thoughts will come to you. Success comes to those who habitually do things that unsuccessful people don’t do. Achievement comes from the habit of good thinking. The more you engage in good thinking, the more good thoughts you will continue to think. It’s like creating a never-ending army of ideas capable of achieving almost anything. As playwright Victor Hugo asserted, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an invasion of ideas.”

Every year, I talk to tens of thousands of people on the subjects of leadership, teamwork, and personal growth. I’ve found that many of them believe good thinking is so complicated that it lies? beyond their reach. But in truth, it’s really a very simple process. Every person has the potential to become a good thinker. I’ve observed that . . .

  • Unsuccessful people focus their thinking on survival
  • Average people focus their thinking on maintenance
  • Successful people focus their thinking on progress

A change of thinking can help you move from survival or maintenance to real progress. Ninety-five percent of achieving anything is knowing what you want and paying the price to get it.

Portrait of a Good Thinker

So how do you pay the price to become a good thinker? For that matter, what does a good thinker look like? You often hear someone say that a colleague or friend is a “good thinker,” but that phrase means something different to everyone. To one person it may mean having a high IQ, while to another it could mean knowing a bunch of trivia or being able to figure out whodunit when reading a mystery novel.

I believe that good thinking isn’t just one thing. It consists of several specific thinking skills. Becoming a good thinker means developing those skills to the best of your ability. In Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras describe what it means to be a visionary company, the kind of company that epitomizes the pinnacle of American business. They describe those companies this way:

    A visionary company is like a great work of art. Think of Michelangelo’s scenes from Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or his statue of David. Think of a great and enduring novel like Huckleberry Finn or Crime and Punishment. Think of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Shakespeare’s Henry V. Think of a beautifully designed building, like the masterpieces of Frank Lloyd Wright or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. You can’t point to any one single item that makes the whole thing work; it’s the entire work—all the pieces working together to create an overall effect—that leads to enduring greatness.9

Good thinking is similar. You need all the thinking “pieces” to become the kind of person who can achieve great things. Those pieces include the following eleven skills:

  • Seeing the Wisdom of Big-Picture Thinking
  • Unleashing the Potential of Focused Thinking
  • Discovering the Joy of Creative Thinking
  • Recognizing the Importance of Realistic Thinking
  • Releasing the Power of Strategic Thinking
  • Feeling the Energy of Possibility Thinking
  • Embracing the Lessons of Reflective Thinking
  • Questioning the Acceptance of Popular Thinking
  • Encouraging the Participation of Shared Thinking
  • Experiencing the Satisfaction of Unselfish Thinking
  • Enjoying the Return of Bottom-Line Thinking

As you read the chapters dedicated to each kind of thinking, you will discover that Thinking for a Change does not try to tell you what to think; it attempts to teach you how to think. As you become acquainted with each skill, you will find that some you do well, others you don’t. Learn to develop each of those kinds of thinking, and you will become a better thinker. Master all that you can—including the process of shared thinking which helps you compensate for your weak areas—and your life will change.

Advice from a Good Thinker

I once read that “the battle for control and leadership of the world has always been waged most effectively at the idea level. An idea, whether right or wrong, that captures the minds of a nation’s youth will soon work its way into every area of society, especially in our multimedia age. Ideas determine consequences.”

I get to see the power of ideas at work in the lives of young people every day because my company, The INJOY Group, employs many sharp leaders in their twenties and thirties. Gabe Lyons, an INJOY vice president, recently attended an event at the Fox Theater in downtown Atlanta and came back on fire with enthusiasm. The speaker for the occasion was Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric. Gabe went that day because he is a student of leadership and personal development, and he wanted to learn from one of the finest business leaders in the world.

Gabe was one of about six hundred business people in attendance. Jack Welch came to promote his book, Jack: Straight from the Gut, but he didn’t read from the book or give a canned lecture. He did something much more valuable for his audience: he answered their questions. Gabe said that for almost two hours, pure gold dripped from Jack’s mouth. The best thing Gabe learned came in response to a question from a young business person in his mid-twenties. Gabe says,

    A young guy asked, “When you were my age, what did you do to elevate yourself among all of your other associates? How did you stand out from the crowd of other young, ambitious and driven colleagues of your day?” Jack responded, “Great question, young man. And this is an important point for every person to hear. The first thing you must understand is the importance of getting out of ‘the pile.’ The only way you are going to stand out to your boss is to understand this simple principle: When your boss asks you a question, assigns a basic project, or sends you out to gather some data, you must understand that your boss already knows the answer he is looking for. As a matter of fact, in most cases, he simply wants you to go out and confirm what he already believes is true in his gut.

    “Most people simply go out and do just that,” Jack continued, “confirm what their boss believed to be true. But here is the difference maker. You must understand that the question is only the beginning. When your boss asks you a question, that question should become the jumping off point for several more ideas and thoughts. If you want to elevate yourself, you must sink your thoughts and time into not only answering the question, but going above and beyond it to add value to the train of thought your boss was on.

    “Practically speaking, that means coming back to the table and presenting to your boss not only an answer, but three or more other ideas, options and perspectives that were probably not previously considered by your boss. The goal is to add value to the idea and the thought by exceeding expectations when the question is given to you. This is true not only with questions, but assignments, initiatives and everything else ever given to you to run with by upper management.”

    Jack drove the point home emphatically. “So if you understand that the question is only the beginning, you will get out of the pile fast, because 99.9 percent of all employees are in the pile because they don’t think. If you understand this principle, you will always be given more critical questions to answer. And in time, you will be the one giving out the questions to others!”

    If you desire to climb up out of the pile, to rise beyond your circumstances, to move up to another level in your career and personal life, then you need to take the advice of Jack Welch. You need to become the best thinker you can be. It can revolutionize your life.

    Copyright © 2003 by John C. Maxwell

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