How important are your thoughts? What impact, if any, do your thoughts have on your life? Can one new thought make any difference?
James was a junior tennis champion. He was 16 years old and was hoping to enter the professional circuit. He came from a “tennis family.” He was four years old when he had his first lesson. He won his first competition when he was seven years old. There wasn’t enough cabinet space to display all the trophies he had won since then. The media often billed James as a “future star” of tennis. He was usually seeded number one for the competitions he played in. A lot was expected of James.
James had a perfect mix of natural talent and superb attitude. In tennis you need a great attitude because in every match you play you lose points, commit unforced errors, serve double faults, fail to make returns, and mishit shots, and you still have to remain positive. In fact, in tennis it is possible to lose more points than your opponent and still win the match! In spite of James’s great attitude, he had hit what he called a “mental wall” that he couldn’t dismantle. That was when he decided to see me.
James had not won a tournament for six months—his longest dry spell ever. He had reached seven consecutive competition finals, as he was expected to, but each time he had underperformed and lost to opponents he should have beaten.
“It’s since gone from bad to worse,” James told me. “I’ve now lost in the first round of my last three events.” As I listened more to James’s story, I agreed with him that his failure was not a talent gap, but a mental block.
I asked him, “What do you say to yourself just before you play a match?”
“I just focus.”
James struggled with this line of questioning. He was largely unaware of the inner dialogue of his thoughts. But he eventually identified a single mantra he repeated to himself: “I must win.” I asked James, “Why precisely do you tell yourself, ‘I must win’?” He told me, “It’s expected. I’m the favorite. I want to play professional tennis. I must win.”
In our first session, I asked James to say “I must win” out loud 50 times. Each time James repeated “I must win, I must win, I must win,” he noticed that this mantra actually increased his physical tension and mental anxiety. He also noticed how saying “I must win” generated mental pictures of tough points and poor shots.
Next, I got James to repeat “I can win” 100 times. “Saying ‘I can win’ feels completely different,” he said. “I feel no negative pressure, the tension isn’t there, and all I feel is positive.” James won his next three tournaments back to back. A different thought: a different result.
Here is the question: “Can a single thought really make that much difference?” Notice your conversation with yourself as you answer this question. It’s important.
Coaching is about listening. It is about helping people to listen to their inner dialogue—their own personal psychology—so that they can tap into their potential and be more effective. A person’s inner dialogue is often the key difference between faith and doubt, courage and fear, success and failure. In essence, the inner dialogue sets the tone for every external dialogue with other people, life events, and creation itself.
People talk to themselves constantly. Psychologists call this behavior inner dialogue or subvocal speech. They estimate that you speak to yourself at a conservative average of 50 words a minute, 3,000 words an hour. If you listen to your inner dialogue, you will notice an assortment of observations, judgments, commentary, beliefs, doubts, hopes, fears, anxieties, chatter, and general nonsense. Fortunately, it takes only one great thought—one inspired piece of inner dialogue—to create some success.
The most important conversations you hold in life are the ones you hold with yourself. Your own inner dialogue is an important key to success.
You think, you live. Your inner dialogue is the key to your perceptions, your decisions, your actions, and how you live your life. A useful metaphor is to think of your mind as being full of fast-moving mental traffic. Each thought is a vehicle that wants to take you somewhere. The thoughts you “take” to be true and wise are what shape your future experiences. My friend Dr. Chuck Spezzano is a psychologist who has done some excellent pioneering research on inner dialogue. He concludes, “Your thoughts are the direction you are heading in.”
Notice how often your inner dialogue is a commentary about you. In any moment, you may be praising yourself or putting yourself down; you may be believing in yourself or doubting yourself; you may be encouraging yourself or criticizing yourself; you may be acting as your own best coach or your own worst enemy. Inner dialogue is full of “I am” and “I am not” statements, “I can” and “I can’t” statements, and “I will” and “I won’t” statements. Listening for the wisdom, if any, in each statement is a true test of intelligence.
The scientist Sir James Jeans wrote: “The universe looks less and less like a great machine and more and more like a great thought.”11 Modern scientists who study the new physics say that the essential “stuff” of the universe is not atoms, but thoughts. In their explanation of how the universe works they often refer to “the thoughts of God” and the “mind of atoms” and the “dialogue of creation.” They do not relate to the world as a physical place, but as a state of mind. One of the main conclusions from new physics is that life is a state of mind.
The idea that “success is a state of mind” is very old. “It is the mind which gives things their quality, their foundation, and their being,” said the Buddha over 2,000 years ago.12 Thoughts create actions and results. Thoughts make you want to give up; thoughts make you want to keep going. Thoughts make things look hopeless; thoughts make things look better. The lesson here is: Be careful what you choose to think, because you will not go higher than your thoughts.
Thought is creative. Hence, if you know you never perform well at interviews, you will make yourself very anxious each time you have one. If you keep believing you don’t deserve a bigger salary, you make it hard for others to think otherwise. If you keep telling yourself that “they don’t return my phone calls because they don’t like me,” you will lose confidence. If you keep judging the one mistake you made today as “unforgivable,” you will be more afraid of failure in the future. I think, therefore I am—i.e., I am afraid or I am hopeful or I am nervous or I am confident or I am unable—becomes your mantra. As my friend and mentor Tom Carpenter14 says, “Every day you are experiencing the effects of your thoughts.”
There is much talk in psychology about the power of thoughts. I personally believe that thoughts have no power. It is the thinker who has the power. Thoughts only have as much power as a person gives them. All too often we give away our power to our own thoughts. It is a test of true intelligence to know which thoughts to believe in and which thoughts to laugh at and let go. Thoughts are only thoughts. If we took all of our thoughts seriously—as gospel truth—we would all get into a lot more trouble.
Thoughts are choices. The most accomplished people experience doubts every day, but they have learned how to choose a higher thought. Great actors experience huge performance anxiety, but they have learned how to choose a higher thought. Sports champions feel like quitting every day, but they too have learned how not to take these thoughts seriously. The same is true for successful artists, writers, teachers, physicians, and peacemakers. As you choose your thoughts, you choose your experience.
I have coached many very successful people, but I have yet to meet a 100-percent positive thinker, someone whose inner dialogue is entirely positive. Most people I know experience a spectrum of hopes and fears every day of their lives. The people who experience consistent success have learned how to identify with the thoughts that create the best outcomes. Even these people may still hit rough patches. And when they do, they call someone, they pray, they meditate, they get coached, and they find a way to choose again.
In my Success Intelligence seminars, I often invite people to participate in an experiment called “Wisdom.” Everyone is asked to stand up one by one, say out loud, “I am a wise person,” and notice their inner dialogue as they do this. They often report that their inner dialogue is cynical and dismissive: “Not true!” “Yeah, right!” and “Who are you kidding!” are not uncommon thoughts. Usually, a few people feel too uncomfortable to participate. The fact is, we do not always take good care of our wisdom.
When I train people to become coaches, I teach them that a coach is not an oracle who dispenses endless wisdom, advice, and teaching. In coaching, the aim is to help the client access his or her own inner wisdom. Graham Alexander, pioneer of the GROW coaching model, with whom I have co-presented many events,15 says, “People have the answer already, and all a coach does is help them to hear it.” Graham describes coaching as “doing nothing, with style.” I like this. A coach holds a space for people to listen to their inner dialogue and their inner wisdom.
I began this chapter on inner dialogue with big questions: Who taught you how to think? If you listen to your own inner dialogue you will hear many influences, such as your mother’s voice, your father’s opinions, your grandfather’s humor, a teacher’s wisdom, and so on. Alongside all of these “learned thoughts” there is also your innate wisdom, which is like an “inner coach.” Learning to distinguish between learned thoughts and inner wisdom is an important key to Success Intelligence.
I once coached a man named Michael, an award-winning film director. Michael was a very intellectual man, hugely talented, quick-witted, very erudite, and prone to bouts of depression. He came to see me on the advice of a friend. At our first meeting he told me, “I am fiercely tempted to give up directing films for good.” He was clearly disenchanted. He was also very exhausted.
“Is this your wisdom or your exhaustion telling you to quit?” I asked. Frankly, Michael was too tired to discern the difference. “As your physician, I prescribe a heavy dose of vacation,” I said.
When Michael returned from his time off, we had another coaching session. Somewhat refreshed, he described his thoughts of quitting film as “insane.” Michael had a habit of working himself close to the point of exhaustion. Many people in the Manic Society work like this. They frequently override their wisdom. Exhaustion and thinking do not mix well. It is not wise to think when tired. I explained to Michael that just because he has a thought—like “I’m going to quit filming”—it doesn’t mean he has to take it seriously.
Over the next few sessions, I taught Michael a simple meditation exercise called “Listening for the Highest Thought.” Michael’s instruction was to begin each day by sitting still and listening to his inner dialogue for wisdom and guidance. His goal was to soar high up above the surface ego thoughts of his everyday mind and to visit the heavens where his best thoughts rest. I also asked Michael to ask himself, “If God had one thought for me today, what would it be?” I wanted Michael to learn how to listen inwardly for thoughts of God.
Meditation exercises like these are excellent for stopping the manic, busy activity that so often drowns out our inner wisdom. They create the perfect internal environment for discerning between an everyday thought and true wisdom. Michael persevered with meditation in spite of some initial awkwardness. He later told me it was the most valuable thing he had ever learned. He found it had a great impact on his life, his work, and his depression.
It will look like this: The 3 Inner Dialogs – Listening, Choices And Wisdom