How I Became Optimistic

For the most part, those around me tend to think of me as relatively cheerful and optimistic. I want to tell you the story of how that came to be.

For several years when I was a teenager, I felt that facing reality meant I mustn’t fool myself by being optimistic. Studiously avoiding optimism had the side-effect of making me less cheerful. But then I read the Maxwell Maltz’s book Psycho-Cybernetics. Maxwell made an argument that changed my life. He argues that visualizing positive outcomes is a way to be prepared in case something good happened and a way to instruct one’s subconcious mind to strive for that outcome. In other words, visualizing a desired outcome is a way to tell one’s subconscious mind what its objective function should be.

To me this was like a bolt out of the blue. Visualizing a positive outcome was not a claim that that outcome would happen, it was simply presenting a certain image to one’s mind without any claim to inevitability, in a way meant to increase the probability that the positive image might be realized. Thus, it was possible to carefully maintain objectivity for analytical decision-making and evaluation purposes, while still gaining the psychological benefits of optimism.

Ever since the day that logic made its way into my brain, I have allowed myself to be relatively optimistic, in what I hope is a careful way, and I have been noticeably more cheerful than I was before.

For many of you, this book was before your time, but it was reasonably important in its day, and in its effect on later events. Below is what the Wikipedia article on Psycho-Cybernetics has to say:

Psycho-Cybernetics is a classic self-help book, written by Maxwell Maltz in 1960 and published by the non-profit Psycho-Cybernetics Foundation.[1] Motivational and self-help experts in personal development, including Zig ZiglarTony RobbinsBrian Tracy have based their techniques on Maxwell Maltz. Many of the psychological methods of training elite athletes are based on the concepts in Psycho-Cybernetics as well.[2] The book combines the cognitive behavioral technique of teaching an individual how to regulate self-concept developed by Prescott Lecky with the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener and John von Neumann. The book defines the mind-body connection as the core in succeeding in attaining personal goals.[3]

Maltz found that his plastic surgery patients often had expectations that were not satisfied by the surgery, so he pursued a means of helping them set the goal of a positive outcome through visualization of that positive outcome.[3] Maltz became interested in why setting goals works. He learned that the power of self-affirmation and mental visualisation techniques used the connection between the mind and the body. He specified techniques to develop a positive inner goal as a means of developing a positive outer goal. This concentration on inner attitudes is essential to his approach, as a person’s outer success can never rise above the one visualized internally.

I can’t guarantee that Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins and Brian Tracy maintain the same distinction between analytical realism and mental-imagery optimism that I try to, but their embrace of Psycho-Cybernetics indicates some of the reach it has had.