What You Focus on Holds Great Importance

My boys love building things. Their favourite gifts are Lego and Meccano sets, and just about every other kind of construction set you can imagine. Even things you may not be able to imagine, like last year for Christmas when my parents gave two of them hydraulic hand kits to build.

In addition, they’re very creative. They don’t need predesigned construction kits to invent and build the coolest things. Lately, my youngest has taken to origami, but not tradition origami. No paper birds or flowers for him, hell no, he builds weapons; swords, nunchuks and ninja stars. Last week he built a pump action shotgun out of construction paper.

Further, they are quite sentimental. It’s not good enough to build something, they’ve got to keep it, and display it, so they need a lot of shelving.

I’m a mechanical engineer, and I’ve been pounding nails and driving screws for nearly 50 years. I’ve had jobs in gravel mining, where 10% of the work week is devoted to heavy equipment maintenance. I’ve worked in production engineering where I had to assemble refrigerators, even design and build my own jigs. Now I work in thin walled micro molded plastic for a high tech industry, and use fine tools under a microscope.

All of which to say is, I know which end of the hammer to hold, and which end drives the nails.

A few years ago I was building shelves in the basement for my boys’ creations, and a random memory of Saturday morning cartoons popped into my head. What image? The image of a hammer pounding on a thumb, and said thumb swelling up, bright red, doubling or tripling in size.

So what happened?

The very next hammer stroke I hit my left thumb, dead on the nail. Hit it so hard that the thumbnail was distorted for months, it had to grow completely out at least twice before it looked normal. In all my years of building things, I have never hit my thumb with a hammer, until I envisioned it.

The incomparable Robert Cialdini is one of the preeminent researchers in influence and persuasion. His book Influence is pretty much required reading for direct response marketers.

In his follow up book Pre-suasion, he writes about how to set the conditions for persuasion, even before you begin. One of the principles of presuasion is, what you focus on holds great importance. What’s on your mind is persuasive.

What I did, in picturing a thumb being hit by a hammer was program myself to repeat the action I visualized. That is, I persuaded myself to hammer my thumb.

After reading the book, and seeing the principle written out by a titan of the field, I thought back over my life and realized just how profound it is. It’s something that I think we all know intuitively, but don’t necessarily articulate. In recent decades, however, social psychologists have begun to really study the matter, and have found it to be true.

That is how it ended up in Cialdini’s book.

One of the things I teach my children is, “Whether you say you can, or you say you cannot, either way you are speaking the truth.” Words matter, yes, but even more important than words are the concepts we implant in our brains.

Think about the woo woo crowd. Generally, they’re a bunch of touchy feely idiots, but there is a nugget or two of gold in there somewhere. They’re all about affirmations, and eliminating negative self talk, and positive reinforcement, and the like. At least I think they are, my experience with them is quite limited, to be honest.

However, I see it every day in my own life. I used to joke about having a bad back, a lot. I always thought that, even though I spoke the words, I didn’t really mean them, because I was working diligently, and successfully, to improve my back. As long as I knew it wasn’t true, there was no harm in it.

Having read, and re-read Pre-Suasion, I no longer do this. The problem is, when you’re saying something, you’re holding that idea in your head, however briefly. I almost hammered my left thumbnail off my hand because of a momentary flashback to a cartoon. If a flashback to a fictional event is that powerful, how powerful is visualizing and expressing an idea, even in jest.

Since then, I have taken my movement yoga teacher’s advice, and now I refer to my back as “healing” or “resilient.” Words matter. Thoughts matter. They program your actions.

When I was 10 years old competing in the high jump, I made every jump right up until I said, I won’t be able to make this one. Next attempt I crashed right through the bar. Didn’t even come close.

I watched my ex brother in law make it through a 5k run simply by chanting, “Failure is not an option” over and over and over. Every breath for the last klick.

The next time you have a difficult task, it doesn’t matter what it is, just tell yourself, “I can do this.” When you have doubts, “I can do this.” When you can’t bring yourself to take the first action, “I can do this.”

It works.

In fact, it worked just yesterday when I had to make an extremely important, but very difficult phone call. It had to do with my struggle with depression, and I really wanted/didn’t want to do it. I know I needed to. I really wanted to. But I didn’t want to dial that number.

“Andrew, you can DO THIS.”

“Andrew, you CAN do this.”

“Andrew, YOU can do this.”

“ANDREW, you can do this.”

And I did.

If you really want to accomplish something, the first thing you have to do is to create the conditions for success. The most important condition you can set is your mindset. If you want to set yourself up for success, first focus on success.

Everything else will follow.