It’s one of the greatest inventions in human history. Right up there with the wheel, the steam engine and the waffle maker. I’m talking about self-delusion.
I don’t mean damaging self-delusion (and certainly, too much can lead to disaster). I’m talking about constructive, healthy self-delusion, which is absolutely crucial to building a business.
As an author, I rely on self-delusion as much as I rely on my laptop, Wi-Fi access and excessive caffeine. For authors nowadays, each book is the equivalent of a startup company. You have to figure out your consumer, your unique approach, your budget, your marketing strategy.
And as with every startup founder, I spent some mornings during my last project battling pessimism and despair. Well, actually, most mornings. I was writing about my quest to be as healthy as possible. I’d wake up feeling the project was too big, too unwieldy. I had too many squats to do, too many diets to test. I’d never finish the manuscript.
My solution? Deception. I tricked my brain. I’d force myself to act in an optimistic way. I’d compel myself to email medical experts and request interviews. I’d coerce myself to call my publisher with elaborate plans for the book launch (A health contest for readers? A Dr. Oz appearance? A party with kale martinis?)
And after a couple of hours, it worked. My mind would catch up with my actions. I would start to feel optimistic. It’s astounding how much the outer can affect the inner, how much behavior can affect your thoughts.
Millard Fuller — the founder of Habitat for Humanity — summed it up gorgeously. He said: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”
This is not pseudo-scientific blather spouted bunkum-filled books like The Secret. The idea that your actions alter your thoughts is one of the foundations of cognitive-behavioral psychology and has been studied since the 19 century (both William James and Charles Darwin wrote about it).
Force your face into a smile, you will be happier. Sounds creepy, but it works.
A raft of studies have backed this up, including a recent one in the Journal of Psychological Science that showed fake smiles (or even holding a chopstick in your mouth to mimic the shape of a smile) lowered your heart rate in stressful situations. The book The As If Principle by psychologist Richard Wiseman cites plenty of other research, including how your posture affects confidence and risk-taking (a powerful, chest-out stance boosts esteem).
The idea has spawned rhymes. There’s “Fake it till you make it.” In Judaism, there’s the aphorism “Deed before creed,” meaning that if you follow the Ten Commandments, your mind will catch up.
I actually learned this trick not from rhymes, but from writing a book about six years ago. The book was called The Year of Living Biblically, and was about my quest to follow all the rules of the Bible as literally as possible.
This came about because I grew up with no religion at all. As I say in my book, I’m Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian. So not very. No offense. Great breadsticks.
But I had a son, and I wanted to know what to teach him about my heritage, so I decided one way to learn about the Bible would be to live it. To learn it from the inside out.
So I bought a stack of Bibles. I got a board of spiritual advisers. Rabbis, ministers, priests. And I wrote down every rule that I could find. As you may know, a very long list. Over 600 rules.
I wanted to follow all of them, without picking and choosing, to see which improved my life and which didn’t. I wanted to follow the famous ones. The Ten Commandments. Love your neighbor. Be fruitful and multiply. (And I’ll have you know that I was fruitful and did multiply. I had twin boys during my year. So I take my projects very seriously).
But I also wanted to follow the lesser known rules. The Bible says that you cannot shave the corners of your beard. I didn’t know where the corners were, so I just let the whole thing grow. As you can imagine, I spent a lot of time at airport security.
It was a life-changing year. Mostly for the better. Not all, but mostly. But it was also the most challenging year of my life.
The Bible says you cannot gossip, or lie, or covet. I’m a journalist and I live in New York City, so that’s pretty much 80 percent of my day.
So I was faced with this huge question: How do you become a better person? How do you undertake an ethical makeover. And that’s when I tried self-delusion.
For instance, during the year, I had a friend in the hospital, and I really didn’t want to visit him. I hate hospitals. But I said, what would a good person do? And then I acted AS IF I were a good person. And when I was at the hospital, some part of my mind said, “I’m at the hospital. I must be compassionate.” And I became a little more compassionate. I tricked my own mind.
I was blown away by this strategy. It changed me profoundly. Of course, I still covet and lie and gossip a huge amount. But after the book, I do it fifty percent less. Maybe forty. Or thirty five.
The strategy was key to actually finishing the book itself. Many days I’d wrestle with writer’s block. I’d faced with that horrible blank screen with the nefarious blinking cursor.
My method: Just start typing. It didn’t matter what. Just the action of clicking on the keys is the important thing. So at the start of a writing session, I’d write the most ridiculous nonsense. Whatever came to mind. I’d write about the pigeon bobbing its head outside my window.” Or “Here I am drinking some decaf Indonesian coffee.” Anything.
Eventually I built up enough momentum that my sentences become semi-coherent. I could just delete the first twenty minutes of babble.
One big caveat: Don’t get too carried away with the self-delusion. You need a mix of self-delusion and realism. The best companies have a blend of irrationally exuberant leaders balanced by the hand-wringers. I try to find this blend in myself (mornings are for realism, afternoons for undeserved optimism).
And now, back to work on my next book. I’m acting as if it will be a huge, massive, crash-the-Amazon-server hit.
Want to learn how to focus?
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I devoted a month to becoming the most focused person in the world. (Never quite made it; Buddhist monks can still out-meditate me with one frontal lobe tied behind their backs). But I did pick up some secrets. Here are four.
An Entrepreneur’s Most Important Tool: Self-Delusion was originally published in The Mission on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Author: AJ Jacobs