A great attitude can help people live a meaningful life, and you can shape your attitude by guiding your thoughts, feelings and actions.
An updated edition of my best-selling book Focus of Failure was recently released. The following excerpts are from the second chapter. I hope you find it helpful as you seek to live and lead well.
Attitude is a choice. It is the fundamental upon which all of the basics of life rest. Our attitude is the greatest asset or the biggest liability that we have. Life wears the color of our attitude. Of attitude, effort and knowledge, attitude is clearly the linchpin. While many would agree that knowledge is the prerequisite to success and sustained effort the track it runs on, attitude is the fundamental upon which all success rests. All of the knowledge in the world will not overcome a bad attitude. All of the effort expended toward a worthy goal will not make up for a bad attitude. But, just what exactly is attitude? How do we know if it is good or bad? If it is bad, how do we change it? If it is good, how do we improve it? How long does it take?
Our attitudes are made up of the thoughts and conclusions that you and I reach in life about ourselves and other people. Attitudes are not developed overnight. They take time to develop and they take time to change. The fact is, if we are blessed with long life, you and I will meet ourselves as an old person one day. That old person will be kind and gracious and understanding or wizened and dried up like a prune, appearing to have been weaned on a pickle. Whether good or bad, none of us reach this point in life instantly. Little by little, like icicles that form on the eaves of your house during a winter freeze, are attitudes developed. If the water that freezes to form the icicle is clear and free from pollution, then the icicle itself becomes pristine and clear. But let a little dirt or mud foul the flow and the icicle becomes opaque or splotched and not very attractive. Such is the case with people and attitudes. In all my years in the military and the business world one thing is perfectly clear, attitude is more important that facts, more important than the past or the future, more important than failure or success. Attitude is greater than appearance, competence or tools and has the capacity to make or break any enterprise, deal, negotiation, alliance or circumstance. You and I cannot always control what happens to us but we can control our reaction to what happens to us and that is attitude.
Perhaps it would be helpful to understand the components of attitude. Attitudes are made up of three things. First of all, the thoughts we think. Second, our feelings. Third, our actions. Unfortunately, most discussions relating to attitudes only address the first level. Consequently, no lasting improvement is made and real understanding of attitude development is lost. Let’s take a few moments and look at each element of an attitude.
Cognitive: Our thinking
Most of our lives are lived in the mental, not the tangible. Our thoughts can alter our lives because what we project at the center of our being is what we receive at the center of our situation. Many thinkers and educators have commented on this. Emerson said, “The key to every man is his thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius said, “The world in which we live is determined by our thoughts.” William James the father of American psychology once commented that the greatest discovery of his life was that his thoughts could change his future. Solomon commented over 2000 years ago, “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he,” or it is not just the future but the present that is affected by our thoughts. The most significant discovery of my own life is that what we habitually think is our future. Our happiness depends on the quality of our thoughts. Unfortunately, most people seek temporary relief and not permanent victory. We live in the future hoping things will be different or in the past wishing things were the way they were. We must be able to look forward with confidence and backwards with no regret.
What we think about often enough, we do. The master weavers of our world are the thoughts we allow to go to seed. We become what we are by what we think. Like that old person you and I will meet someday, our condition is not by accident. The basic goodness of the thought or its inherent evilness makes no difference because what we mentally embrace over time ultimately becomes a common denominator in our life. Dreams, goals, values, choice, leadership, relationships, forgiveness, love, time, death, family, hope and other fundamentals are at their deepest, first attitudes. We can verbally confess goals and objectives, love, hope and many other things. But if at the very center of our being we are mentally rejecting what we confess, if our thoughts are uncommitted or scattered, if we think only failure, defeat and discouragement, then that is what we accept in life. I believe that when Jesus said that if a man lusts in his heart it was as if he had committed the act, he was reflecting on the power of thought gone to seed. That what we allow to take root in our imagination may become an embedded belief or attitude that is so powerful that it deceives our own subconscious to the point where we can no longer differentiate between reality and imagination. Ultimately, the common denominator of our thoughts, good or bad, what we dwell on most of our days does become reality in our life. No thought can be kept a secret. It crystallizes into an image in the mind and molds the body into an expression of that image. The incredible impact and power of our thinking and its affect on our lives is monumental. And yet, we spend very little time considering what we allow to enter our minds or still, more importantly, what we choose to dwell on or allow taking form and substance in our minds. Chances are we would become much more agitated by someone throwing garbage on our living room rug than we would by the garbage that we allow to funnel daily through our ears to our minds and hearts and ultimately to our behavior. Yet, as powerful as our thoughts are, if we assume by simply changing our thinking we can alter an attitude, we are mistaken.
Thoughts stir the emotions and the emotions stir the will. A thought that is combined with emotions and feelings is on its way to becoming a belief. Prejudice is learned in exactly this same way. No one is born hating. Interestingly enough, we are born feeling before we become thinkers. It is the power of emotions that bring commitment to thought. As an example, knowing becomes fondness which may ultimately become love. All reflecting a different kind of thought and a much deeper emotion or commitment. Knowing may also become disliking that may degenerate into hate, also reflecting different thinking and a different emotion that evokes a different response. The point is, we cannot think about anything very long without emotion or feelings playing a part. Thus, the admonition to be careful upon which thoughts we dwell becomes paramount. This is why true neutrality or indifference is in reality not possible. As I have learned in negotiating agreements all over the world, you and I lean to one side or the other on every issue. The difference may be slight but it is there and as feelings and emotions have an impact pertaining to a particular issue, so do the responses we emote in life. There is not a person you know, a cause you serve, an organization you belong to, that over a period of time has not been altered by the feelings or emotions you experience and the resulting actions you take. Consequently, thoughts become confirmed through our feelings and emotions. Yet, as powerful as this combination of thinking and feeling is in our lives, until they drive our behavior or actions they are not yet attitudes.
Thoughts stir the emotions, emotions stir the will and the will stirs the body to action. Action then becomes the fruit of thought and feelings. Our behavior is always decreed by our basic attitude. Only action reflects our real attitude. It is not what we say or think or even feel that determines results. It is ultimately what we do. We may say we have hope, or we may say we have faith, we may say that we love, but unless that translates into action supporting what we confess, then we possess a different reality and a different attitude and must come face to face with a loss of integrity. This alignment of thinking, feeling and acting supported by a foundation of strong values is what produces integrity. Until a person faces him or herself in this matter, they are doomed to live a life at cross purposes where part of them frustrates the rest of them. Stephen Covey in his fine book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People describes this basic attitude as a paradigm. He goes on to say that a paradigm is a model or theory, a frame of reference or assumption. He explains that it is the way we see the world – not in terms of our visual sense of sight, but in terms of perceiving, understanding, and interpreting. He further explains that paradigms are maps and not the territories themselves. However, while Mr. Covey separates attitudes from paradigms, I believe they are the same. Our attitudes, and as a result our real behavior, are the mental maps by which we live. They encompass what we think, the way we feel and the way we act.
Attitudes are the result of lifetime conditioning. Our families, our schooling, our jobs, our spiritual experiences, all contribute to the way we view life. That is why our attitude is so important. Our behavior must be congruent with our thinking and feeling or we cannot maintain wholeness. We lose our integrity. I’ve often heard it said that once you have a dream the facts no longer make any difference. The truth is, once you have an attitude, the facts don’t make any difference. Good or bad, the result is self-induced. It is always our interpretation of what the facts are that we manipulate by the application of our attitude which determines what the results will be. Therefore, changing an attitude is difficult because attitudes reflect, at our deepest, who we really are.
Attitudes encompass our perceptions and our most fundamental beliefs. Dag Hammarskjöld said, “The longest journey is the journey inward.” He was correct because it is there that the answers are alive and not memorized. Everyone has one dominant life principle that they live by. When you reflect on people you know or well known people you know about, it is not difficult to determine what life principle they live by. The life principle of Jesus Christ was love. The life principle of Ghandi was peace. The life principle of Mother Theresa was service and compassion. Of Adolf Hitler one can only think evil, hatred and destruction. If you and I were able to take this journey inward to examine the life principle or basic attitude upon which we approach each day, we would not only be looking at the reality of the present, but into the face of the self- fulfilled prophecy of our future. We fear this deep inward look because most of us feel if we face it; it will ruin what little comfort we have. It is therefore imperative that we recognize the absolute of attitude. That attitude is multi-dimensional, made up of thinking, feeling and actions. That simply changing our thinking does not change an attitude. But rather, what we dwell on, what we allow to sink to an emotional level ultimately becomes action in our life. This is attitude. In fact, this is the basic premise of psychoneuorimmunology. That our thoughts and feelings affect the nervous system and that we can even alter the immune response of our bodies.
Extending from the brain is a four inch cord called the Reticular Activity System. This system filters incoming sensory stimuli and decides what stays. As we have seen, we will always move in the direction of our currently dominant thoughts. The brain has built in neural tendencies to structure its operations in the form of stored programs. A memory trace in the brain tissue records a habit of thinking. Once that trace is strongly imbedded, the brain deals with it instead of new data. Most of our conscious thinking is done in these whole thought units or mental patterns. They are mental sets. They are thoughts that have been emotionally embedded much like rain eroding a hillside into the brain. These are the paradigms or attitudes of life. They may be liberating or they may imprison.
In Vietnam, in 1968 and 1969 with the United States Marines, we would sometimes come across Tiger Cages, a six foot by six foot bamboo cage that was used by the North Vietnamese to carry prisoners of war from location to location. Often, American prisoners of war would spend days, weeks and even months in one of these cages incarcerated by the North Vietnamese, unable to stand or stretch out physically becoming stunted and debilitated. Similarly, many people today are what I would call P.O.T., or POTTED. They are prisoners of thought. Not physically but mentally restrained. Subject to monorail thinking they have developed psycho-sclerosis or a strongly held expectation or mental set that leaves them mentally stunted and debilitated. What you and I must do is to develop the right mental sets or attitudes. This requires a change in thinking, a change in feelings, and a subsequent change in behavior. Can you see then, that habits, whether good or bad are simply attitudes in action. That to alter an attitude we must affect all three levels, the thinking, feeling and behavioral elements of an attitude.
Take smoking, as an example. Most smokers will tell you that their first cigarette was not a particularly satisfying experience. Yet, over time through spaced repetition, a habit was developed that was too weak to notice until it became too strong to break. We have become an addictive society. And addictions of every type that are not organic, find their roots in similar behavior. It is a paradox that while we want to be in control, we are confused. In an angry moralism, we often shout at others to shape up because we cannot tolerate in them what we refuse to admit lies within ourselves. Every action we take has its root in the thoughts and feelings that pre-date that action. Changing bad habits requires changing goals in life.
Ultimately, the thoughts we feed ourselves, allow to grow emotionally in our subconscious, result in action taken and later the fruit we bear in life. God help us not to be barren or worse yet, to produce pain, sorrow, discouragement and despair where there could have been joy and happiness and peace of mind.
A crisis is often described as anything that forces change. Permanent change is attitudinal. What we think, what we feel and what we do. If this is positive, the fruit of our lives may take on a beauty and pungency not previously there. It is our attitude that will determine the difference. Believing in limitations without testing them becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy. Remember that success is measured by what has to be overcome to get there and we all start at different places. Attitude becomes a bridge that will enable us to move from where we are to where we would like to be. If our attitude is right, our position is always temporary. This path we walk of attitudinal and habit change might be described as follows:
- When we are wrong.
- When we are wrong and know it.
- When we are doing something about it.
- When we change and no one believes it.
- Respect of others and for ourselves.
This is clearly not a path of instant gratification. It does not pander to our societal demand for a three step solution to spiritual, mental and physical utopia. This is a process. There are no short cuts to our dreams. Real change then means change in the inner person. This is more than behavior modification.
Changing the attitude of a nation
If careful attention is not given to internal renewal; external improvement is hypocritical if not impossible. Something deep within us as individuals and as a nation requires change. If we do not change our thinking, our feelings, our actions — our attitude — we will continue to direct our lives and destiny based on our present understanding. If that understanding is wrong, it leads to death. Death of the individual and ultimately death of a nation.
When I first returned from Vietnam, I often had a dream where I stood in a long line of people clad in flowing robes with hoods shadowing their faces. I had the feeling that we all were trying to get to the head of the line to see who was leading and where they were going. It seemed that every time I made progress or was just at the point where I could reach the leader I would awaken. Life was also like that. Whether spiritually, mentally, or physically, every time I seemed to be making progress something would happen that would set me back. I never seemed to be able to get to the finish line. One night, after a particularly trying experience, the dream was recurring but this time I was able to pull the hood back on the leader and I came face to face with me. The message was, of course, it was not someone else leading me. It was not someone else determining the direction and the results, it was me. That hooded individual represented the mental set or attitude upon which I was approaching life. And so it is for you as well. It is not our circumstances that determine the results; it is our reaction to them. Consider this: The basic attitude and mental sets upon which we approach life, that common denominator, the thread that holds our life’s tapestry together, not only determines what we are against but what we are for. Somewhere I once read the following:
- You are following someone: Even if you insist you are following no one.
- You believe something: Even if you insist that you don’t believe in anything because believing in nothing is something.
- You are living for something: Even if you are so busy making a living you don’t know what you are living for.
- You are going somewhere: Even if you have not bothered to get directions or decide on a destination.
- You are becoming someone: Even though you may be so completely preoccupied with the present you ignore the future.
- You’ve got a destiny: One way or another – even though you may be indifferent to it.
So, your attitude will determine:
- Who you choose to follow.
- What you choose to believe.
- What you live for.
- Where you are going.
- What you are becoming
- Your very destiny.
How much more fundamental can we possibly get? I exhort you to consider your attitude. It is the single greatest asset or liability that you possess. It is the foundation upon which you build. Focus on attitude.