“Do you know what desire is?”
– Dr. Ira Graves to Data, Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Schizoid Man”
Like many people I grew up with the bad habit of thinking about what I didn’t want. I’d imagine all the ways things could go wrong, and then I’d worrying incessantly about those imaginings. The worst was when I was in elementary school and had to give a speech or presentation in front of the class. I was a shy, nerdy kid who dreaded any kind of public speaking. The speech itself would take only a few minutes, but I’d worry about it for weeks in advance. When I finally got up to do the presentation, however, it would usually go OK — not great but certainly not as bad as I’d feared.
One time in 8th grade, I gave a presentation on model rocketry, which was a hobby of mine for several years. To my surprise I actually enjoyed giving that presentation, and the class was very receptive to what I had to say. Afterwards I finally began to realize that worrying was a big waste of time and energy — and a waste of life too.
During my teen years, I gradually developed the habit of thinking about what I wanted instead of worrying about what I didn’t want, and I noticed my results improved along with this change. The most obvious result was that I performed better on exams, and consequently I earned straight As all through high school. The key was to replace worry with desire. I couldn’t seem to stop my mind from obsessing over things in advance, so I told it to focus on positive outcomes instead of negative ones. I couldn’t stop worrying right away, but I could at least rechannel that energy somewhere else. Whenever I caught myself worrying, I’d consciously shift my imagination to a more positive outcome. For example, if I caught myself worrying about an upcoming test, I’d cancel that thought and imagine myself getting the highest score in the class. It didn’t matter if the positive vision was realistic or not. What mattered was that it felt better to dream up positive outcomes instead of negative ones. Interestingly, I soon became a top student in many of my classes, but I wasn’t investing any extra time in homework or studying.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I had internalized the habit of thinking about what I wanted. I started looking forward to exams because I knew my mind would automatically dream up all kinds of positive outcomes. Some of those outcomes were just as unrealistic and exaggerated as my previous worries had been, but I didn’t care because it felt good to imagine them anyway. The better I felt, the better my results. I was already getting straight As, but eventually I started doing so well in my classes that other students got mad at me for “blowing the curve.” I was a bit of a smart ass back then, so that only made it more fun for me. One teacher even gave me a personalized exam because he knew the regular tests were no challenge for me. Another teacher asked me to help him solve a problem before class that he couldn’t solve, and I solved it in a few minutes. When it came time to apply for college, I got letters of acceptance from many great schools, including UCLA, UC Berkeley, Cal Tech, and Carnegie Mellon.
This habit of thinking about what I want didn’t make my life perfect. I still had plenty of problems to deal with — and created some new ones on my own — but it did make life a lot more fun.
To this day I still have the habit of obsessively thinking about what I want. It’s like the opposite of depression. If I’m standing in line or driving in my car, my mind will just start roaming through all kinds of positive scenarios, envisioning one delicious outcome after another. If I want to consider what might go wrong, I have to sit down and think about that consciously, and even then it’s hard because my mind will habitually return to obsessing over how great everything will be.
Shortly before I launched StevePavlina.com, my mind obsessed over many different ways the site could grow and evolve. For example, I imagined all the future visitors that would stop by and soak up life-changing ideas… and how it would be great if they could get all the content for free. I thought about how perfect it would be if I could make a living from this kind of work and eventually shut down my computer games business. And this was before there was any real content or any visitors to speak of. Now fast-forward to the present. StevePavlina.com just celebrated its 3-year anniversary on October 1st, 2007, and it’s now the most visited personal development web site in the world. But my mind is still racing ahead, obsessing over all the delightful future possibilities. I had just as much fun running the site even when hardly anyone knew it existed.
Positive dreams benefit us in two key ways. First, dreaming feels good. Whether things turn out well or not, you might as well spend your life in a state of joy and anticipation instead of fear and dread. Secondly, positive dreams can help manifest positive results. When you feel good, you’re motivated to take action, your actions are inspired, and you attract other positive people and situations that can help you. When you feel bad, you procrastinate more often, and you repel people from wanting to be near you. Dreaming about your desires won’t make your life perfect overnight, but in the long run, it really does make a positive difference — both in how you feel and what results you experience.
How do you establish the habit of thinking about what you want? First, do your best to catch yourself thinking about what you don’t want, and consciously stop and replace those thoughts with positive alternatives. It doesn’t matter if the alternatives are realistic or not. This is your imagination we’re talking about, so you’re free to dream up whatever crazy scenarios you like. All that matters is that you enjoy thinking about them. You don’t need to write them down or tell anyone about them. Just enjoy basking in their glow.
Secondly, set aside a few minutes each day to consciously think about positive outcomes. Allow yourself to dream. Imagine how your life could become even better. Do this when you’re driving — put a sticky note in your car with the word “Dream” to remind yourself. Do it when you’re standing in line. Do it when you’re lying in bed waiting to fall asleep. Eventually this will become a habit, and you’ll dream about what you want whenever you have a spare moment. Again, it doesn’t matter if you think these outcomes are possible or not. Just enjoy the positive energy you get from thinking about what you want, and also notice that you can apply that energy to improve your current practical results right here, right now.
When I was stuck in the habit of negative thinking, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to change. I figured it was just who I was. A lot of depressed people seem to think that way too. The feeling of helplessness is a byproduct of the habit of negative thinking. It doesn’t matter how much time and energy you’ve invested in this habit already, how many times you’ve tried to change and failed, or how adept you are at making excuses. You can still begin to pay attention to your thoughts and rechannel them in a more positive direction. You’re always free to dream. It may take weeks, months, or even years to reach the point of feeling consistently good about your life, but the time is going to pass anyway, so you may as well get started today.