Creating Positive Thought Loops

Benjamin Franklin was a geek.

"Throughout his life," Walter Isaacson notes in his excellent biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, "he loved immersing himself in minutiae and trivia in a manner so obsessive that today it might be described as geeky."73 He points to Franklin's methodical research, unbounded curiosity, and constant inventiveness (note our Analyze, Imagine, and Reprogram framework again!) on topics as diverse as ballooning, education, electricity, eyeglasses, fire safety, heating technology, music, politics, and weather.

Franklin was also a master mind hacker. Hundreds of years before people were using fitness-tracking devices, he came up with a self-improvement experiment that let him track his mind hacking progressin a measureable, scientific way. As described in his autobiography, Franklin gave his experiment the lofty title of the "Moral Perfection Project." He began by laying out a set of thirteen virtues that he wished to develop in himself:74

  • Temperance: moderating eating and drinking
  • Silence: speaking only when it benefits of others or yourself
  • Order: letting everything have its place
  • Resolution: resolving to do what you should; doing without fail what you resolve
  • Frugality: being careful with money and resources; wasting nothing
  • Industry: working hard but efficiently
  • Sincerity: meaning what you say; saying what you mean
  • Justice: wronging no one, either by what you do or don't do
  • Moderation: avoiding extremes and letting go of grudges
  • Cleanliness: keeping your body, clothes, home, and workspace clean
  • Tranquility: calmly accepting small misfortunes that are common and unavoidable
  • Chastity: moderating sexual activity
  • Humility: imitating "Jesus and Socrates"

These virtues became Franklin's positive thought loops. His method of reprogramming his mind with these values was both simple and ingenious: in a diary, he made a simple grid with columns representing each day of the week, and rows representing each of the thirteen virtues:

S * * * *
O * * * * * *
R * *
F * *
I *

Reasoning that it would be easier to tackle one virtue at a time, he listed them in order of importance, so that one habit built upon the next. Temperance came first, because you couldn't make progress on the other virtues if you were drunk all the time. Once you had Temperance under control, it would be easier to tackle Silence. Once Silence was conquered, Order would follow, and so on.

Each day, Franklin reviewed his progress across all thirteen virtues, marking with a black spot any day in which he did not live up to his ideal. But each week he also had a "target virtue" (or thought loop) that he would strive to keep clear for the entire week. Thus, in the first week, his thought loop would be focused on Temperance. Having strengthened that virtue, he would focus on Silence in the second week, and so on.

Since there are 52 weeks in a year, Franklin was able to go through the list of thirteen virtues precisely four times in a year: a mathematical system any geek can appreciate. Perhaps Franklin expected to be done with it in a year, but he ended up using the system for most of his life. "I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined," Franklin recalled later, "but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish."

Indeed, Franklin's life is powerful testimony that these positive thought loops worked: although he was only human, he died an accomplished and respected man who certainly left the world a better place. Not only did he invent the lightning rod, bifocals, odometer, urinary catheter, and swim fins, he also invented the self-help book.

Positive vs. Negative

Multiple studies show that we respond better to positive than negative feedback. One of my favorite examples is the "Speed Camera Lottery," an experiment run in Stockholm, Sweden. In many cities, speed cameras are used to automatically issue tickets when a motorist is caught driving over the speed limit. Kevin Richardson, a gaming producer for Nickelodeon, had an idea to flip the model on its head.

In his version of the speed camera, everyone who was caught driving under the speed limit would be entered into a lottery to win a portion of the speeding fines. In other words, drive over and you could get a ticket, drive under and you could win it.

Richardson's idea was tested out on a street in Stockholm. The results were fascinating. As the New York Times reported, "Average speed before the installation of the Speed Camera Lottery sign on a multilane street was 32 kilometers an hour. That figure dropped to 25 kilometers an hour during a three-day test, despite the device's inability to issue financial penalties."75

"Thinking of all the interesting ways we can penalize a few bad or distracted apples," Richardson was quoted, "is a mis-distribution of energy and attention." While this is true for distracted drivers, it's also true for our distracted minds. Once we become aware of our negative thought loops, we may start berating or penalizing ourselves for them. Just as with math, adding two negatives does not bring you to positive.

Still, negative feedback feels more "natural." When your child is climbing on top of the glass coffee table with a hammer, the most natural thing in the world is to scream, "NO!" My wife, who is an excellent parent of our two kids, taught me early on to resist the natural urge to say "No," and to instead reframe it in the positive. What is it that you want your kids to do? "Hammer in the garage," or "toy hammer only" or "shop eBay for new coffee table" are more constructive alternatives, because then the kids know what is acceptable.

Your mind is like a child. You need to condition it by continually reinforcing what you want it to do, not what you don't want it to do. If you think, "I don't want to feel anxious anymore," or "I don't want to fail at work," or "I don't want my life to look like this," you're just defining the absence of the negative loop. It doesn't work to just cut out the problem code; you have to rewrite it.

It's more work to define what you want. It's harder to tell kids what they should be doing than to shout, "No!" It's more difficult to explain to your partner or your family what you need than what's annoying you. But if you don't take the time to do it, if you can't articulate it to yourself, and to someone else, then you're expecting the world to figure it out for you, and serve it up like a robotic butler.

The Story of The Story of Mel

One of the classic pieces of hacker literature is a text document called The Story of Mel. Originally circulated on the Usenet newsgroup net.jokes, the story recounts the godlike programming abilities of a developer named Mel. Written in a reverent poetry-prose, the story has the cadence and feel of a piece of holy scripture.

Little is known about Mel, but subsequent generations of geeks have theorized he was an actual person: Mel Kaye, who wrote the software for the 1959 Royal McBee LGP-30 computer. Mel had created a blackjack game for the LGP-30, one of the first of its kind. The Royal McBee sales reps would take the LGP-30 to trade shows, where they would let prospective customers play the blackjack game. It's hard to remember there was a day when most people had never played a computer game, and the experience was so thrilling that it usually sold the LGP-30 on the spot, even though it was a business computer.

There was only one problem: Mel's blackjack game was too good. Sometimes the prospective customers lost, if you can imagine that. Concerned they were losing out on valuable sales opportunities, the Royal McBee sales reps approached Mel and told him the game was "too fair." They asked if he could modify the blackjack game so they could secretly flip a switch on the LGP-30 when they wanted to let prospective customers win.

Mel was morally opposed to this change. His code was statistically perfect, an elegant representation of real-world blackjack odds. How dare they ask him to insert an error into his perfect simulation? After getting some heat from above, Mel reluctantly complied. When he tested the "cheat switch," however, he found the computer cheated in the opposite direction, so the computer always won. He was delighted with this hack, of course, and eventually left the company without fixing it.

Enter the author of the story, a programmer named Ed Nather, who was brought into Royal McBee and asked to fix Mel's code. As he began digging into the masterpiece that Mel had left behind, he was struck by awe over the elegance and genius of Mel's code.

I have often felt that programming is an art form,
whose real value can only be appreciated
by another versed in the same arcane art;
there are lovely gems and brilliant coups
hidden from human view and admiration, sometimes forever,
by the very nature of the process.

You can learn a lot about an individual
just by reading through his code,
even in hexadecimal.
Mel was, I think, an unsung genius.76

Mel refused the help of any compilers or assemblers; he wrote in straight hex code, which looks like this:

79 6f 75 20 61 72 65 20 6e 6f 74 20 79 6f 75 72 20 6d 69 6e 64

The author writes reverently of Mel's machine-level hacks, such as "writing the innermost parts of his program loops first, so they would get first choice of the optimum address locations on the drum." In other words, optimizing his code at the lowest possible level, so that his programs would run with maximum efficiency on the LGP-30. Mel and the computer were one.

In the end, the author is so awestruck by Mel's coding mastery that he feels he cannot make any changes; it would be like touching up the Mona Lisa's smile. He tells his boss he can't figure it out, and writes this homage to Mel instead, in which Mel becomes the archetype of the "Real Programmer," the one to whom all other programmers aspire.

When we choose our positive thought loops, we are looking for that same sense of efficiency and optimization. When you think of the five goals you wrote in the previous chapter, what is the thought loop that will get you there? Choose your thought loops carefully, for they will determine the future direction of your life.

Constructing New Loops

The key to constructing positive thought loops is looking for alternative or balanced thoughts to replace the negative thinking that you've been telling yourself for years. Instead of automatically repeating the negative thoughts when certain situations arise, you want your mind to automatically repeat these positive thoughts instead. And as with Mel, you want to strive for precision and elegance in the wording of these loops.

For example, Jim's boss gives the team their monthly sales goals on the first of each month. Jim always has a nagging feeling of doom in the week leading up to it: I'm not good enough, I won't meet my goals, I'll fail and be fired. Instead, Jim could construct a positive thought loop like:

> I'm good at my job.

Or even better:

> I'm the top salesperson in my office.

Or better still:

> I'm brilliant at helping my company and our customers succeed.

Note with this last loop, he is enlarging his boundaries of what is possible, not just focusing on keeping his job by a thread, but actively adding value to the world.

Take Robbie, who is still feeling guilty over the fact that she argued with her father, a week before he died. Whenever someone mentions death, or sometimes when she's just sitting at her desk, her mind flashes back to that moment, and she thinks, I'm a horrible daughter. Her new positive loop could read:

> I'm a good daughter.

Or even better:

> I'm a good person.

Or better still:

> I'm at peace with myself, and getting better every day.

Note that the example of Jim is triggered by an external event, and the example of Robbie is triggered by an internal event. The negative thought loop that gets kicked off in each of them is similar: a feeling of not being good enough. As they become aware of these thought loops through the concentration games and identification techniques in the previous section, they are now armed with a powerful tool: an alternative thought.

Let's take a final example, which is very close to my heart (and lungs): getting free of alcohol and drugs. In the first few weeks of sobriety, there was only one thought going through my head: I will never have fun again. I was sure that lifelong sobriety was a ticket to boredom and unhappiness: no more drunken cow-tipping in Vermont, no more riding kiddie coasters while high as a hang glider. I suppose I could have thought:

Sobriety is fun.

That felt like an outright lie. I could have thought:

I'm happy to be sober.

I'm glad I settled on this positive loop:

I'm grateful for my sobriety.

There is a great deal of research on the transformative power of thankfulness. In a series of studies by psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough,77 they gave three groups of people a different writing assignment for several weeks. One group listed five things for which they were grateful, one group listed five things that annoyed them, and a control group listed five things that had taken place during the week.

The results were dramatic: those in the "gratitude" group felt better about their lives, were physically healthier, slept better, spent more time exercising, were more likely to offer support to others, and were more optimistic about the future. A follow-up survey sent to the spouses and partners of participants confirmed that they noticed a positive difference as well.

The researchers struggled to define thankfulness, but the definition I like best is "savoring the positive circumstances of life." There are many positive circumstances in your life, whether that's your health, your friends, your intellectual capacity, your job, or just the fact that you're reading this book. On a daily basis, you can find something to appreciate, whether it's a good meal, a fine sunset, or a hearty laugh.

Feeding this gratefulness into your positive loops can have a powerful, life-altering impact, as it did for me. By repeating I'm grateful for my sobriety, day in and day out, I have found that I genuinely am grateful for my sobriety. I've gone from seeing it as a curse to a blessing -- in fact, my sobriety is now like a precious treasure.

Choosing Your Loops

In the Academy Award-winning movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio leads a different kind of mind hacking team. Inception is a mind-bending, science-fiction heist movie about a team that hacks not into bank vaults, but into people's minds, as they sleep. Using a secret military technology, DiCaprio's team is able to enter a "shared dream" with their target, without that person's knowledge, even implanting an idea into the person's subconscious, a technique called "inception."

As the movie progresses, we learn the backstory: DiCaprio and his wife once entered a shared dream together, where they spent fifty years together in this alternate world, building massive cityscapes and seemingly growing old together. His wife began to fall in love with the dream reality, never wishing to return to "real life." Unable to convince her, DiCaprio secretly placed an idea into her subconscious: this is not real.

The idea took root, and they finally woke up from their shared dream, to find that only three hours had passed. But that idea -- this is not real -- was so deeply planted in his wife's mind that she could not escape it, even when she was back in the "real world." Convinced she was still dreaming, she asked DiCaprio to jump off a building with her, before making the leap herself.

The movie contains three or four layers of meta-goodness, dreams within dreams within dreams, and leaves you with deep, unsettling questions about what reality really is. One of the critical messages of Inception is that implanting an idea in someone's mind can have a far-reaching impact on the person's life -- for good as well as bad.

We want to use care in choosing our mental loops. If you're writing code to regulate an automatic braking system or land a plane, a bug can literally result in lost lives. Similarly, choosing a loop like, "I'm the most important person in the world" or "I have absolute power over all my enemies," repeated millions of times, can lead to behaviors that are ultimately destructive to you and the world. Put another way, "Be careful what you wish for."

Remember, your loops create your thoughts, your thoughts create your actions, and your actions create your life. This is not meant to paralyze you with indecision (a surprisingly common problem among geeks), but to encourage you to consider your positive loops carefully. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Include the word "I." Instead of "self-confidence," think "I am self-confident." Frame it in the first person, as if you are in control (which you are). 

  • Ask, "What do I want?" As with training a child or dog, keep it in the positive. Instead of "I'm not so self-critical," try "I'm gentle with myself."  

  • Think big. Think, "How can I enlarge my sense of what's possible?" Instead of, "My business is making $20 million," try "I'm a successful entrepreneur, adding massive value to the world." 

  • Create value. Ask yourself how you can add maximum value not just to yourself, but to society. Instead of, "My wife and I get along" or "I have a successful marriage," try something like, "Our relationship is a model to the world." Have fun with it! 

Take the five goals from Section 2.2, and write a positive thought loop corresponding with each. These are meant to correspond with each of the following goals:

  • Feel: From"The Mood Chip," howdo you want to feel? Peaceful? Confident? Happy? Thinking back to your debugging techniques, look for the positive alternatives that you'd like to counteract your negative thoughts and feelings. Use these as your +2 Weapons of Mental Fortitude. For example, "I am strong, secure, and confident," "I am mentally calm, poised, and relaxed," or "I am comfortable in my own skin." 

  • Do: From"The $50 Million Inheritance," what experience would you like to have in life? You may want to make a "moonshot goal," a big dream to pursue over your life, or you may want to start with a shorter-term goal, something in the next year. For example, "I'm an accomplished traveler," or "I'm making the Dean's List." 

  • Have: From "The Genie in the Lamp," what thing would you like to own? I believe we can run into trouble by focusing too much on material possessions, but this one can be fun, if we keep focused on how they can add value to society. For example, "I own a beautiful house, where we throw many fine parties," or "I have my own jet, which I use to host my private mind hacking retreats."  

  • Give: From "Your Evolution Contribution," what is it that you want to give back to the world? Remember that society generally rewards those who give it what it wants, in equal measure to the value created -- so the bigger you think, the greater your potential reward. "I am eradicating malaria" or "I am making Internet access available to the entire planet" are great goals, but so is, "I am creating music that benefits the world" or "I am raising a magnificent family." 

  • Be: From "The Funeral Speech," who is it that you want to be? This is not what you want other people to say about you, but about what kind of person you want to be, at your core. Ben Franklin's list of thirteen virtues are an excellent place to start, as he consolidated them from many centuries of great philosophers and thinkers before him. For example, "I am trustworthy, always following through on my promises," or "I am generous, freely giving of my talents to benefit the world." 

Choosing these loops can be hard work, and if you already suffer from the curse of perfectionism, you may just need to write, "I give things my best effort and happily move on," thus giving it your best effort and happily moving on.

As much as I've said about choosing your loops well, I now want to encourage you to actually make a choice. The award-winning psychologist M. Scott Peck once said that as long as our will is firmly committed toward the good, we can trust that our subconscious is at least one step ahead of our conscious, and thus feel secure in our decisions.78 Besides, just as with coding, you can always rewrite your positive loops later.

MIND GAME: Writing Your Positive Loops
Complete the five imagination games in this chapter. Write down each positive thought loop on your practice pad. Focus on getting it done, not getting it perfect; you can always rewrite your code later.

You've now learned how to become aware of your mind, identify your negative thinking, and properly code positive thought loops to drive your mind in new directions of happiness and success. One thing still remains, however: you have to do the work.

If we leave off here, we are like the programmer who dreams up an amazing new app, but never finishes it. We are like the aspiring musician who dreams of the stage, but rarely practices. We are like the person with big dreams, but little effort in bringing them to fruition.

In the next section, you'll learn techniques for reprogramming your mind. These are the day-in, day-out practices that you'll use to bring your ideas into the world. Backed by research and proven by science, you're about to learn how to make your dreams a reality.

Let the true mind hacking begin.