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Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic empire, is one of the most successful cartoonists of our time. In addition to being published in thousands of newspapers worldwide, Dilbert has been spun off into several bestselling books, an animated series, and hundreds of Dilbert-themed toys and games.93
But at one time, Scott Adams was just another midlevel office drone in a large, bureaucratic organization, just like Dilbert.
Adams had always dreamed of becoming a cartoonist: from an early age, he adored Charles Schulz's Peanuts, and felt that drawing such a strip would one day be his career. As an adult, however, he found himself working a "number of humiliating and low-paying jobs" in northern California.94 He was continually looking for a way out, so he could make his cartooning dream a reality.
A friend told him about a repetition technique, where you write down your positive mental loop, fifteen times each day. His friend claimed that it worked for her. "The thing that caught my attention," he related, "is that the process doesn't require any faith or positive thinking to work." Just the act of writing down your loop, she claimed, was enough to make it happen. In the spirit of self-experimentation, and figuring that he had nothing to lose but time, Adams gave it a try.
His first attempt was the straightforward:
> I, Scott Adams, will become rich.
In his books The Dilbert Future and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, he tells the story of making two ridiculously lucky stock picks that came to him out of the blue that year.95 Both were long shots, and both ended up being among the top market stories that year. He sold both stocks immediately, so he wasn't rich, but the odds of an amateur picking two red-hot winners seemed unlikely.
He was less skeptical of the technique, but still not quite a believer. He decided to try the technique on another goal: getting an MBA from University of California at Berkeley. He had already taken the GMAT test that's required for MBA applications, and scored in the 77th percentile: not good enough for UC Berkeley. So he began writing down this positive loop, fifteen times each day:
> I, Scott Adams, will score in the 94th percentile on the GMAT.
In the weeks leading up to the test, he bought GMAT study books, and took plenty of practice tests. Each time he scored at about the 77th percentile. Still, he patiently wrote down his positive loop, over and over, fifteen times each day.
The day of the test came. He took the test, feeling that he had scored about the same. He kept up the repetition technique as he waited for the GMAT test scores to arrive in the mail.
Finally, the test results came. He took the envelope out of the mailbox, opened it, and looked at the box he had pictured in his mind so many times before. He scored in exactly the 94th percentile. Adams recounts:
That evening, I sat in a chair with the GMAT results next to me, alternately staring at the wall and then staring at the ninety-four. I kept expecting it to change. It didn't. And that night I knew that nothing would ever be the same for me. Everything I thought I knew about how the Universe was wired was wrong.96
After earning his MBA, still working his day job, he began repeating a new loop. Each morning, before he left for work, he would get up at 4:00 a.m. to draw what would eventually become Dilbert. He also began to write this positive loop, fifteen times each day:
> I, Scott Adams, will become a syndicated cartoonist.
Despite a number of setbacks and rejections, and through a series of unlikely coincidences and lucky breaks, he eventually became a syndicated cartoonist. In fact, he's arguably the most syndicated cartoonist alive today: Dilbert is published in 2,000 newspapers worldwide, in 65 countries and 25 languages.
With his analytical mind, Adams tried to reverse-engineer why this technique works in his books,and in various posts to his blog.97 While he called his experiences with the repetition technique "fascinating and puzzling," as well as "wonderful and inexplicable," he also was careful not to attribute them to "voodoo or magic." Instead, he theorized about a logical explanation, even acknowledging that it might be nothing more than "selective memory" (perhaps he tried the repetition technique multiple times, but only remembered his successes).
Adams points to research done by the psychiatrist Richard Wiseman, in which he studied people who described themselves as "lucky." It turns out they didn't have any special powers, except for one: they were more likely to notice opportunities. As Adams puts it, "Optimistic people's field of perception is literally greater." If you are methodically repeating your goals each day, you are more likely to notice the people and situations that can help you achieve those goals, as they present themselves.
In my experience, this is absolutely true. When you repeat your goals daily, you set your expectations accordingly, and you begin viewing situations in a different light. If you're repeating your goal of losing weight, and someone invites you to a kickboxing class, you see it as an opportunity, not another way to embarrass yourself. If you're repeating your goal of becoming an entrepreneur, and they're going through layoffs at your day job, you might see it as an opportunity to take the severance package and strike out on your own.
Adams also points out that repeatedly writing things down takes effort. Because you are investing time and energy in this small goal, you are committing yourself to investing time and energy in your larger goal. It is a way of kickstarting your mind into achieving your dreams, a kind of mental bootstrapping.
"My favorite explanation ... also has the least evidence to support it," Adams concludes, "i.e., none." In this explanation, reality is so mind-bogglingly complex, that our minds simply deliver a "highly simplified illusion that we treat as facts." In this model of reality, the constant repetition of our goals may be a "lever" that we use to create some natural chain of cause and effect, but not a chain we are capable of understanding. So when the results come, by what appears to be luck or coincidence, it is simply by natural laws that are not yet fully understood. "While this view is unlikely to be correct," he admits, "it has the advantage of being totally cool to think about." (It is also similar to the ideas of Plato and The Matrix: a deeper reality lies behind this one.)
In the end, Adams's repetition technique is one of the easiest self-experiments you can try: it's totally free, and you have nothing to lose but your time. "Here's a good test of your personality," Adams concludes, in response to the skeptics. "If all of your friends told you that they win money on the slot machines whenever they stick their fingers in their own ears, would you try it? Or would you assume that since there is no obvious reason it could work, it's not worth the effort?"
Repetition is Key
Repetition is key. Also, repetition is key.
One of the best parts about living in Boston, besides the wealth of technology talent, is sledding in the winter. It's a thrill-seeker's dream, because you can sled as long as you want, as often as you want, and unlike roller coasters or hallucinogens, it's totally free.
I live near Wellesley College, the renowned all-women's college which has produced notable alumni like Nora Ephron and Hillary Clinton. Wellesley has a sledding hill that is just phenomenally dangerous. It has (what feels like) an 85-degree incline, where you attain (what feels like) speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. On one side of the hill, a fifteen-foot oak branch spreads out across the snow, like a giant, deadly limbo stick. If you don't press your body flat into the sled, you will be decapitated by the tree. It's insane that they allow sledding on the hill at all, but even more insane is that the women of Wellesley College sled down the hill on plastic trays from the dining hall. (It's funnier if you picture Hillary Clinton on a tray.)
As any sledding enthusiast knows, if you get to the hill after a fresh snow, it's just clean powder. Then as people sled down the hill, it creates grooves, or tracks, in the snow. After a few days, the Wellesley students have built snow ramps and moguls at the bottom, so that sledding down one of these tracks will launch you into orbit.
A few days after a snow, you'll find one set of snow tracks that take you under the Oak Tree of Death, and another set that will shoot you off the Ramps Into Hyperspace. Even if you start your sled on another area of the hill, you end up locking into one of those two tracks.
Our minds are like that hill. The constant repetition of our negative loops cuts deep mental grooves, and it's natural for our minds to "lock into" those grooves, even when the negative loops are self-destructive.
The good news is, through repetition, you can cut a new groove. When I take my kids sledding at the hill, we often have to cut a new track, packing down the snow where we want it to go, then physically slowing and redirecting ourselves to the new track. The sled "wants" to lock into the existing groove, but by patiently working the new path, we can eventually get the sled to lock into the new one instead.
Through the concentration and writing exercises that you're practicing, you're probably already seeing when the mind begins to go down one of those dangerous paths:
> Everything I do ends in failure/sadness/embarrassment...
> I'm a terrible parent/partner/friend...
> I'm no good at exercise/math/romance...
> I shouldn't have said/done/thought that...
> I'm fat/lonely/hopeless...
The sled has started down the hill, but if you develop the skill of noticing it going down this track, then you can develop the skill of redirecting it to a different track, preferably with one of your positive loops.
> Everything I do ends in failure ... but hold on. Some things I do are actually quite successful, like the homemade Transformers outfit I built for Comic-Con last year.
> I'm a terrible parent ... but wait a minute. My son gave me a hug yesterday, out of the blue. Like all parents, I have room to improve, but I'm doing something right.
> I'm no good at exercise ... actually, I have been working out twice a week for the last month, so although it still doesn't feel natural, I'm getting better.
> I shouldn't have said that ... but you know what? I'm probably the only one who will even remember it, and I'm growing more self-confident every day.
> I'm lonely ... but the good news is that I just joined a church, I'm widening my circle of friends, and I'm confident I'll find a loving partner.
You can't force your mind to stop thinking negative thoughts! If I ask you not to think of your grandparents making love, for example, it will be virtually impossible to stop yourself, particularly if I ask you not to think of them in the freakiest positions imaginable, with a 1970's disco bass line in the background. What we are after is not mind control, but mind training. The mind will naturally follow the tracks you have laid down for it over the course of your life, but with effort and persistence, you can redirect it into a new groove.
If your goal is not complete, Lather, rinse, repeat.
With constant repetition, you can eventually perform what I call "mind ...." When an opponent lunges at the ... master, the master effortlessly uses his opponent's natural momentum to throw him off-balance. He calmly steps aside, and lets the opponent flip himself over. When the mind comes at you with the negative loop, you can use that natural momentum to kick off the positive loop instead.
> A drink sure would be nice ... (flip) ... except that my sobriety is the foundation of all the good things in my life.
> I cannot stand that woman ... (flip) ... but I'm free from resentment, and I'm able to live and let live.
> I will never get out of debt ... (flip) ... but I've already come a long way, and I can do it.
Rather than obsess on the things that cause you pain, the mind can now obsess on the things that bring you peace.
To put it another way: Repetition is key.
Repetition Method #1: The $10 Million Check
The actor Jim Carrey grew up so poor that at one time, his entire family lived in a trailer on a relative's lawn. After school, he would put in eight-hour workdays at a local factory, to help support his family.98 His childhood was so difficult that he dropped out of high school, and at age 21 moved to Hollywood with the dream of escaping his life of poverty, and building a successful career as a comedian and performer.
One night after arriving in Hollywood, Carrey made a critical decision that affected the course of his life, a decision that would bring laughter to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. He drove his run-down Toyota up to the Hollywood Hills, and parked where he could see the glittering lights of Tinseltown stretched before him like a blanket of dreams. In his mind, he saw himself entertaining the world through TV and movies. And because he wanted a physical reminder of his success, he wrote it down.
He took out his checkbook and wrote a check to himself for 10 million dollars, dating it ten years in the future. In the memo field he wrote, "For acting services rendered." He kept the check in his wallet as a constant reminder of his goal. In the years to come, each time he pulled out his wallet to pay for something, there was the check, serving as a visual repetition. As he struggled through failed sitcoms and bad sets at Yuk Yuks, there was the check. As he took small supporting parts in movies, there was the check. And as his career began to finally take off in the 1990's, there was the check.
There is nothing mysterious about the fact that a constant reminder of your goal will make you more likely to achieve it. Through that constant repetition of the check, Carrey stayed focused on his goal of becoming a successful entertainer, through the inevitable ups and downs of a Hollywood career. As it turns out, though, Jim Carrey did not exactly achieve his goal. Ten years later, he was not earning 10 million dollars per film; he was earning 20 million dollars per film.
Repetition can take many forms. Carrey's technique was what we might call a reminder repetition: writing your positive loops somewhere you will see them regularly, like your wallet. The word "re-mind," in fact, literally means bringing it back to mind. You are responsible for creating these reminders for yourself! No one else can do it for you. Here's a helpful list of easy reminder repetitions:
- Hanging on your computer monitor
- Computer wallpaper
- Smartphone background
- Breakfast area
- Daily alarm
- Automated email reminder
- In the bathroom (across from the toilet is ideal)
And in case it's a little weird to have your positive loops hanging out for friends and roommates to read, you can always encrypt your loop into a code only you understand, hide it in your passwords, or use a photo that represents your goal. Alternately, you could just not care whether they see it.
As I'm writing this, I'm listening to my white noise soundtrack, where I have recorded myself reading my positive loops, then mixed them into white noise, just below the threshold of hearing. Although the research on subliminal learning has been inconclusive, I don't believe anyone has ever studied the long-term effects of listening to yourself repeating your positive loops thousands of times a day. I'll let you know what I find.
Repetition Method #2: Don't Break the Chain
Software developer Brad Isaac started out his career as a standup comic. One night, he was performing in the same club as Jerry Seinfeld, at a time when Seinfeld's legendary television sitcom was just starting to take off. Isaac plucked up his courage, approached Seinfeld, and asked if he had any advice for a young struggling comedian.
"DON'T BREAK THE CHAIN," Seinfeld replied.99
Seinfeld went on to explain that the way to get better at writing jokes was through repetition, so he committed himself to writing a certain number of jokes each day, whether he felt funny or not. After the day's joke-writing was complete, he marked a large red "X" for that day on a wall calendar. (It was Benjamin Franklin's Moral Perfection Project for funny people.)
After a few days, he had a chain. Now, the game was to see how long he could go without breaking the chain -- without missing a day of writing jokes. Each day, his satisfaction would come from seeing the unbroken chain of red X's, that constant repetition, knowing he was steadily working toward his goal. If he missed a day, he'd have to start over, and that alone was enough to keep him working on his craft.
Again, there's no mystery in the idea that practicing something makes you better at it -- the Seinfeld system just visualizes that repetition, so you can challenge yourself to beat your previous record ("I did a two-week chain last time, let's see if I can go for three"). Today, you can download any number of apps that allow you to track "chains" of progress -- though currently none of them launch with a recording of Jerry Seinfeld imploring you, "DON'T BREAK THE CHAIN," which I know would motivate me.
Again, your primary repetition tracker should be your practice sheet, where you track your daily concentration practice and positive loops. But if you find an app helpful for keeping track, terrific -- as long as you don't succumb to the geeky lure of testing dozens of tracking apps, instead of doing the thing you're supposed to be tracking. Productivity apps are not meant to kill your productivity! Beware of their siren song!
Repetition Method #3: Smiling in the Shower
One of the easiest ways to repeat your mental loops is to just silently recite them to yourself. This can be an efficient way of using "mental downtime" such as:
- Your daily commute
- Boring meetings
- Waiting in line
- Waiting at stoplights
- Waiting for appointments
- Doing chores (housework, yard work, etc.)
- While you shower (the best possible time, in my opinion)
You can accelerate this technique by repeating the positive loop to yourself, not like a zombie, but with feeling. A 2008 study by German psychologist Dr. Fritz Strack showed that smiling actually makes you feel happier.100 He had two groups of test subjects read a series of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons. One group was instructed to hold a pencil between their teeth without touching their lips, and one group holding the pencil between their lips, but not touching their teeth. Without realizing it, the "teeth" group had their faces contorted into smiles, while the "lips" group had their faces puckered into frowns.
Amazingly, the group that was forced to smile felt happier, and found the cartoons funnier, than the group that was forced to frown. Several years later, another study showed that regular smiling will improve other areas of your life, including interacting more positively with others and thinking more optimistically.101
By mentally repeating your positive loops to yourself while smiling, you are more likely to view them optimistically, and take the positive steps needed to make the required changes in your life. You can even do one better than that, by encouraging yourself to feel enthusiastic about your positive loops. Think back to when you felt truly excited or encouraged about a project or event, and try to capture that emotional state as you repeat your mental loop.
Perhaps this sounds like I am encouraging you to become a grinning lunatic, rocking back and forth as you repeat things to yourself on the highway. The difference between the mental repetition technique and OCD is that you are reprogramming the mind, not repeating things out of compulsion or anxiety. You will see the difference, because it is difficult to do! It is much easier to turn on a podcast or check your email (our true obsessive-compulsive disorders), rather than taking a few moments to calmly repeat your mental loops.
Think of this technique as "Smiling in the Shower," and it really works. "It took years for your mind to build its scaffolding of tricks and worries," says Dr. Joan Borysenko, the Harvard-trained psychologist. "It will take time to dismantle them."102 And the key to that dismantling is repetition.
Repetition is ... well, you know.