As part of the work I do to help people master the use of their own minds to achieve important goals, I occasionally find myself in the role of a “debunker.” Many people don’t understand how the subconscious works and they treat its influence on their lives as a kind of mystical force. In contrast, I explain how the subconscious influences the thoughts and feelings they have, and therefore the actions they take and the results they experience.
Here are three examples:
“The Law of Attraction.” People who expound the “law of attraction” say that the universe can respond to your “electromagnetic vibrations.” If you send out different vibrations, the universe will resonate differently in response. The advice based on this is that you should get clearer on what you want, and think about your goals daily. If you do this, “the universe will give you what you want.”
For example, some would say the following story is an example of the Law of Attraction in operation: In 1990, I was unhappy with my engineering job, and I sensed I was on the verge of a career change. I didn’t want to join another company, then leave in less than a year, because I didn’t think that was right. Nor did I want to keep doing what I was doing. I wanted a different job, but without a long-term commitment.
Shortly after I identified this conundrum, a temporary position in another city opened up at my company. It was the perfect solution to my problem. I knew the team, I knew I’d enjoy the work, and it gave me 10 months to sort out my career direction.
What actually happened here? By having clarified my goal, by really knowing what I wanted, I was able to recognize that temporary position as the solution to my problems. It was the goal-clarification that made this work. I had turned down a similar job several times in the past. What was different this time was that I specifically knew that I wanted a short-term position, so it didn’t matter what city it was in.
Setting goals and reminding yourself of your goals permits you to notice opportunities to achieve those goals. It reminds you why that goal is important to you, which sets a “standing order” to notice anything that can help you achieve it. That is the natural explanation of “The Law of Attraction.”
Horoscopes. I’ve heard that some people find horoscopes help with time management. As I understand it, if their horoscopes say this is an auspicious month for starting a new project, they are more motivated to start something they’ve been putting off. In truth, all that’s happening here is that people get a deadline they believe has some substance to it. Deadlines are motivating, but many people cannot set deadlines for themselves. They respond to deadlines only when there is some outside agency applying pressure. Even a fictitious outside agency can apply pressure, if you believe it is real.
A much more practical alternative is to learn how to do work on a schedule without resorting to pressuring yourself — with real or imagined forces. Ultimately, this means learning how to motivate yourself to do the things that matter most to you. My workshop Do What Matters Most is based on this premise.
Trusting your “inner voice” or prayer. Many people report that when they sit quietly and ask deep questions of themselves, then wait, they hear a voice answering them. Some people call it their inner voice, some people think it is the voice of God. Now, I am an atheist, so I don’t believe it’s the voice of God. Nor do I think there is some infallible inner voice answering. And yet something good is clearly happening in these quiet times.
What is happening is similar to what happens when you think on paper. When you quiet yourself — separate yourself from distractions, breathe, let the hurly burly recede for a bit — you give yourself some free mental space and time to listen to the quiet answers in the back of your mind. Your own quiet answers reflect everything you know about the situation — your own experience and expertise, your own knowledge of the nitty gritty details, and your own value system. It is no wonder that this self-generated idea is often better advice than you can get from others, who don’t understand the situation the way you do.
I hesitated a bit to send this newsletter. Will I alienate some subscribers by my comments? Maybe. But that is not my purpose.
My purpose is to point out the value of looking for a natural explanation for mental phenomena, rather than rejecting ideas at the first point of disagreement. When I read about some popular advice which is justified by a theory I disagree with, I don’t immediately assume that the advice is impractical. I go to look at what’s involved, how I would explain the process, and why I think it might or might not work. If I think there’s a plausible alternate explanation for why so many people find benefit, I experiment with it to see for myself. That is how I have broadened my understanding of how the mind works.