On Thinking Good Thoughts

A student recently recommended the site of motivational speaker Mark Matteson. In his April e-zine “What If You Didn’t Know?” Matteson begins:

One of my favorite stories is about the architect who finally got his first big job. He decided to have a giant party to celebrate and went to a neighborhood bar to make arrangements. He noticed a Newspaper headline that read, “Hard Times Coming!” He changed his mind. No party. “Haven’t you heard?” he told the owner, “hard times coming.” He called his wife, “You know that dress you ordered for the party, cancel it. Hard times coming.” The wife called the dressmaker and cancelled the new dress. Hard times coming. The dressmaker called the new building where she was going to open her new space. Cancel the space. Hard times coming. The developer called the architect. Tenants are bailing out. I can’t hire you after all. Hard times coming. The architect went back to the same bar to drown his sorrows. He spotted the paper across the room. The headline looked five times larger now. He got up for a closer look. The paper lay wrinkled in a corner. It had been used to wrap glasses and dishes. Upon closer inspection, the paper was 20 years old!

I am not without sympathy to Matteson’s ideas. We can be hypnotized by what we hear on the news—a sort of societal contagion, if you will. Equally true, if we sit around complaining and bemoaning our fate, that tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

Although Matteson’s type of thinking is becoming pop wisdom in society—just witness the phenomenon of The Secret—popularity is not enough to establish the truth of what he argues.

Does our thinking control real world events? Matteson ends his essay by writing: “Do you think ‘Hard Times Are Coming?’ If you do, they will. If you don’t and they won’t. We become what we think about. What if you didn’t know?”

While it is clear that our thinking does influences our experience of events, our thinking does not control events. And thank goodness it doesn’t. Reflect for just a moment on your thinking over the past hour—like most of us, your mind probably flitted from topic to topic. Many of your thoughts were fragmentary; and very likely, there were more than a few of your thoughts that you would be embarrassed to share.

Let’s take it a step further. Can you tell me what your next thought is going to be? Interestingly enough, as you begin to watch your thoughts, that next thought will be elusive—at least for a while. And when your thinking resumes, you will see that thoughts appear; but you are not controlling them.

You do have some control. You control whether or not you ruminate over a thought, and you control whether or not you identify with a thought. Indeed, it is important to understand that you do have these choices to make. If you don’t have this understanding, you are likely to find that your thinking is completely dominated by thoughts coming from your ego. Nevertheless, having this understanding and exercising choices over your thoughts will not allow you to control the world.

There is yet another important implication of Matteson’s essay to reconsider—an implication that no doubt we will hear from many commentators as the current recession worsens. That implication is that if we think positive thoughts, keep believing, and keep spending, the economy will be just fine.

This is about as true as claiming that if we all got up at 2 a.m., the sun would begin to rise at 2 a.m. as well. Day and night cycle according to universal laws; and while the regularity of economies is not as exact, economies are subject to similar cycles.

The causes of these cycles include, as we have been covering in this blog, the artificial creation of bubbles that cannot be sustained by the Fed and governmental policies. But even if the Fed was not interfering in the economy, the economy would still be subject to boom and bust cycles.

Why? All human beings are subject to moods. Some days you simply don’t feel as good as others. For some, these moods may have daily, weekly, monthly, and even longer cyclical components—cycles within cycles.

Societies have collective mood swings too. As the mood of the public ranges from bullishness to bearishness, these moods influence the financial markets. Sometimes these moods become extreme, as shown first in the late 90s by the irrational belief that tech stocks would always go up by 30% a year and then later by the equally irrational belief that housing would always go up by 30% a year. Those who held these irrational beliefs had many arguments why their irrational beliefs were actually quite thoughtful and well-reasoned. When presented with counter-arguments, their rallying cry was “this time it is different.”

It is never different. We leave in a dualistic world—night will always follow day, winter will always follow summer. Economic hard times will always follow irrational economic bubbles—and thinking all the “good” or “positive” thoughts in the world will not prevent that.


9 Responses to On Thinking Good Thoughts

  1. Frank v2 says:

    Dr. Brownstein,
    Fear I believe is driven from our ego, and I see the ego as the stumbling block in terms of creating all kinds of barriers in life. These become self-fulfilling barriers: initially they exist in our minds, but if we allow our ego to take control, these barriers can in turn become real. In this example it is the ability for a sales person to sell. And I can tell you from my own perspective my ego has done a lot of damage early on in terms of generating self-fulfilling prophecies which in turn dictated an outcome for a particular situation. This was particularly true in terms of calling on tough or problematic customers. It took me a long time to get past this negative thinking (ego) and being able to approach these customers from an opportunistic perspective, instead of the ”glass is half full with cigarette butts floating in it” point of view.

    As a side note Mark Matteson has a book out there entitled, “Freedom from Fear”, which is a quick read but does a nice job showing one how to not let his or her ego control his or her life, but rather learn how to step above these situations. For those of you who are interested this book can be found and purchased at: http://www.mattesonavenue.com/purchase.htm

  2. E says:

    Advice like Matteson’s are specioius. All (gross generalization) of the successful people I know (friends, associates and acquaintances) get his pop-psychology, otherwise they wouldn’t be successful. His advice are basic, without real instruction, and contain little probative value. Most of the discussion we enter into do not cover such salient points as “did you read the paper, it says there’s a recession coming… let’s not do the deal.” Most of the discussions, remedies we offer each other are in the realm of “how do we get the other 20% financing to get this deal done? We’re at 80 percent, and in the glide path… do we have to call the guys and rewrite terms?” Of course we entertain positive thoughts — positive thoughts of the numbers, the analysis, the educated guesswork that supports the endeavor, the management of risk, the terms of the contract, etc. I looked at Matteson’s website above and, from first impressions, it think it was written by our HR team. “GO TEAM!”

  3. Frank,

    I agree that fear is generated from the ego and that being aware of our self-fulfilling prophecies is useful.


    I agree, exhortation has a short shelf life and many perceive it as insulting.

  4. Frank v2 says:


    I concur that many people might would view Mr. Matteson’s comments as specious, particularly those that are successful and have figured out how to keep their egos in check. However, with that said, I have seen first hand once successful sales people fall into the trap of negative thinking by following the rumor de jour and news media’s negative propaganda. This in turn creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: these individuals really did achieve exactly what they were told they would; very little.

    Some of my most successful selling years came during the recessionary period of the late 80’s early 90’s when the petro chemical marketplace was going through a tough period. I use to love listening to other sales people talk about how tough things were, how slow the economy was, etc. Much to my amazement many of these sales people felt things were so bad that they stopped making sales calls. And guess what happened? Although there were fewer orders, I managed to build relationships up and I got the orders. And, when we actually went from a so-called slow to hot market again, I reaped the benefits even further because I had continued building up relationships and working the streets during the tough times. Yes, the economy was slow and orders did not fall into my lap during the recessionary period. But by peeling the onion back and looking for opportunities rather than hoping they would fall into my lap, I became the top producing sales person in the firm I was with, in spite of a down turn. I did not let my ego get in the way: I followed the old adage that attitude equals altitude.

    That was in stark contrast to the first recession I got to play in during the early 80s. Fresh out of school and green as green could be, I found myself falling into the trap of listening to the world around me, and my ego reinforced what I heard. Fortunately I had a wonderful coach that taught me many of the simple principles similar to that of what Mr. Matteson is suggesting, and it helped get me on the right track.

    So the “go team approach” is not always a bad thing. The simple principles that Mr. Matteson is suggesting do work. The reality is that not everyone understands or subscribes to this way of looking at themselves or the world.

    Frank v2

  5. E says:

    Frank v2,

    Thank you for your generous response, in both word count and as a general matter. I feel that I have done something altogether unrecognizeable to merit this first rate treatment.

    Regardless of high esteem in which you seem to have afforded me, I think I should add that perhaps my opinions do not apply to those in sales. Once upon a time, I worked for a highly regarded technology company that did have a sales department. We, the technically skilled employees of the firm, would be wont to call the sales dept “Melrose Place” for no other reason than the vast collection of beautiful people posited therein. In my time interacting with Melrose Place, I discovered that Sales is very much dependant on multiplication of, positive effort and relationships/people skills. A spectacularly beautiful blond woman with excellent speaking skills can stand in the middle of a large conference hall and sell just about anything. The number one capability in Sales, for lack of better words, is the ability to “capture attention.” Therefore, advisories to “ignore what you don’t know” and “be positive” are precious, priceless. They are the tools of success. However, in the realm of learned business practices, where enthusiasm is not a remedial ointment, it is useless. A law professor of mine once told me, “wherever you go, find the most knowlegeable person there and absorb everything she knows.” Since then, wherever I have gone, I have made a point to examine, study and ingest every aspect of business, jargon, diction, precise terminology, methodology, best practices, relationship flow charts, roledex’s, etc. of that business. It’s the cornerstone of success. To be out in front, to anticipate events before they occur, to be well prepared, well, those are the ultimate skillsets. Therefore, the jingoism, “What if you didn’t know”, would be certain death if it were followed. One of Matteson’s prescription is to “stop reading … all papers.” Do you think it would be an advantage to not read a percolating opinion in Business Week suggesting that “Lehman might be next”? Maybe we should ignore the quarterly reports altogether; “be contrarian” and start injecting more risk into our propositions. Therefore, I leave the pop wisdom of “Double your Failure Rate” to those with ample room to suffer it. I know full well that the meaning of this maxim is to “keep at it”, but it should be so noted that sayings such as “double your activity” is not instructive (and sometimes, just leads to spinning wheels). The bottom line is, in an industry where knowledge, technical skills, and anticipation is highly prized, I think Matteson’s advice mostly is irrelevant. He should promote the fact that he is addressing Sales personnel.

    Thanks again.


  6. Frank v2 says:


    What you may not know is that Mark Matteson sends his messages out to a succinct group of small air-conditioning contractors, by request only, via email. Clearly these folks are technically trained, but often have not been exposed to the softer side of selling, and individuals like Mr. Matteson clearly add value to helping these folks grow their businesses. So in this case I disagree with your comment that “in an industry where knowledge, technical skills, and anticipation is highly prized, I think Matteson’s advice mostly is irrelevant”, because the audience Matteson is primarily speaking to is comprised air-conditioning technicians, who are selling by default (they are trained in fixing or installing air-conditioning systems, not how to sell) and clearly could benefit from Matteson’s words of wisdom.

    As an FYI – I consider myself a professionally trained sales and marketing person. When I sold I did so by first understanding the customer’s pain, then providing a solution. I sold b-b technical products. I do however recognize that there are bad apples and eye-candy out there that label themselves as “sales people”, but generally this group is a dying breed which will eventually go the way of the do-do bird (I hope). Unfortunately, these folks give professional sales people a bad rap.

    With that said there are products, particularly at the consumer level, where sizzle, razzle, and good looking people will “sell” product. So will hot air balloons, fast cars, and free beer. But these types of sales tactics do not add any technical expertise or experience in providing a solution to the customer. Clearly there are products that can be sold this way. But air-conditioning systems in my mind should not be one of these products.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Frank v2

  7. igli1969 says:

    I’d like to second the experience of Frank v2. I’ve been in b-b sales for over 30 years, and also consider myself a professional. (And, as Dr B might remember, I’m far from good-looking.) I have, and have had in other companies, associates that *do* fit the mold noted by E. One in particular is a blonde woman, very empathetic, great people skills, who cannot handle math, is weak on actual product knowledge, will promise undeliverable things to close a sale, etc. It’s very frustrating. What’s worse, I’ve worked with salespeople who make her look like a paragon.

    I have not heard of Matteson, but have seen similar stuff. The kinds of sales training I appreciate teach questioning skills and the structure of sales calls. I don’t like “rah-rah” sessions. I actually had a sales manager years ago whose catch phrase was “Go get ’em, tiger!” At least two others firmly believed, and preached, that positive thinking alone was the key to sales success (all else was window dressing, in their estimation).

    I do agree that positive thoughts improve performance in sales, as in many other endeavors. But really great curtains don’t look as good on the windows of a double-wide as on those of a custom-built mansion on waterfront property.

  8. Zen Master Seung Sahn is reported to have used this little ditty:

    Good thinking, good thinking, good thinking: go to Heaven.

    Bad thinking, bad thinking, bad thinking: go to Hell.

    No thinking, no thinking, no thinking: then what?


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