article is part of a series called Antivirus
For Your Mind.
In 1934, Admiral Byrd was feeling demoralized,
and for good reason. He was dying of carbon monoxide poisoning
without knowing it. All he knew was he was sick and getting sicker.
Byrd was stationed at a remote base deep in the interior of Antarctica,
about as removed from civilization as a person can get on this
planet. He was utterly alone and, he thought, without hope of
rescue. Thats a setback by definition (he was doing worse
than he expected). When Byrd arrived at the base camp, he had
expected to make it home alive, of course, and now it looked
like he would never make it.
He gave up. He was going to die, he admitted
to himself. This is how it would end. He wrote a note to the
people who would find his body the following spring and then
snuffed out the candles. He lay in the dark for some time, sad
at this horrible turn of fate.
But then he remembered a scene from his
past. He had been in a wrestling match, trying to win the championship
at the Naval Academy. Near the end of the match, exhausted and
in great pain, he decided he had no chance of winning.
But his mother was watching and he wanted
her to be proud of him, so he spontaneously invented a technique,
and it worked. He stumbled onto the secret of determination.
He immediately felt his strength resurge and he fought to the
It worked then, he thought, so it might
work here in the Antarctic even though his situation was now
The single thought that revived him in
the wrestling match was the realization that although I
seemed absolutely washed up, there was a chance I was mistaken.
Thats the most important key to pulling
out of a negative emotion: Admit to yourself you might be mistaken
about a pessimistic conclusion. Introduce some doubt. The doubt
is legitimate. Most of us are far more confident in our negative
assumptions than is justified by the facts. As Norman Cousins
put it, Nobody knows enough to be a pessimist.
In the gripping true story, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship
Essex, two people died within 24 hours of deciding their
situation was hopeless. Yet many made it home alive. It was a
premature decision (they decided there was no hope of ever making
it home alive), and in this case, their demoralization made them
as incapable as they could be: It killed them.
Hopelessness sucks out your determination.
In the same story, on the other hand, is
an example of suddenly feeling that some effort might make a
difference. They suddenly spotted land. A minute before, they
were all lying there, demoralized, waiting to die, without energy,
without hope. Suddenly they saw land, and these wasted, dehydrated,
starving, helpless men were suddenly filled with energy, even
enthusiasm as they scrambled to propel their boat toward shore.
One minute before that, although their
dire circumstances were real, the hopelessness was in their minds,
which means it was changeable.
One minute before, their circumstances
were essentially the same, and yet, they were demoralized and
had no energy because of their conviction they were hopeless
and helpless. It was a conviction that they had more confidence
in than they should have.
This is an example of the difference between
feeling demoralized or feeling determined. You are far more powerful
and capable when you feel motivated than when you feel discouraged.
And those feelings arise from the way youre explaining
If your explanation is pure guesswork,
as it often is, it is stupid to stick with a guess that demoralizes
you. Introduce some doubt. It is the only sane thing to do.
Pessimistic thinking is almost always a
mistake. Not only is it a mistake because it makes you less capable,
but the thoughts themselves are usually in error. I have a lot
more to say about that in a minute. But for now, just be aware
that making a mistake in your explanation of a setback can make
you feel defeated, overwhelmed, or beaten when you arent
any such thing.
Im not sure you really got that,
and it is crucial that you do so. Please read the following sentence
slowly and carefully:
Making a mistake in your explanation of
a setback can make you feel defeated, overwhelmed, or beaten
when you arent any such thing.
Mistakes in your explanations can take
away your fight, suck out your desire, and kill your determination.
Mistaken explanations can stop you from taking action. If your
thought-mistakes fool you into believing you can do nothing about
a difficulty, you will do nothing. This is hazardous to your
If you explain a setback to yourself in
a way that makes you feel bad, you can change your explanation.
Even if youre in the habit of explaining setbacks in a
way that demoralizes you, youre not stuck with that habit.
You can change it.
You can improve the way you explain setbacks,
its not hard to do, and it will make a huge difference
to do so. Even if you already make pretty good explanations,
making better ones will make you even more difficult to demoralize
than you are now. You will feel better and get more done. Youll
have less negative emotion and youll be more effective
with your actions.
Read the next chapter: Learners
Will Inherit The Earth.