Mastering the skill of Positive Thought

Dr Ivan Joseph
August 24, 2020
7 min read


In Part 1 of this Positive Thought series, we discussed how important it is to stop negative thought patterns and create empowering positive affirmations to build up your confidence and resilience. If you didn’t get the chance to try out the first two positive thought builders, try them out now.


In Part 2, I would like to share two more exercises that you can do to continue working on building the skill of positive thought


Let’s get started!


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Exercise #1: Write Yourself a Letter


Many years ago, when I started my new job as the athletic director at Ryerson University in Toronto, I felt like I didn’t belong. For 15 years, I had been living in a town of only a thousand people, and now I was in charge of a department of 30 at a university with forty thousand full-time students in a city of about 6 million people. 


I had gone from a budget of $30,000 to over $10 million. I had been hired to take a disastrous athletic program and turn it into a national force. And I had been dropped into an administrative structure that was totally foreign to me: actualization of general ledger codes; cost centers; human resources policies; union guidelines and regulations; university politics and academic plans; and strategic mandate letters with the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.


I sat in meetings feeling dumb as a post. I’d go home every night and ask Google to help me figure out what was going on. So many times in that first year and a half I had thoughts like: What am I doing here? I can’t do this. I totally blew that meeting. I have no idea what I am doing. I am going to get fired. They are going to find out I don’t know anything. This is impossible. I’ll never be able to do this. I’m not an administrator. I’m a soccer coach. 


Every day, I had a moment when I wanted to push the “easy” button and head back to Iowa, where I was confident and assured—the king of my fiefdom.


So how did I get through it? I had something that sustained me: a letter I had written to myself while in Graceland at a high point in my career. 


My own personal brag sheet.


I read that letter so often during the first 18 months of the job that the paper is now as soft as an old flannel shirt. And that’s exactly why I wrote it. I outlined my accomplishments so that I could revisit them when things were not going so well. 



The letter goes like this:


Dear Ivan,


Congratulations on finding the right woman to marry. Congratulations on raising three healthy and wonderful children and working so hard to spend time with them even when life is busy. You are on track to complete your PhD before you turn 40—nice job. And how about that national championship? You worked hard and believed it could happen and changed those players’ lives along the way. Well done. And congratulations on the courage to take the job in Toronto and make the move home. You are following your dream.



The letter isn’t about material things or titles; it’s about things I did in my life that made me who I am and filled me with confidence in my abilities. It’s evidence to remind me that I can get things done, and so I read it when I don’t believe I can get anything done. 


The letter is for those times when the going is pretty rough. When you don’t have it all figured out or mastered. When you are new. Or scared.


And the best part is that the letter is in your own voice. It’s you being there for you in dark moments when it’s hard to remember the good times.


At a time in your life when things are going well, sit down and write a letter to yourself, outlining your hard work and accomplishments. And then keep it on hand so you can pull it out when things are falling apart all around you. 


To really achieve your full potential, you have to put yourself in situations where you will fail. And when you do, you will find it incredibly helpful to have a comforting word from yourself to combat the hit to your self-confidence.


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Exercise #4: Reinforce the Behaviors You Want


Coaching, by its very nature, is about correction. In order to help a team or an individual athlete to excel, a coach provides an endless stream of feedback. 


Part of that process is fixing mistakes. And generations of coaches have been correcting what went wrong for an athlete out loud, in front of the whole team on an ongoing basis: “Sally, the ball went over the net because you were leaning back too far and your head was up. You didn’t follow through,” and so on. When we focus on the mechanical fix to the problem (e.g., bend your foot this way, change the angle of your arm, turn like this instead of like that), we think we’re giving helpful direction. 


But in many cases, you’ll see an athlete wilt in response to the feedback. Their shoulders go down or their head drops. Sure, they’ll pick up the ball again. They want to play. They want to succeed. But in that little moment, the coach put a dent in their belief in themselves.


It doesn’t have to be that way.


I remember a university study on a Division I basketball team to test the role of positive feedback through video analysis. Initially, the coaches held  a video session in which errors were pointed out to help the players improve. After this error-focused intervention, there was a moderate improvement in the team’s performance. 


Later, the researchers looked at an entirely different approach. Footage was taken again, but the follow-up video session was entirely positive, only pointing at and describing what the players had done right. The coaches basically ignored errors and instead drew the team’s attention to the successful moments. 


As a result of the second approach, the team’s performance improved dramatically. That’s the power of positive reinforcement.


When I learned about this approach, it changed the way I parented, coached and led. I started to draw attention to the behaviors I wanted to see repeated. 


I do this at work. I comment on the good stuff all the time. Sure, you can’t only take this approach, because there are some errors and miscues that you have to address. 



I try to make it 80/20: about 80 percent of the time I’ll comment on what is going right.



And it works. People get better. You reinforce the approach you want, and people come to believe in their own abilities to improve and excel. 


It’s a technique you can use when helping others, but it’s also an approach you can use to build your own self-confidence: focus on what went well so it happens more often. Did you work out? Did you refrain from a knee-jerk reaction to something your boss said? Did you get your report in a day early? Did you speak up in a meeting when you had an idea about how to change the company’s direction? 


Reinforce the behaviors you want to keep seeing. Celebrate yourself.

Now that we’ve discussed four key skill builders to help you develop Positive Thought, it’s time to put this practice in action. 



Download my Positive Thought Skill Builder Workbook below if you’re ready to kick it up a notch!



Download now:

Positive Thought Worksheet




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