Let’s imagine it’s about thirty thousand years ago.

You and your family are hanging out around the fire telling stories, having a good time. Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you spot a shadow. The first thought that enters your mind…? Tiger! Of course, you don’t know whether it’s a tiger or not, so what do you do? Do you go check out the shadow to see if it’s really a tiger? Or, do you run and hide with your family? If you hide, you risk being wrong and missing out on the opportunity to learn what the shadow really was. But, if you check it out, you risk death.

Most people would probably run and hide, and with good reason.

Fast forward to the present day, and our ancestors’ habit of being hyper-alert for potential danger is still alive and well in our brains. You and I are descendants of people who maximized their chances of survival and ran from the shadow and shaking bush.

Our brains are wired to focus on what doesn’t work and to fear the unknown.

We’ve risen to the top of the food chain, but in the pursuit of work we love, our minds still berate us with fears of survival— How will I pay the rent? How will I pay for food? What if I go into massive debt? Or if I can’t pay off the debt I already have? What if I can no longer take care of my family or myself? What if I end up broke, homeless, and alone?

Years ago, I was a single parent on food stamps, struggling to make ends meet, and I knew firsthand how real these fears can be. I would never tell you to just go jump off a cliff tomorrow to follow your dreams without some sort of safety net in place.

That said, I also know how many people get tripped up and stuck by focusing primarily on their fears. It’s like viewing life through dirty, clouded glasses. When you focus on what’s not working, you see more of what’s not working, and it becomes hard to notice the opportunities around you.

The good news is, you can rewire your brain.

The Buddha taught his followers that whatever you focus your attention on will grow. It’s as though you have a garden in your mind and heart. If you plant seeds of compassion, love, gratitude, commitment, courage, patience, and curiosity, then that’s what will grow. Of course, you can also choose to plant seeds of scarcity, hurry, numbing, shame, blame, prejudice, and other ways of looking at the world that do not serve you. You get to choose which seeds you nurture.

To detect possibility, you need to shift your focus to what is working.

When you focus on what you want to get rid of, you only see more of what you want to get rid of. The brain isn’t capable of thinking in negatives. In fact, try it now. Don’t think of a peanut butter sandwich. It’s impossible, isn’t it? Because of this, if you want to create a career you love, ruminating over what you hated about your last job won’t serve you all that well. When you focus on what you don’t want, it makes it harder for you to imagine what you do want. And, when you focus on what doesn’t work, you’ll have a harder time noticing hidden opportunities or pursuing these opportunities.

On the other hand, the more you focus on what does work, the more you’ll believe that change is possible. And, believing that change is possible sets off a positive feedback loop in which change becomes even more possible.

  • The more you believe change is possible, the more your brain will be able to automatically notice possibilities and opportunities that you would never have seen before.
  • The more you notice possibilities, the more likely you are to take steps to pursue them.
  • The more you move forward, the more confidence you’ll gain in your ability to create change.

And the cycle goes on and on.

In the life of every person, organization, group, or company, something works. Your task is to find out what works, even if just a little bit and once in a while, and do more of that. When you study what works, you get clearer about what you want, you’re more likely to experience joy, and your feelings of success build momentum that keeps you moving forward.

Neuroscience demonstrates how our beliefs impact our reality.

The placebo effect is a powerful example of the very real ways that our beliefs change our experience. A placebo is a “fake” medical treatment that looks like the real deal but actually has no real medical substance. This could be a pill, a shot, or even a surgery. For example, studies show that sugar pills sometimes work just as well as medicine for treating migraines. Fake knee surgeries can outperform some real ones. If you believe your pain is going to go away, it’s more likely that it will.

One of my favorite stories about the relationship between the mind and the body is a study that Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer did with hotel maids in 2007. Before the study, she discovered that despite the intense physical demands of their work, most hotel maids believed that they weren’t exercising enough. Their vital signs matched how much exercise they thought they were getting, rather than how much they actually were.

Langer gathered two groups of hotel maids. With one group, her researchers explained to the maids how many calories they were burning with each task and informed them that they were already exceeding the US Surgeon General’s recommendations for daily exercise. The other group wasn’t given any new information. When researchers checked back one month later, the maids with the information had lost weight and their blood pressure had dropped. The researchers found no signs that the maids had changed their behavior in any way, and they determined that the changes were due to maids’ changed mindsets.

To begin reprogramming your brain to detect opportunity, I invite you to write a grit sandwich—

Grit sandwiches are a technique I learned back when I was teaching Simplicity Parenting. Kim John Payne, the founder of this transformative parenting model, taught parents to help their kiddos make a “grit sandwich” at the end of the school day. Let’s try this now:

  • First, grab a piece of paper and a pen.
  • Then, write down something that went well in your day, something positive. Highlight as many details as possible. That’s the first piece of bread.
  • Then, you spread on the grit— something that didn’t go so great. Is there a part of you who wants to complain? If so, allow this part to write down a few words about what felt frustrating today. Do your best to stay out of blaming or shaming. Just write down a few bare bones of what actually happened or how you felt.
  • And, finally, write down one more piece of bread— something else that went well.
  • Take time to really take in the good and notice how you feel in your body when you think about what you’re grateful for.

You can forgo the grit and just keep a record of what’s working in your life, but if you try to only see what’s working, you might find that the part of you who feels frustrated and unhappy gets even louder and insists on being listened to. If that happens, including the grit can help this part of you feel heard so that the rest of you has space to study the good stuff.

Throughout your days, be on the lookout for small signs of positive change.

Then, sit down once a day to make your grit sandwich. Ask yourself— What’s working? What do I appreciate about myself? What’s new and good today? Zoom in to take a closer look at the things that engaged or energized you and get a sense of how you can do more of that. Get as detailed as feels helpful.

It’s perfectly fine if most of the experiences you notice are just ones or twos on a scale in which zero is feeling nothing and ten is ecstatic joy. Many people expect joy to be a mystical experience, and sometimes, it is. But most of the time, it’s an everyday occurrence that we don’t even notice unless we’re paying attention.

I encourage you to write a grit sandwich at least once a day for the next week to start training your mind to detect hidden possibilities and reasons to celebrate. I wish you so much fun with this practice. Enjoy!

Do you have a friend who’s been feeling stuck or unhappy lately or who could use a real pick-me-up? If so, I’d be grateful if you would pass this article along to them. Thank you!!

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