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7 brutal truths I learned about life after giving up “positive thinking”

I’m surprised by the number of times I’ve heard people recommend “positive thinking” in order to create positive change in someone’s life.

On the face of it, it makes sense. “Your thoughts create your reality” seems obvious. Therefore, “think positively” to create positive outcomes.

In fact, “thinking positively” even worked for me—for a while. When I quit my Ph.D. to start my business, I set myself on a completely new course and made sure to align my thinking with the outcome I wanted to create.

But then I discovered the dark side of positive thinking, and it helped me get my shit together.

This is how “positive thinking” destroyed my life

“Thinking positively” was useful to get me started with a new venture. However, there was a dark side to positive thinking that took me a long time to notice.

I ended up ignoring reality, which had a habit of coming back to bite me in the arse. I got manipulated by my dreams and learned to ignore my true feelings. I experienced tunnel vision and locked myself into a bubble where I only existed for my “higher self” rather than for the “me” in the here and now.

After learning to give up on positive thinking, I learned these 7 brutal truths about life that are counter-intuitive but have changed my life forever. This article is my attempt to share my journey and alert you to the dangers of “positive thinking”.

Trigger warning: Many of these brutal truths go against conventional wisdom and will be a bitter pill to swallow for diehard fans of the “positive thinking” movement. If you are one of these people, I ask you to suspend judgment while reading the article and try to embrace an alternative perspective.

I created the video below based on these 7 brutal truths. Check it out and let me know what you think, or keep on reading for the 7 brutal truths.

1) How you’re living right now matters more than achieving your dreams

This was the first bitter pill I had to swallow. I began my business with big dreams of success. All I could think about was achieving my dreams.

My dreams took me away from embracing the contrast of life that was happening right before me. I missed out on experiencing the full spectrum of myself—including sadness, anger, and frustration.

My sadness, anger, and frustration were there to teach me something. They deserved to be embraced. I would have seen much earlier that some parts of Ideapod weren’t working so that I focus on the parts that were doing well.

As the shaman Rudá Iandé says:

“We humans are dream beings. We can accomplish many of our dreams in a lifetime, but we won’t be able to achieve them all. More important than the life goals we accomplish before we reach the grave is how we’re living right now. With some consciousness and a sense of humor, we can embrace the wholeness of our being and live a life with soul. Beyond our concepts of “positive” and “negative,” there is the beauty, the mystery and the magic of our true being, deserving to be honored and celebrated. It’s available for each of us in this very moment.”

2) Failure is the road to success

Positive thinking meant that I was always looking for signs of my success rather than identifying my failures.

The reality, however, is that it’s unavoidable to have some sort of failure in your life unless you don’t take the chance to succeed. Yet so often we try to avoid failure because it makes us feel worse about ourselves.

If we’re more honest with ourselves, we’ll see that failure provides us with the best lessons in life.

3) Thinking is not the same as doing

Some of our most creative moments come from daydreaming. But if there are no actions involve they’ll remain just that—dreams existing as figments of your imagination.

You have a responsibility to turn your thoughts into action. Through action, you’ll learn more about what you’re trying to achieve and who you really are than any amount of thinking will tell you.

Positive thinking kept me focused on the first part of the equation – the thinking part. I had a bias for thinking and ended up avoiding the hard actions I needed to take to be successful. Carrying out these actions didn’t feel good so they were easy to ignore.

Stop thinking so much and get going. Commit to your goals. Start now.

4) Willpower won’t help you achieve anything

If you need to exert willpower to achieve what you want, there’s an internal conflict happening inside you.

I used to rely on my willpower because the gap between my dreams and where I was living right now was so huge.

My willpower got me places. I was invited twice to pitch Sir Richard Branson for investment on his private island. Ideapod ran campaigns with the United Nations. Jason Silva invited me as a guest on some of his live videos.

He didn’t love my NASA uniform. Then again, I wasn’t a fan of his red lipstick.

A post shared by Justin Brown (@justinrbrown) on

But I ended up creating much more positive change in my life by giving up on willpower and focusing on creating the conditions to make success inevitable. I realized I needed to transform my environment.

Our environment is always more powerful than our internal resolve or ability to “think positively”.

I reoriented my lifestyle around the goals I wanted to achieve and made sure that my focus was on the steps I was taking each day rather than the dreams themselves.

5) You are not in control

This was a hard one for me to understand.

“Thinking positively” came from the belief that my mind was the motor of change in my life. But the reality is that my mind is what created meaning after things were already happening.

Let me explain.

Think about your body right now. Your hair grows by itself. The heart beats by itself. Your glands secrete their essences by themselves. While reading these words, you’ve taken a few breaths by yourself.

If you’re going to be human, it’s fundamental to accept that you’re not in control. You’re operating instinctively.

It’s important to let go of the illusion of control that comes from believing your thoughts create your reality. They don’t. Your actions do, and they are most powerful when they happen without thought. When you act instinctively.

If you can stop relying on your willpower and start creating conditions in your life to live the life you want, your dreams will become apparent from what happens in your life. You won’t need to try so hard.

You will be able to give up on controlling your dreams.

6) You are not your thoughts

The insight came to me from learning how to meditate from a spiritual master (you can read about it here).

Advice on how to meditate usually recommends “repeating a mantra” or “focusing on your breath”. While this is commonly taught in the western world, it’s not “true meditation”.

Instead, true meditation comes from becoming a “watcher” of the mind. It comes from observing your thoughts. As this spiritual master says:

“Watch your mind. Don’t do anything—no repetition of mantra, no repetition of the name of god—just watch whatever the mind is doing. Don’t disturb it, don’t prevent it, don’t repress it; don’t do anything at all on your part. You just be a watcher, and the miracle of watching is meditation. As you watch, slowly mind becomes empty of thoughts; but you are not falling asleep, you are becoming more alert, more aware.”

When you try to “think positively” all the time, you give too much power to your thoughts. You give up your instinctive power.

Now, I give less power to my thoughts. Sometimes I have obsessive thoughts. Other times I’m having anxious thoughts. I don’t worry about this anymore.

7) The root of suffering is pursuing temporary feelings

So many of us crave feelings of what we think is happiness. We think that happiness comes from excitement, joy or euphoria. But these are only temporary feelings.

When we’re always trying to “think positively”, we end up constantly pursuing these feelings.

But the constant pursuit of these feelings soon enough turns into suffering because they don’t last.

Instead, real happiness comes from inner peace—being content with who you are and what you already have in life.

Notable replies

  1. While I agree with many of the ideas in this article, I have a different opinion as to what defines inner peace. Even if you do something you consider good like giving to charity, it’s easy to worry that you could have done more. If you come up with and share a way to do away with the need for charity by teaching everyone how to look after themselves, those thoughts will be dispelled. It doesn’t mean you won’t find something else to worry about but at least you would have moved on.
    Temporary pleasure is just that. Being massaged, listening to great music, eating rich tasting foods, getting drunk or stoned etc. all lose their appeal after a while. Change is the key but change isn’t likely to happen if you only think about the now. To fulfill wishes you have to imagine those wishes first and although not all your wishes are likely to come true, I believe It’s self defeating to purposely ignore imaginative thoughts.
    Forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted the message you are trying to convey. Naturally I read it from my perspective.

  2. “Positive thinking” may bring the desired effects to those who do not wish to live fully. Or it may be a piece of a person’s journey of awakening, but not the whole of it, as it would seem in your experience. Your article is well written, well organized. I might also add that if the destruction brought by your faith in “positive thinking” is what brought you to this point, creating this space for thinkers to gather and share thoughts, then…well…worse things have happened in the history of the world. :wink:

  3. Avatar for ACD ACD says:

    I think that positive thinking is not the problem. The problem, it seems to me from what Justin writes, is materialism and successism. These are both, in my opinion, contagious diseases which one contracts in the materialist, success-demanding, celebrity-promoting society in which many, if not most, of us live. One can opt out. Simple as that.

    :movie_camera: The Is / Ought Problem - YouTube

    The positive vibe theory posits that reality must be faced in a positive light or you get a negative outcome.The reality is , in order to see reality you must value clarity above all first, that can have no pre requisites or pre suppositions . Only after you see , can you act.
    Reality is Medusa, you’re frozen, turned to stone until you have clarity of vision. Then and only then can you move in your micro routines to defeat the dragon of chaos and make the world from it. That’s a lousy quoting of Jordan Peterson but I think it suffices.

  5. I think " real happiness comes from inner peace—being content with who you are and what you already have in life." is true.

    However, to ditch positive thinking saying it’s not making any difference is completely wrong. Why?

    • Your brain don’t differ between thoughts and reality, it reacts the same way on both. This is why we sweat when dreaming, this is why we have anxiety diagnosis. Anxiety is brought to us because we still have the reptile (primary) part of the brain activated. The one that was a constant fight or flight due to the dangerous djungle we lived in. Therefor.

    Just by thinking something worrying or scary. This fight and flight activates. How do we stop it? By learning to control our thoughts. And when I say control I don’t mean maje sure to never ever have worries again. That’s not human. But how we think of the thoughts and reactions that makes us anxious, is where the control lays.

    -> You claim we need physical actions to affect our outcome. Did you know you get physically stronger in your muscles after thinking positive self respecting thoughts? I didn’t know this until I was in an psychological experiment. And if we get stronger by positive thinking then you can imagine what happened when we we’re told to think negative and disrespectful thoughts about ourselves? That’s right, the muscles got weaker and the same physical challenge we could handle easy with positive thoughts, was instantly so much heavier that we didn’t make it after mantra of negative thoughts.

    • Your cells in your body reacts to every thought you have. If you feel a lot neck pain, weak, exhausted tired body, I guarantee you are loaded with negative thoughts, about yourself, and also about the surroundings you have.

    -> Close your eyes and imagine that you’re running a marathon. Envision the environment, people clapping and cheering, all the sounds, the rush in your body, the sweat, your pumping heart, the determination to reach the goal, the adrenaline rush, do this for five minutes. And take notes how you feel after.

    Conclusion for this reply is, you are on the right path, you started to listen to all your feelings and stopped the fake smiles. You stopped be a prisoner of the false “Suceed in others eyes in order to be happy about yourself” but add positive thinking to this, add self empowering thoughts and watch how your reality transforms to possibilities instead of obstacles.

    Reality is a brick wall. But if you’re only focusing on the bricks, you’ll miss the flowers next to it.
    And they are as real as that wall. Only you choose what you see. Only you choose your reality.

  6. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply, @Dragonflyspeech.

    I wrote this article a few years ago. I’d like to write an updated one to incorporate some new perspectives.

    What interests me more now is instinct and connecting with my body. There’s a nice discussion thread here with a video where Noam Chomsky suggests that looking for consciousness in the brain may be the wrong approach. Our free will may be genetically programmed and operates throughout the whole body.

    This is just speculation. But for me, my “free will”, “consciousness” or “creativity” comes from my body. My mind is a wonderful tool to direct my creativity. But I don’t create from my mind.

    Therefore, focusing on trying to control thoughts for me isn’t a useful approach. I don’t want to try to hack my experience by trying to hard to be positive. For me it often results in feelings of guilt when I can’t match my experience with the thoughts I’m focusing on.

    It’s very liberating to just let it all go and get back to a different relationship with my self that doesn’t need to be so positive.

    This is just me. What I say above may resonate with some people. For others, thinking positively is a very useful approach to create change and live a better life. All power to them.

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

I gave up gluten, sugar, dairy and coffee for a month and even I was surprised with what happened

5 brutal truths I learned after “positive thinking” screwed up my life