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.

YouTube video

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.

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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.

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