Read an Excerpt
3 SecondsThe Power of Thinking Twice
By Les Parrott
ZondervanCopyright © 2007 The Foundation for Healthy Relationships
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt Takes Three Seconds to ... Empower Yourself
Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat and taking the tartar sauce with you. Zig Ziglar
"Buh-bye. Bye now. Thank you for flying with us."
I gave a smile and half-wave to the friendly flight attendant as I disembarked from a plane into Chicago's O'Hare Airport. I was on my way from my home city of Seattle to a speaking engagement in Minneapolis. Eager to catch my connecting flight, I dragged my two-wheeled suitcase, along with my well-worn briefcase, straight to the reader board in the terminal. There it was: gate B-19. It was just a few paces from where I was standing, so I strolled over. But behind the counter at B-19, the electronic sign indicated that the flight was headed to Denver, not Minneapolis.
"Excuse me," I asked the gate agent, "is this plane going to Denver?"
"No." He didn't even look up. "The sign is stuck, and there's nothing I can do about it."
"So is it going to Minneapolis?"
"Yes. I just made an announcement about it."
"Well, I didn't hear your announcement because I just arrived, so I ..."
"It's going to Minneapolis," he interrupted. "You can take a seat."
And with that, I scanned the waiting area for a place to sit. I found a chair near the counter and next to an elderly woman. She smiled knowingly. I know, he's a grump!
"He's been snapping at people for the last twenty minutes about that sign," she said. "You'd think he'd do something about it."
At that moment, another passenger arrived at the gate and asked the grumpy agent the same predictable question. Again, he snapped the same response and the passenger sheepishly walked away.
After a few more identical exchanges with new customers, his fellow gate agent arrived behind the counter. She looked at the sign and frowned, then looked at the paper in her hand and back at the sign.
I was close enough to hear their conversation.
"I know, I know," said the grumpy agent. "The sign is stuck and I can't get the office to change it. I've tried everything."
"Well," she said, after a momentary pause, "let's change it ourselves."
She used a black marker to write "Minneapolis" on a standard sheet of paper and taped it over the incorrect electronic sign. "There," she said, "it may not look pretty, but that should make things go more smoothly."
And it did.
The impulse to empower yourself almost always does. Why? Because it's the catalyst a person needs to take action and improve a situation.
It doesn't matter whether you're an airline employee, a schoolteacher, or a real-estate agent. You could be a military captain, restaurant manager, sales representative, or a member of congress or the clergy. In every case, the journey from powerlessness to empowerment is essential to moving from "whatever" to "whatever it takes."
So, why the difference between the two gate agents? Why are some folks passive when confronted with problems, acting about as helpless as a beetle on its back? And why are others able to reject this approach and take action? I've given a lot of thought to these questions, and I think I've found the answer in a mountain of research.
Why Some People Are Passive
At a recent conference for technology leaders and artists in Monterey, California, I sat next to one of the most respected psychologists on the planet. Martin E. P. Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, has championed a movement that is changing the global face of psychological research. It's called "positive psychology," and his groundbreaking work has shed a tremendous amount of light on how we can live more fully. It all started thirty years ago when Seligman stumbled onto the life-altering attitude of helplessness.
As a twenty-one-year-old graduate student fresh out of college, he observed an experiment that set him on a quest to understand why some people give up and remain passive while others look for solutions, and overcome and achieve.
For the experiment, researchers taught dogs to associate a tone with a very mild shock. The dogs were restrained in a harness, then repeatedly exposed to the sound, followed by the shock. The hypothesis was that later, upon hearing the same tone, the conditioned dogs would associate it with an oncoming shock and run or otherwise try to escape. Seligman and his associates placed an unrestrained dog inside a shuttle box, a container divided in half by a low wall. When the tone sounded, the dog could easily escape the discomfort of the mild shock by jumping over the wall into the other half of the box. But the researchers were surprised by the dog's response. On hearing the tone, instead of jumping away to the other side of the box, the dog lay down and began to whine. Even when the shock came, it did nothing to evade it. They tried the same thing with all of the previously conditioned dogs. A full two-thirds of them didn't even try to escape the negative stimulus.
Seligman concluded that these dogs had "learned" to be helpless. In the early conditioning, they had received a shock no matter how much they barked or jumped or struggled; they'd learned that nothing they did mattered. So why try?
Have you ever felt like one of these dogs? Have you ever given up because it seemed as though you were helpless? If so, you're not alone. Like the dogs in Seligman's experiment, people who respond in a helpless manner have learned this response. At some point in their attempts to achieve goals and succeed in life, they've been thwarted. When this happens enough and they believe that their efforts make no difference, they give up. Soon they even quit trying. They automatically say, "There's nothing I can do about it." This learned helplessness dismantles their confidence and puts them on the powerless path.
You're Not As Helpless As You Think
For a powerless person, a "lucky break" seems to be the only way to achieve success. In other words, they've come to believe that only their circumstances - not what they do with those circumstances - can create something good.
In reality, nobody is as helpless as they think. Even in Seligman's experiment, while two-thirds of the dogs gave up, one-third of their number, conditioned in the same way, sought and found a way to avoid the shock. They chose to keep trying. Likewise, we only give in to helplessness because we've decided to. We trade an optimistic can-do attitude for a passive approach that we think lets us off the hook ("there's nothing I can do about it"). Or even worse, we come to believe that if we don't try, we can't fail.
Seligman wrote his first paper on this phenomenon of learned helplessness shortly after earning his PhD in 1967, and he has spent the rest of his life exploring it. He says it still amazes him that some people react just like the majority of the dogs when exposed to discomfort or pain. Some people act as if they are helpless and don't even try to change things. Others are energized to find a solution.
The difference between them? Merely a three-second choice.
Your Finest Hour ... Or Not?
One of the all-time greatest examples of these two attitudes occurred in April of 1970, in the midst of America's era of space exploration. The Apollo 13 spacecraft, on its way to a lunar landing, was seriously damaged by an in-flight explosion. The moon landing was scrapped. Suddenly every resource was devoted to getting the three astronauts home.
You may have viewed the drama of that episode in Ron Howard's movie Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks. If so, you probably remember the palpable tension, both inside the spacecraft and at Mission Control in Houston, Texas.
Three astronauts and a roomful of technicians at Mission Control faced what appeared to be an impossible situation. Low on power and oxygen, the astronauts were working against time. Technicians brainstormed ideas and listed items already on the ship to help the astronauts navigate and make repairs.
With the ser vice module disabled, they needed to navigate into position to land on Earth with the lunar-landing module. Any miscalculation could send the ship spiraling thousands of miles off course into outer space. Then, even if they succeeded in getting into position and crowding into the command module for reentry, they had no way of knowing if its heat shield and parachutes were functional. Finally, if reentry was successful, weather reports indicated that they could be splashing down in the midst of a hurricane.
During this crisis, every single decision was a calculated risk. Catastrophe seemed imminent. One scene in the 1995 movie crystallizes the situation.
A press agent for NASA, seeking more information from the NASA director, began to recount the multitude of dangers facing the crew. Clearly stressed, the official responded, "I know what the problems are, Henry. It will be the worst disaster NASA's ever experienced." Gene Kranz, the flight director, overhearing this pessimistic assessment, responded sharply, "With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour."
Think about that. Two men facing the same situation - one man preparing for the worst, the other expecting the pinnacle of success.
The situation was so tense, and portrayed so effectively in the movie, that even though viewers knew the outcome, we all sat on the edge of our seats. Beating almost insurmountable odds, the astronauts and technicians managed to get the module into position for reentry. As the command module entered Earth's atmosphere, radio contact was lost (a normal occurrence). In homes across the nation, all eyes were fixed on television screens. At Mission Control, seconds ticked by. As they approached the three- minute mark, the radio operator began trying to reestablish contact. "Odyssey, this is Houston. Do you read me?" On televisions across America, a blank sky appeared. Walter Cronkite's voice informed the viewing audience that no space capsule had ever taken longer than three minutes to complete reentry. The silence that followed was agonizing.
Suddenly, the radio at NASA crackled to life. On TV, a capsule materialized seemingly out of thin air, and the parachutes appeared like giant flowers bursting into bloom. And a voice rang out loud and clear, "Hello, Houston. This is Odyssey. It's good to see you again."
What's Your Approach?
Put yourself in the shoes of an official on that NASA team, struggling to solve an overwhelming problem and divert a huge crisis. With only seconds to make decisions, you don't have the luxury or time to mull things over. What are you thinking? Do you identify with the official who sees only imminent disaster? Or are you more like the flight director? Do you see a problem as an opportunity to reveal your finest hour? Maybe you're somewhere in between.
Of course, sitting and reading this book, it's easy to say that we'd identify with the determined flight director. We all want to believe that we'd approach a problem with confidence and optimism. But would you really? Let's be honest - this kind of valor is rare. Very rare.
Truth be told, most of us lack such boldness. Instead we prepare to justify a passive approach that will later explain away our failure - even when the stakes aren't nearly as high as a national space expedition. "There was nothing I could do," we say to ourselves and anyone who will listen. Whether it's failing to avert a disaster, close a sale, win a contract, quiet a crying toddler, or initiate a potential relationship, our first impulse is often powerlessness. And no matter how irrational our helplessness is, it convinces us that we've done everything we possibly can. Helplessness empowers only passivity.
That's why the question of who you really identify with in the NASA scenario is so important. How you answer says a lot about your confidence level and where you land on the "helplessness" continuum. And that, in turn, reveals much about your ability to achieve success. Why? Because the person who is committed to doing "whatever it takes" - to achieving success in both big and small goals - rejects the first impulse of powerlessness and chooses to believe he has the power to make a difference.
Exercising Your Mental Muscle
So why did the NASA flight director react with such optimism? Why didn't he succumb to helplessness in the face of such a daunting task? To help us answer this question, consider athletes - specifically Olympic-caliber athletes. What separates the great hopefuls from the great achievers? Every Olympic athlete can tell you the difference: it is the application of mental muscle.
A computer with all the power in the world is useless without software to make it run. And so it is with the Olympian whose mind is the software controlling that collection of hardware known as flesh and bone and muscle. Aside from their astounding physical prowess, it is the Olympians' mental muscles - and how they flex them - that really sets them apart from everyday athletes. And that mental muscle is known by professionals as "high self-efficacy." It's the very opposite of helplessness.
The dictionary defines self-efficacy as the power to produce desired results. It reflects an optimistic self-belief that one can perform novel or difficult tasks, or cope with adversity in life. Perceived self-efficacy empowers goal-setting. It determines how much effort you'll invest in any given task. It prescribes your persistence when facing barriers. It reveals how well you'll recover from setbacks.
It's difficult to exaggerate the value of self-efficacy in generating a whatever-it-takes attitude. Why? Because this mental muscle compels you to see that your actions, not your circumstances, are responsible for successful outcomes.
How many times have you heard someone say, "There's nothing I can do"? Or, "It's not my job, so it's not my problem." Or, "What do you expect me to do about it?" These are the sayings of a helpless mind. To turn this mind around, it only takes a modicum of efficacy - and as little as three seconds.
How to Empower Yourself
Let's get practical. If rejecting helplessness is a goal you have, you'll be best served by cultivating its opposite: self-efficacy. The following three actions will help you do just that. They aren't presented in any order; they are simply the three actions that have proven most successful in this area. Practice each of them as often as you can.
1. Say What You Know - Instead of What You Don't
Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote a fascinating book, later made by Tom Hanks into a miniseries on HBO, called Band of Brothers. It documents the journey of a company of U.S. paratroopers through their grueling training, the D-Day invasion, and the intense fighting on the ground leading up to the end of World War II. Based on real-life interviews with the veterans of Easy Company, the series captures both the intensity of war and the heroism of the troops.
In one scene of the movie, immediately after the paratroopers hit the ground in France, Lieutenant Winters, the commanding officer of Easy Company, and Private Hall, a scared young man from another company, wander through the countryside in search of the rest of the Americans. In the confusion of anti-aircraft fire, the troopers were dropped far outside the planned jump zone. The private radiates fear and insecurity because he lacks the exact knowledge of where he is.
Excerpted from 3 Seconds by Les Parrott Copyright © 2007 by The Foundation for Healthy Relationships. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.