Don’t Choke: The Subconscious Doesn’t Register Negatives

(or) Gibran, Hurley and DeVito Share a Secret that Pujols, Gore and Jeter Never Learned

If a woman says to a man, “I love it when you put the seat down,” he’ll remember seat down and likely comply. If she tells him, “Don’t leave the seat up,” she might as well mail the check for couples therapy.

Words are powerful, which is why I choose the ones I use–both with others and to myself–so carefully. As a writer and a literary agent, I communicate with words in my books, articles, proposals, emails and even text messages without the benefit of non-verbal cues. In sensitive situations, I’ll send an email to my own account to see how it reads before sending it. If I’m working with an author to present a point to a publisher, I’ll send the email to the author first for feedback.

Fortunately I did just that for my friend and client, Hajjar Gibran, author of the The Return of the Prophet. His response to my email was, “I made a few minor changes and deleted the part about not wanting to sour our relationship, because the subconscious doesn’t register negatives. Like if I say: don’t think about Lao-tzu [his dog].”

Of course, all I could think about was Lao-tzu!

I started thinking about this concept and remembered that the oldest trick in the book in sports is right before a pressure-packed moment like a field goal, a free throw, or a clutch putt (think Danny Noonan in Caddyshack), you say to your opponent, “Don’t choke.”

What else could they possibly think about after you say that? You certainly wouldn’t say, “Don’t visualize the ball going in.” Along those lines, you hear coaches say things—precisely at the times they are trying to get their teams to focus—such as, “We can’t look ahead to the playoffs” or “It’s not going to do us any good to complain about the officials.” By giving attention to those ideas, isn’t that exactly what they are doing?

Think about what the effective coaches (like Hall of Fame high school basketball coach Bob Hurley) say. “Take one game at a time. Give 100 percent effort. Focus on this play.” The words don’t, not, and stop do not enter their consciousness so they’re not part of their dialogue. If they want their players in the now, why tell them not to be in the future?

When Al Gore was questioned by Congress about his financial interests in his environmental work, he got all riled up and declared: “If you think this is about GREED!” I may be misquoting him because the only word I remembered was greed. In the midst of his negotiations with the Yankees, I was shocked that Derek Jeter, perhaps the smartest personal brand manager going, made a similar denial about greed. Not to be outdone, Albert Pujols, in the midst of his contract negotiations with the St. Louis Cardinals, said of the fans: “If they want to call me greedy, they don’t know who I am.”

If I tell you, “I’m not saying you’re an idiot but…” it’s unlikely you’ll hear anything after the word idiot. In my last column about my disdain for plastic water bottles, I wrote a preamble that said: “It’s much more my style to highlight the positive and offer choices without pointing fingers.” You could be sure that I was going to be pointing figures. I put a lot of thought into that column, and even though I sandwiched my inciting rant between more loving words, my very intent was for the outrage to register. It’s like a lawyer who makes a comment, knowing that it will be stricken from the record. But once a thought enters the subconscious, there’s no striking it from the record.

Words lead to thoughts. Thoughts lead to feelings and ideas. And feelings and ideas lead to success or failure, suffering or bliss. Which one starts with the words you choose. There’s a massive difference between, “I’m not going to be miserable any longer,” and “I’m going to be happy.” There’s an even bigger difference when you say, “I am happy.” About six months ago, while struggling through an ab workout, I said to my friend, “I have a weak core.” But I immediately caught myself and said, “No. My core is getting stronger.” And in six months I’ve gone from 48 consecutive push-ups to 90.

Good teachers embed your subconscious with words that enable success. They offer wisdom on what to do—instead of what not to do. “Breathe. Focus. Visualize success.” In the film Swingers, Vince Vaughn’s character kept telling Jon Favreau’s character how “money” he was. “You’re like a big bear with fangs and claws,” he said. Imagine the impact he would have made if instead he had said, “You’re not a little wimp. You’re not a loser.”

Great teachers, like Hajjar, take it to the next level by showing us how to talk to ourselves. Since Vince Vaughn can’t be in your ear every moment, you have to tell yourself how money you are and consciously choose your internal dialogue. Before an important event, instead of re-assuring yourself that things will not go wrong, use words that will match the outcome you desire. “I’m going to nail it,” or “I’m so passionate they’ll be throwing money at me.” I’ll leave you with a personal favorite, one that my friends and I have been saying to each other since the film Twins came out in 1988, “Tonight is your night, bro.”

And the beat goes on…

1. The best example of this is Mother Teresa, who said: “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

3. In my screenwriting group, the guy who said, “I don’t mean to be defensive, but…” spent most of his time defending.

4. In the book I’m working on, I almost wrote, “needless to say,” but then realized if I was going to label it needless, I need not write it.

5.  I nearly wrote to a business contact, “I don’t want to quibble with you over a few dollars but…” Then I realized that by writing quibble, I was, indeed, quibbling. Instead, I wrote what I wanted, which was to continue building our relationship, and I got the perfect outcome.

6. I was doing hot yoga, and the teacher–an effort to keep us focused–said several times, “Forget about the person next to you.” Of course I wasn’t thinking about the person next to me–until he said that!

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2 Responses to Don’t Choke: The Subconscious Doesn’t Register Negatives

  1. Mike Duralia says:

    Great timing is always bro…well said!

  2. thepokeryogi says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Mike. It’s amazing how often this bit of insight comes up and how much it has helped me.

    Alex Panelli was in L.A. this weekend and we had a great time catching up. If you ever make it up to the Bay Area, he’s living in Palo Alto.

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