Donald Trump’s Mind Hack That Saved Him from Bankruptcy

Courtesy Gage Skidmore via Flickr
One day, while walking down Fifth Avenue, hand in hand with Marla, I pointed across the street to a man holding a cup and with a Seeing Eye dog. I asked, “Do you know who that is?”
Marla said to me: “Yes, Donald. He’s a beggar. Isn’t it too bad? He looks so sad!”
I said, “You’re right. He’s a beggar, but he’s worth about $900 million more than me.” She looked at me and said, “What do you mean, Donald? How could he possibly be worth $900 million more than you?”
I said, “I’m worth minus $900 million.”

This story, from Trump’s The Art of the Comeback, tells of his near-bankruptcy in the early 1990’s, after his high-flying excesses in the 1980’s. Trump recounts how he secured many of his assets with personal loans: a course of action he frequently warned against in his first book, The Art of the Deal. When the real estate market crashed, so did Trump’s personal fortune.

The newspapers gleefully declared The Donald’s downfall, but he refused to give in. He spent many days in boardrooms packed with bankers and attorneys, explaining to his creditors why they should offer him better deals.

There’s a funny story where he’s facing down a roomful of bankers who are threatening to take over his famous Trump buildings. They’re trying to agree on a fair price for the properties, and the bankers are giving Trump what he considers a lowball offer.

“Are you kidding?” says The Donald. “My name is attached to those buildings, which means they are worth multiples more than that. Many multiples.”

“Well,” the banker fires back, “considering the buildings are currently losing money, the Trump name means they are losing many multiples more money.”

Not only was Trump’s personal worth a negative $900 million, but his company was $9.2 billion in debt. Eventually, his creditors figured it would be easier to give him better terms, rather than drag him into bankruptcy court for years.

But forget how he got out of the hole financially: we want to know how he got out of the hole mentally. What mind hack, or mental technique, did Trump use to convince himself he could come back from that level of personal failure?

Courtesy Heisenberg Media via Flickr

Elon Musk’s Personal Comeback

The great American businessman Elon Musk has a similar comeback story. Originally the co-founder of PayPal, Musk received a $180 million payout when eBay bought the online payments company, which he reinvested in the companies SpaceX and Tesla.

But neither space exploration nor reinventing the auto industry come cheap. Tesla almost bankrupted Musk in 1997, when management failures, design flaws, and production delays threatened to deliver the first batch of cars a year late, at more than double the price he had promised Tesla’s first customers.

And then he got divorced.

To save the company from bankruptcy, Musk made an “all in” bet: he put the rest of his PayPal fortune into Tesla, then went around begging for additional investors. It was perhaps during this time that he invented his famous quote that “Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.”

Musk’s bet also paid off. The company rebounded, and today Musk stands as one of the great visionaries of our time.

How did he do it mentally? What was the mental technique that allowed him to go from broke back to billionaire? And how can we harness that power?

Henry Ford’s Personal Comeback

Ford was an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company, a machinist and a tinkerer who began experimenting with a gasoline-powered vehicle he called the Ford Quadricycle (see above). Like so many entrepreneurs, Ford quit his day job and formed the Detroit Automobile Company, with the financial backing of a wealthy lumber baron, a U.S. Senator, and the mayor of Detroit.

Many early automobile companies ended in failure; the concept was just too new. Ford had not yet invented techniques to build more than one car at a time, so the first batch of cars were not only poorly-made, but expensive. The company only manufactured 20 cars before it dissolved, taking about $2.5 million in investment funding (in today’s dollars) with it.

Undeterred, Ford hunkered down in his workshop and toiled around the clock to build a state-of-the-art racing car that won a high-profile championship and elevated his name again. Before long, he had found another set of investors to form his second business, the Henry Ford Company.

Ford was now obsessed with building racers, while his financial backers wanted an automobile for the masses. Like Steve Jobs, Ford was ultimately pushed out of his own company, leaving only with a payout settlement, and the right to use his name (the Henry Ford Company reorganized as Cadillac).

The third time’s the charm. After two business failures, he created the Ford Motor Company, where he quickly produced several championship-winning racers, then began his life’s work: a quality, mass-produced automobile, inexpensive enough that everyone could own one.

Ford famously said, “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” I think he was on to something.

Imagination is Reality

The mind hack that Trump, Musk, and Ford all used to bounce back from personal disaster was imagination. They focused not on the way things were, but the way they could be. They hung onto that vision tenaciously, until it became reality.

I have come to believe that imagination is real. In some ways, it is more real than the world around you. And with a little training and practice, you can develop your power of imagination to not only change your life, but to change the world around you.

The simple way to start exercising your imagination is to ask yourself: What do I want?

Our natural inclination is to think in terms of what we don’t want: “I need to get out of this relationship,” or “It sucks to drive around in this beat-up car,” or “This job is killing me.” To rebuild our mind, and rebuild our lives, we have to be able to picture clearly what it is we want.

What do you want? A new car? A better marriage? A successful career? Get it into words. Put it in writing.

In a fascinating study by psychologist Laura King, college students were asked to write for 20 minutes a day about their “best possible future self.” She challenged them to stretch their imaginations to envision the biggest, best-case scenario for their lives. After just a few days, the test subjects who spent the time imagining a positive future were significantly happier and more positive than a control group.

Imagination is not only the key to unlock our maximum potential, it’s fun. Life can be an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of enjoyment, if you just allow yourself to imagine your best possible future.

Your Biggest, Best-Case Scenario

Imagination is a skill, and skills can be learned.

Too often, especially in times of difficulty, we look at the way things are, then throw up our hands in despair. Most of us can’t imagine anything much different from the way things are.

In order to change the world, we’ve got to exercise this muscle of imagination. By “working out” with our imagination each day, we can learn to picture what we want, not just what we don’t want. As in the study above, the simple mind hack is to ask yourself: What is the biggest, best-case scenario for my life?

We can construct new ways of thinking about ourselves and the world. By choosing to think in larger, more positive terms, we can begin to rewrite our personal reality in a larger, more positive direction. Our lives get not unimaginably better, but imaginably better.

Most of us will never lose a billion dollars. But no matter what hardships or difficult times you’ve gone through, a little imagination can help you bounce back several billion dollars richer.

Sir John Hargrave is the author of Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days, now available worldwide.