Point Positive to Focus More on Solutions Not Problems

An important life lesson from whitewater rafting.

Suzie Glassman
Oct 26, 2020 · 6 min read
Author’s Picture

My family and I went whitewater rafting for the first time this summer. That’s us in the picture above. We’re going down the Shoshone rapids of the Colorado River just outside Glenwood Springs, CO. My son is the one at the front with a look of pure joy across his face — my daughter is behind him.

We went out on the river with a group of around 12 boats. It’s here I learned a term I’ve continued to use in my personal life. You see, it’s hard for rafting guides to communicate between boats because the water is loud, and when you’re separated, you may not be able to hear each other. One guide may be shouting, “don’t go over there.” While the people in the other boat think, “oh great, he’s telling us to go that way.” In a dangerous situation, this kind of miscommunication spells bad news in all kinds of ways.

However, since you can still see each other, experienced guides know paddlers always point positive. They use their paddles to point to the direction they want or need to go. If you see someone in another boat frantically pointing a paddle in a particular direction, they mean, “go that way NOW.”

A rafter will never use his or her paddle to point in a direction you shouldn’t head. This way, rafters in other boats can avoid danger without relying on shouted instructions. I’ll show you how to use this simple trick to keep yourself out of a mental tailspin, one that leaves you stuck in a negative feedback loop — unable to navigate your way out.

Build Positive Self Action (not just talk)

I’ve always hated advice that tells you to think positive and your life will change — as if positive thinking equates to magical thinking. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that when people imagine their perfect future, they are less energized and less motivated to go after it.

Positive thinking should not be confused with positive action. I can think that my writing career is going to take off all day long. But if I never sit down to write, my positive thoughts won’t amount to anything. When you point your oar in the direction you want to go, you can start taking the necessary steps to get there. Pointing positive means starting with what you want to accomplish today to ultimately get to where you want you to be down the river.

The dream is the start. Take that dream and map out the obstacles that will stand in your way. The process is about grit, creativity, learning, setbacks, and ultimately hope. In her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking, psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen notes,

When we contrast our wishes with the obstacles to their attainment we, almost magically, catalyze an extraordinarily higher level of performance.

For example, say I want to lose 10 pounds. It’s great to think about how good I’ll look in my brand new pair of jeans, but I also need to think about how I’m going to handle the temptations and obstacles that show up as I’m trying to achieve that goal. How will I handle days where I don’t want to exercise? Social events? Happy hours?

If you’re headed down the river, and another guide starts pointing left, now you have to look ahead. Are there boulders? How should I steer? Who needs to help? You also need to have an idea of how hard you'll have to work. It’s easy to paddle like a madman for a few minutes, but you may need to conserve your energy if you’ve got a long way to go. How much work does the solution entail?

Pointing positive isn’t just about thinking positively. It’s about taking action toward the solution and away from the problem. Oettingen offers the following strategies when you’re working toward a goal:

  • Map out the obstacles you may encounter. Know how you’ll tackle them.
  • Keep your oar (mindset) pointed where you need to go, even when you have a setback. Stay focused on solutions.
  • Don’t underestimate the amount of effort it will take to get there.

Focus on What’s Going Right

Another aspect I love about pointing positive is that it asks you to stay focused on what’s going right vs. what’s going wrong. It’s easy to look at a difficult situation or a trying time and focus on your mistakes. Pointing positive looks forward, not back.

Maybe someone in the boat steered the wrong way. Maybe you dropped your paddle in the water. When you point positive, you look at the resources you have available and continue to take action, despite the setbacks. Pointing positive implies moving in the opposite direction of the place you want to avoid.

If you think about all the mistakes that led you to where you are now, you’re doomed to spin out of control. Humans have a strong negativity bias — that is, the tendency to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.

Psychologists theorize we evolved with this bias to keep us out of harm’s way. We had to stay attuned to danger and learn from mistakes to survive. We needed to remember where the lion’s den was to keep from going back there. However, author and life coach Wendy Capland told Inc. Magazine,

Once you’re in the energy of what’s going right, it’s easier to see all the things that are going right. It’s a more powerful perspective from which to move ourselves forward if we’re doing it from saying ‘That went well, why don’t I do that again?’ rather than, ‘Nothing ever works.’

There’s a phenomenon called the frequency bias. It means that when you become aware of something, you tend to believe it’s happening more, even if that isn’t the case. Say you’re in the market for a red car. All of a sudden, you’ll start seeing red cars everywhere.

The same bias can happen when you start focusing on all the things going right in your life. Your brain will start to see more positive connections. For example, if I write an article that gets rejected from my favorite publication, I can focus on all the things I did wrong. The subject matter was terrible. I didn’t execute well, etc. Or I can focus on the fact I gained more practice developing my writing skills. Maybe I had a goal to write 1,000 words that day, and I accomplished it. What did I do right that I can repeat next time?

When you’re headed into a tailspin, making excuses or accusations doesn’t move you forward. Pointing positive means letting go of the mistakes you made, deciding what you can do right now, and taking steps to move closer to where you need to be.

Final Thoughts

On the river, a guide will never point in a direction and say, “don’t go there.” Pointing negative is a big no-no. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when the guide thinks we need to avoid that section of the river at all costs. The difference is by pointing where to go, you set your sights on the solution.

We can do the same thing in life. When our minds start heading to a negative place, or things stop going our way (which is basically everyone during this pandemic), it can help to take a step back and figure out the direction we need to head. Point that way, and however hard it is, how many rocks are in the way, or the amount of effort required, start taking your first steps. Move away from the problem.

We will mess up. Others will mess up. It’s human nature. Stay focused on what’s going right. Have fun, enjoy the ride, and use the concept of pointing positive to steer clear of the mental whirlpools the river of life throws our way.

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