If You Think You Can…

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t—you’re right
—Henry Ford

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The quote above may be Henry Ford’s, but it’s not an original idea. The idea is expressed in the opening verses of the Dhammapada.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with out thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.

It’s the idea that your belief and attitude determine so much about how events unfold for you. They help create context and affect how you perceive and react to everything that happens.

A Positive Attitude in the Face of the Unknown

When you think about it, no one has all the answers. There’s far too much we don’t know, aren’t likely to know any time soon, and think we know, but are probably wrong.

Some things are beyond our current ability to know. Maybe we can’t measure them or they’re too complex and dependent on so many different things. No matter how much we might try, we can’t predict their results. Sometimes despite our inability to reasonably decide what will happen we need to base another decision on what we think will happen. How can you make those decisions?

I’ve seen people frozen and unable to decide on anything when they have to choose based on something they can’t know. It used to be me and it led me to let things happen instead of deciding how they should happen and working toward them happening.

In many of these situations you can choose to believe in either a positive or negative outcome. Your choice comes from your mental models and your worldview about humanity and the universe.

I find when thinking and deciding about the unknown, it’s up to you to assume that unknowable outcome. You can be optimistic or pessimistic of what’s happening or of the results of any actions you might take.

In either case you aren’t really going to change the reality of the unknowable thing, however you will markedly change your attitude about it and how you react to it. Your reaction leads to someone reacting to you and then you react to them. Your initial assumptions greatly impact all that follows.

Your perception sets a context, which results in different actions and reactions. Those differences could lead to entirely different worlds and choices unfolding in front of you. All based on your assumption about something unknowable.

Your assumption becomes something of a self-fulling prophecy (good or bad). I think understanding this is very powerful, because it means you can choose to perceive things in a way that assumes a favorable outcome and increase the probability of that outcome as you do. You can shape your world by imagining the shape you want it to be.

Three Stories About Perception Affecting Reality

I don’t always have the words to discuss this topic the way I want. I struggle to express this idea so I thought I’d try sharing a few stories to see if they help.

Story One: My Grades in College

For much of my college career, I wasn’t all that interested in my grades, but for a brief time toward the end I did want to get good grades.

The first day of class was the usual handing out a syllabus and listening to the teacher tell us about the class and the mechanics of testing and grading. I’d listen and think about what grade I thought I could get if I worked hard and did what you were supposed to do to get good grades.

Most of the time that would be an A, but if a class seemed more difficult I might think I’d have to work harder just to get a B.

A funny thing would happen. No matter how hard I worked in those B classes, and despite any extra work I did, I could never pull the grade up to an A. I had set a limit on the first day.

One semester I stopped doing that and just told myself I could get an A in everything. Guess what my grade point average was that semester? Yep. 4.0, an A in every class. All it took was believing in advance I could and I was able to earn the grade I wanted without any extra work beyond what I had already been doing.

I changed my expectation to the result I wanted allowing me to achieve it.

Story Two: Using Music to Direct My Day

One of the last jobs I had involved sitting behind a computer all day (much like now) and mostly doing a lot of repetitive tasks (unlike now). I worked for a company turning print books into ebooks before most people cared about ebooks.

Like many offices a lot of employees brought a selection of CDs to work. Kids, this is ancient times I’m describing. It’s a time before .mp3 files and streaming online. We actually had to put these physical disks into trays to play them. Frightening, I know. Now get off my lawn.

Anyway I’d bring in music to listen through headphones. My selection varied, but most always I’d start the day listening to Louis Armstrong. I find it hard to be in a bad mood after listening to his music, which is often an expression of joy.

One spring our company saw massive layoffs and about half the hundred people I worked with were let go. I didn’t want to be in a good mood when I went back to work so instead of Louis Armstrong, I listed to Rage Against the Machine. It seemed fitting after a company layoff and it kept me from forgetting my anger with the company.

I changed my day by choosing what music to listen to when starting it.

Story Three: Your Customer’s Experience Begins With a Positive Assumption

Many years ago I worked in what is now a closed chain of bookstores. The store I worked in was located in a very large shopping center on Long Island and every weekend the parking lot was a mad house.

If you worked the late shift on a weekend you had to get to work at least a half hour early to find a spot, if you could find one at all. It wasn’t a fun experience and it was guaranteed to put most anyone in a bad mood.

Customers would come into the store all time in a bad mood. I understood. I know I cut a few of them off to get my parking space and within five minutes found myself serving them inside the store.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever worked retail, but when customers start talking rudely you have a tendency to respond in kind. It’s the same from the customer side if the employee is the one to start the rudeness.

You can imagine how a lot of the conversations went. The customer would often walk away thinking the employee was an arrogant jackass and the employee walked away thinking similar thoughts about the customer.

One day, realizing the parking lot had a lot to do with a customer’s rudeness, I decided to respond not in kind, but with kindness. I was nice in return to someone being rude to me. From that moment on the conversation took a pleasant turn and it was all from me making the assumption the customer wasn’t an ass, but had just dealt with a parking lot that turned all who entered into asses.

I assumed something positive about someone and turned a negative conversation into a positive one.

Perception and Design

I think most of what determines whether you have a good day or a bad one has to do with your attitude and how you respond to whatever the day throws at you and not the stuff that was thrown at you.

This isn’t just about design. It’s more general life observations. I think I can come up with some design examples, though.

Don’t assume your client is an idiot because he or she doesn’t know everything you know about designing and developing websites. You don’t know as much about their business as they do and you likely don’t know as much about their business as you think you do.

Assume something more positive. Assume the client didn’t know, but is more than capable of knowing. Take some time to explain whatever they didn’t understand and move on.

When it comes to making design decisions you can’t absolutely know what’s the best decision to make at every point in the process. There are too many decision with too many connections to other decisions to know for certain. You still have to make a decision.

Make one and don’t doubt it. Assume it was the best decision you could make. Doubting will only make you doubt other decisions that come after. Be confident and trust your judgement. Assume you chose well unless shown otherwise.

Be open to the possibility you didn’t make a good decision, but assume it was good unless you have evidence otherwise. You’ll be more productive that way. If a decision is nagging at you then by all means revisit it, but don’t let not knowing keep you from making other decisions.

Do you feel overwhelmed with all there is to know and learn about designing websites? With so much in front of you it might be difficult to get started. Just assume you’ll learn what you need and want to know as long as you try and then learn something. Make the assumption that leads to your preferred outcome.

Closing Thoughts

There are many times in design or life when you don’t know enough to make a decision, but you do need to make a decision to continue. In these cases just assume a direction or option or outcome to keep you moving.

It makes no difference what you assume to the thing you make the assumption about. However, if you can remain confident in your decision, it will lead all your thoughts, decisions, and actions that follow. They’ll be different because they’re based on your assumption.

It sets a context for taking action and making choices. Even though I’ve used the word positive a few times, I know it’s not the right word. I’m not trying to suggest you should always assume sunshine and butterflies. You shouldn’t walk around naive and assume everything is wonderful.

Be prepared for the worst. Know a worst case is possible and have a plan should it occur. Otherwise assume the more positive possibility. Assume the option more aligned with what you want the outcome to be.

You’ll get more done that way. You’ll be productive and seeing the world in a more positive light will help make it a better place. It makes you want to improve because you’re hopeful instead of hopeless about taking action.

Again, I’m not quite sure I expressed myself as well as I wanted, but hopefully something in there makes sense.

I can’t guarantee that just because you think you can do something that you will eventually do it. I can guarantee if you don’t believe you can, you won’t.

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  1. Steve, I listened to your “If you think you can” podcast, and I think the word you were looking for is “optimistic.” Instead of assuming your outcome will be negative, you should be optimistic your work would be appreciated. Just like I’m optimistic you will appreciate my opinion, especially of your wonderful weekly emails!

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