The term “critical thinking” has two meanings. As a skill, it’s a darned good thing to have. As a trait – it’ll ruin you.
My friend Chad was in town for Easter weekend, and we had the chance to grab lunch together Monday before he headed out. During the previous week, he had looked back through a digital time capsule to what was happening exactly five years ago to the day. At that time, Chad was still a wide-eyed freshman at Penn State, ready to take on the world by starting a club, donning a clown nose and delivering impromptu daffodils to unsuspecting board members during meetings so that they’d have an excuse to live out his email signature, which included “Have a Better-Than-Awesome Day.”
During that time, I helped Chad come up with a lot of the branding and graphic elements around which his club was built. One such project was to devise a fun poster that would hang in every freshman dorm room at the start of the next semester, encouraging incoming students to immediately engage and take some positive social risks.
I spent 12 – 15 hours on that poster. It was fun for me to collaborate with Chad and see his vision become a reality. I tried some new graphic techniques, and they worked out perfectly. There were dozens and dozens of layers and effects involved. When the poster was done, I was beaming. Chad was thrilled. We were both excited not only about how it had turned out, but about the thought of having had a part in what could conceivably result in real and widespread culture change on a huge campus, as nervous freshman began to engage in fun, safe and positive ways.
Here’s how that poster came out:
Pretty cool, eh? But then my world came crashing down, siphoning all the excitement and joy out of me in an instant. Here is the reason for my demise:
You see it, don’t you? There at the tippy-top of the poster – I had misspelled “Gandhi” as “Ghandi.”
And now, instead of having been helpful to anyone, I would just be a laughing stalk. Incoming freshman would be jeering instead of interacting with one another. Parents would pull their new freshman from the school upon seeing the egregious spelling error, not wanting their children subjected to such inferior education. Someone would set one on fire to be rid of the offense. And then buildings would burn. The entire campus would burn – burn to the ground. And I would be left in the figurative middle of it all, sooty and weeping with the ignominy of it all.
OK, so maybe that’s a tiny bit of an exaggeration. But only tiny.
I asked Chad if there was any way they’d do a reprint with the correction. I think I even offered to PAY for a reprint of thousands of these posters. But it was no use. There was no undoing it. I was mortified. Chad just found it all amusing, but his attempts at laughing it off felt like outright derision.
Isn’t this how we get sometimes?
We let one thing that is imperfect take over and wreck an otherwise wonderful thing. We ruminate on it. We replay it. We tether it to our value – our soul – and we drag it around with us, allowing it to make deep, muddy ruts across the green grasses of our landscapes.
You can look at my spelling error and see how insignificant it is; but when it comes to your own flawed parts, doesn’t it feel like they are block printed in large letters drawn in … in dog poop? (Yes, I said “dog poop.”)
So, what do we do when the negative looms larger than it should as we look at a moment, a day, a project, ourselves or our past?
In short, it all comes down to choice. You always have a choice. But maybe you’re not sure how to use the power of choice in your circumstance. Here are a few things I try to do when a negative thing seems to be taking over my positive space:
1. Find a trusted friend and just overdo it. Criticize your mistake out of proportion (much like I did in my “burning campus” scenario above). Be utterly ridiculous with your friend over it. Get that horse good and dead, and then kick it some more. Get it all out. You’ll be surprised what overkill and laughter can do toward helping us get things back into proportion.
2. Ask yourself, “Will this matter to me in a year?” If the answer is NO, don’t give it another thought. Sometimes, that one “big picture” perspective will be all you need in order to see how little a thing really is – and to let it go.
3. With something a little less “minor,” try writing a list of all of the positive things about the [day, project, situation, person, etc.]. Make it your goal to write until you have at least ten.
4. With something serious – perhaps something from your past that haunts you – consider this. If you were to suddenly have amnesia where memory of this past thing were erased, what other effects would there be in the present to remind you that the event had ever occurred at all? I have had to use this thought process myself. I realized that I bear no physical scars on my body related to events. There are no active reminders. Essentially, the negative hold on me boiled down to thoughts. Immaterial thoughts. Vapors. They have no power to steal one second of my present beyond what I choose to give them. And so, armed with this thinking, when a negative thought from the past pops into my head, much like Good Witch Glinda, I banish it immediately: “You have no power here.” Do that enough – and past hurts really do lose their hold.
Last week, Chad asked me if I would edit a mini-book he is co-authoring. There at the end of book in all its glory – was the same Gandhi quote, with the name misspelled as “Ghandi.” I made the correction in his material and left a side-bar comment:
“Alas! Redemption! Are you kidding me right now? Did this really happen?”
I laughed out loud. He laughed back in a comment and later on the phone.
What little negatives can you laugh away today?
What can you put in perspective of the big picture of “a year from now”?
What can you find right with things today?
What can you banish to the past as no more than thought vapors with no hold on your present?