A Lesson in Psychology

A long time ago I learned about a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance. Essentially, it means we all have a mental picture of how we think the world ought to be. When the world is different than our picture of how it should be, this creates dissonance in our minds -- we think about it a lot and don’t like it. That’s why it’s called cognitive dissonance. Since we don’t like it, we work hard to resolve the dissonance by either changing the world to match our mental picture or changing our mental picture to match the world.

This concept is important because if your image of the world is negative, you probably find bad things all the time to reinforce that image. Conversely, if your image of the world is positive, you tend to use enormous creativity and energy to mold positive outcomes. It’s an unbelievably powerful concept, and I try to live my life by it.

In early 1994 my former employer laid me off. I thanked my manager that day, and I am still thankful. I know that sounds weird, but I did ask her to do it. She took me up on my offer and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. Scott Consulting Corp. and this column wouldn’t be here if not for her.

I watched dozens of people walk out the door after their layoffs in the early 1990s. Some were angry, some were relieved, most were surprised. In my evolving mental picture, I no longer worked for them by late 1993. So for me, the actual event in early 1994 really was a blessing.

I know this sounds hokey, but I’m grateful to my former employer for giving me more than 12 good career years and some unbelievable job experience. I watched Digital Equipment grow into a powerhouse, and I watched it slowly die. I had the opportunity to sit at the feet of world- class engineers and instructors who have forgotten about more technology than I’ll ever hope to understand. Believe it or not, I even met marketing people I consider geniuses. And, yes, I also met some managers whose motors didn’t quite want to turn over. I can’t think of any more valuable learning experience.

I’ve heard people complain about job experiences like mine. The line usually goes something like this: "I gave 12 years of my life to that bad company and look what they did to me in return..." Well, that may be true, but the interpretation really depends on your mental picture of the world. In my mental picture, all those years were training for today, and today is training for tomorrow.

Since starting Scott Consulting, I lost count of all the times it looked like we were finished, only to have the phone ring and a miracle occur to give us another few months of life. I don’t get quite as nervous as I used to when our backs are to the wall because, in my mental picture, our company is always thriving. It’s cognitive dissonance -- in our minds, we see ourselves healthy and prospering, therefore we work hard to ensure things work out that way.

What is your mental picture of the world? Is it a place where everything is broken and you have no opportunity to get ahead? If so, you will find a way to mess up anything good that happens because good breaks are not part of your mental picture. For you, winning the million-dollar lottery is a tax hassle.

Or does your picture of the world include lots of opportunities and nifty challenges? If so, then you will find a way to win in just about any situation. A layoff becomes an opportunity to explore something new. A system crash or nasty application bug turns into an opportunity for you to enhance your troubleshooting skills and become a hero. A setback -- even a devastating setback -- is a learning experience, and if you keep that positive mental picture you will find some way to bounce back.

Cognitive dissonance may be the most powerful tool we possess. Learn to use it wisely and it will pay big rewards. The process is simple, but not easy. First, form a positive mental picture of the world and your place in it. Next, internalize this new picture -- think about it all the time and burn it into your brain. Once this new picture invades your every waking moment, opportunities that never existed in your wildest imagination will suddenly come from nowhere.

I know this sounds homespun, but the process is well documented and motivational speakers make a fortune pitching it. -- Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.