“I think I can — I think I can — I think I can.”
For more than a hundred years children around the world have read those words, spoken by “a little engine.” I was one of them.
In fact our copy, which lived in the room my brother and I shared, was close enough to my bed that I read it many a night. Even when I didn’t read it, I could see the cover and be reminded of the story.
You’ve probably read it, too, or at least know about it. In case you haven’t or your memory is fuzzy, here’s the story.
A long train carrying Christmas presents over a mountain breaks down before it gets up the hill. Several locomotives are asked to pull the train, but for different reasons they each decline. The request is sent to a small engine, who agrees to try. In spite of the steep hill and heavy load, the engine slowly succeeds in pulling the train over the mountain while repeating the phrase: “I think I can.”
It was the first book I ever read about the power of positive thinking. Perhaps it played a role in revealing — or forming — my attitude about life.
Maybe you read it and it did the same thing for you. The other possibility is that you read it to your kids, and if you did then maybe it had an impact on you as an adult.
But it isn’t simply the power of positive thinking I want to bring to mind, it is the power of thought.
Do you think?
That question could mean a couple of things, but I mean it literally. Do you think?
Right now you could probably say yes, because you just thought about whether or not you think. And that’s what thinking is, directing your mind toward something or someone and focusing on that. Often it goes beyond focus to a place of creating ideas or making connections.
A lot of games we play, from crossword puzzles to app games like solitaire, can engage your mind in some level of thinking. I wondered about Wordle, a game I’d heard of but knew nothing about.
So I (just now) looked it up, read about how to play, and played my very first game. Perhaps also my last, so I can retire victorious. (Screen shot attached.) Here’s what I’ll say: it made me think, and that is good.
But what if you don’t have some kind of artificial stimulation like a game in front of you?
I remember my father telling me about the famous sculpture. Seeing that the whole idea was a little much for me he said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks. Sometimes I just sits.”
It made me laugh, but the truth is that it is harder for many of us to “just sit” than it is to “sit and think.”
Keeping our minds still, it turns out, is equally as hard as getting them focused.
In 1903 James Allen published a little book called As A Man Thinketh. It is loosely based on a verse from the Bible that, in the King James Version, says:
For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; But his heart is not with thee.
That is a little stilted, except for the last phrase: His heart is not with you.
Why not? Because his heart is with his own gain. Our hearts are not always revealed by our actions, but our hearts always reveal who we are.
So James Allen took that verse and posited the idea that if we can control our thoughts — our hearts — we can in fact control our lives.
People still believe that today, and with good reason — to a large extent, it is true.
Consequently we have books like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. (I’ve thought about growing rich, and it hasn’t happened. Maybe the book has more specific advice inside.)
Norman Vincent Peale’s famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, is even better known and still perhaps the best in the field. It became an industry of its own, spawning at least five other books including one by his wife, who was his partner in ministry and business as well as life.
But what I’m interested in is this:
How to think better
Whether you are making life choices, business decisions, or playing golf, you have decisions to make that require thinking. Depending on your experience and skills, you might have a decision making process.
It should be basically the same in every case, whether the process is quick or slow. There is almost always some assessment of the situation, some listing of known options, and an evaluation of those options. Then you select one, jettison the others (no second guessing) and execute.
A process like that can help you keep your emotions out of the mix, and often that is a good thing. Emotions are kind of the opposite of logic and can get in the way.
On the other hand emotions offer important information — if we can access it rationally.
There is a solution that allows room for emotions, still uses a kind of process, and gets you to a solution you might never have considered.
Here it is: learn to think in pictures rather than using words and other tools of logic.
The good news is that you already (kind of) know how to do this. OK, maybe you can’t do it on demand, but it is what you are doing when you dream.
Thinking in pictures helped Einstein “see” that gravity could bend light. Imagine what kinds of problems we can solve if we use the same technique.
I’m going to leave you with that for now, but go ahead and give it a try with this:
Create a picture of yourself doing good for a friend or family member. Now that is good thinking.