Trajectory Matters

Excerpt from “Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change” by Shawn Achor (Random House, LLC, Septembe 2013).

By Shawn Achor

As I learned during my stint in the Navy, a weapons system can have the fastest missile in the world, but if it’s not locked on its target, it will whiz right past it. Similarly, at work you can have all the success accelerants you want, but if you aren’t on the right trajectory, you won’t accomplish what you want to accomplish.

One rough, cloudy morning in Maui, I joined a surfing school. There were very few amateur surfers out that windy day, as the water was choppy, but I had never surfed before and was determined to try it before my lecture that afternoon. If positive psychology researchers have one commonly held character flaw, it’s overconfidence in our ability to master new skills almost instantaneously through the power of our minds. Unfortunately, since I’d grown up in Waco, TX, my sea legs were about as good as a drunk cow’s with vertigo, so I was at a slight natural disadvantage.

After paddling out with me through the increasingly irritable whitecaps, and just before giving me a helpful push toward the breaking wave, the instructor yelled, “It’s okay to fall, just don’t hit the rocks.” That’s when I saw that the entire beach seemed to be covered by huge boulders, except for a small sandy spot about 50 yards to the right. “Just look at the sandy beach,” he yelled above the ocean spray. “Where you look, the board will take you.” Then he pushed.

A huge swell of water came behind me, and I gripped the board, then pushed myself up. It is with overwhelming pride that I report that I stood up my very first time on a surfboard. Of course, my moment of pride was soon interrupted by a wall of rocks. I would have been smarter to hop off the board, but I was so impressed with my surfing abilities that I kept going, even though I was on a direct trajectory toward the rocks. I knew the instructor had said to look at the sand, but at that moment it seemed to me that the sand did not need to be looked at, the rocks did.

But my instructor also had said, “Where you look, the waves will take you,” and he was right. The wave pushed me fast and hard right at the boulders. I tumbled, my neck hit the rocks just under the water, and I tried to stand up just as my surfboard, trailing behind me on my wrist cord, hit me right in the chest. I was lucky: I could have broken a limb or been paralyzed, but all that was bruised was my pride. When the instructor saw me sheepishly paddling back out to him, he just shook his head and muttered, “Keep your eyes on the sand.” (In my defense, why in the world was a beginners’ class surfing in front of dangerous rocks?)

In my work with companies, I have seen this pattern over and over again: We spend our working lives trying to avoid the rocks, and as a result, we end up steering right into them. The more we focus on the outcomes we fear—losing the client, the merger falling through, not getting promoted, not getting into the school, and so on—the more our brains dwell on and process this information, and we end up on a trajectory aimed straight for our pessimistic assumption. And the more our reality conforms to our worst assumptions, the more time and energy our brains spend fearing the worst in future outcomes.

I saw this vicious cycle being lived out by a 60-year-old investment banker from a prestigious firm in New York. We shared a car after a talk at an investment conference in Phoenix. Ten minutes into the ride, he had told me his net worth and had stated that he still worked 80 hours a week. I think he thought I was a workaholic like him (since I told him I traveled all the time for my research and lectures) because he opened up and told me that when he was growing up, his family hadn’t had much money and that their lack of money had caused a lot of strife and eventually had resulted in his parents’ divorcing. His cash-strapped childhood had been so painful, he told me, that he had vowed to avoid repeating it at all costs when he became a father. That’s why he had gone into banking. Yet his fear became all consuming. He said he constantly felt very anxious about making money to spare his kids the difficult family life he’d experienced. But the more he worried about making money, the more he worked, and the more he worked, the less time he spent with his family. Pretty soon he went from missing piano recitals and baseball games to missing birthdays and other important life events. In the end, his wife couldn’t take it and filed for divorce. He’d kept his eyes on the rocks, and as a result he’d headed squarely toward them.

What we focus on becomes our reality, which is why it is so important for our brains to focus on real, meaningful, and positive goals. This is true in just about every realm of life you can think of. A top college basketball coach from California once told me that if a player is thinking, “Don’t miss this shot,” he is almost certainly doomed to miss that shot. Rather, the player should be focusing his brain on what making the shot looks like. Similarly, Jamie Taylor and David Shaw did an experiment where they had participants visualize either making or missing golf putts. Sure enough, those who had mentally envisioned and mentally experienced missing were more likely to miss than those who had visualized succeeding (their scores were significantly worse). No matter what your goal or challenge is, visualizing what success would look like will help steer you to the beach instead of the rocks.

Another technique to help you stay focused on your goals is to put visual cues in your environment to remind you of your meaning markers. One of the most misapplied ways of doing this is the “vision board.” “Vision boarding” is a strategy in which people dream their wildest fantasies, cut out magazine pictures of those fantasies, then put them on a corkboard in their bedroom or office. The problem with this technique is that these boards almost always reflect an unrealistic, commercially motivated vision of what people think their life “should” look like (remember, the definition of a most valuable reality is one that is positive and also true). Not only is this unproductive, but it can have a negative effect on our future. As researchers at New York University have found, putting unrealistic, fantastical goals onto a vision board actually makes us feel worse about ourselves because it makes us think we are missing out on life. Unrealistic fantasies are the siren calls that tempt our boats toward the rocks. But that does not mean vision boards are bad; they can be helpful if done correctly using: (1) realistic goals that are (2) based upon your real meaning markers and (3) possible in the near future. If done properly, the process of vision boarding can help us to determine what our real goals are (eating more healthily this year than last) versus the ones society wants us to have (like getting a six-pack).

It is quite amazing what a powerful effect the simple act of positive visualization can have on our reality. The Cleveland Clinic Foundation funded a study in which one group of healthy volunteers spent 15 minutes a day practicing “finger abductions,” which are basically like a biceps curl but with one finger. A second group of healthy volunteers was asked to practice visualizing doing finger abductions for that same time period, and the rest did nothing. After 12 weeks, the people who worked out their fingers every day showed, on average, a 53 percent increase in finger strength. The control group, unsurprisingly, showed no change. But the fascinating thing was that the people in group 2, who literally did not move a finger (except in their brains), showed a 35 percent increase in strength. Incredibly, mentally practicing an action increased physical strength.

Why did this happen? Because when you mentally practice something, whether it’s a thought or an action, and whether it’s positive or negative, your brain increases a cortical output signal for that thought or action—that is, it becomes more proficient at creating that result. Of course, visualization doesn’t take the place of action; if you just spent all day visualizing working out, you would not be nearly as strong as if you actually worked out. Visualization is not the means to your goals. It is the accelerant that gets you on the right trajectory toward those goals.

So don’t waste time staring at the sky or the rocks all day, but instead keep your eyes on your true goal, that sandy beach. Remember, positive genius is all about focusing more of your brain and its resources on success rather than on failure.

Whatever your personal or professional goals may be, keep your eyes on the target and create X-spots using the three accelerants (proximity, target size, and thrust), and your brain will corral the energy, drive, intelligences, and cognitive resources you need to succeed.

Excerpt from “Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change” by Shawn Achor (Random House, LLC, Septembe 2013). For more information, visit

The author of international bestseller “The Happiness Advantage” and recently published “Before Happiness,” Shawn Achor spent 12 years teaching at Harvard before traveling to 50 countries, bringing his positive psychology research to more than a third of Fortune 100. His research with collaborators at Yale University made the top social psychology journal in 2013; his work was featured on the cover of Harvard Business Review, and his TED talk has nearly 5 million views. Achor will be a keynoter at the Training 2014 Conference & Expo in San Diego in February 2014. For more information, visit visit and

Training Top 125

Applying for the Training Top 125 can showcase your training effectiveness and help L&D earn a seat at the executive decision-making table. Learn more...

Digital Issue

Click above for Training Magazine's
current digital issue

Training Live + Online Certificate Programs

Now You Can Have Live Online Access to Training magazine's Most Popular Certificate Programs! Click here for more information.

Emerging Training Leaders

Company Assets

People are an organization’s most valuable asset,” the saying goes.

Rising Stars

The 2016 Emerging Training Leaders are leading lights at their organizations, shining examples of how strategic-minded, results focused, and people-oriented Learning and Development (L&D) profe

ISA Directory