The power of positive thinking in business

“Cause I gotta have faith. I gotta faith. Because I gotta to have faith faith. I gotta to have faith, faith, faith…” so sang the wondrously talented George Michael in the hit tune Faith.

But this year I have really struggled with mine. And I don’t mean religious faith either.

Recently one of my clients challenged me on an aspect of the book I’m writing. I said the book is ultimately about one all-important ingredient for life…hope.

I said, “even the Star Wars trilogy starts with “A New Hope.” Why can’t I?”

“Who’s the book for Deon?” said Martin.

“Leaders. Business leaders. People who lead others.”

“Business isn’t about hope Deon. You can’t write a book about hope, and hope (oh the irony) that business folk will buy it. Business is about calculated risk. It’s about strategy etc.”

“Yeah, I know it is.”

I have always been a bit of a slow starter…

I remember it was the mid-1980’s. It was a blistering hot day. It was swimming Nationals’ Qualification Day. I think I must have been about 16 years old – quite some time ago. I’m on the starting block. Cap on. Knees wobbling.

Imagine this 16-year-old ginger kid with knobbly wobbly knees and skinny legs, poised on the edge. Always on the edge. On the cusp of something. Moments before greatness. Within grabbing distance. I’m on the edge of the pool. Oblivious that this race would be a metaphor for the rest of my 30 years – and everything to do with faith – hope.

“On your marks!” I’m focused. The sun beating down on me. Sweat is pouring off me. I’m on the edge of heaven. That crisp cool water glistening in the midday heat. Africa is hot in the summer. I’m determined. One single-minded intention. My purpose is clear.

No looking left and right. No movement at all. Fully present. Silence. I can hear my heart beating. Its surprisingly slow and gentle. I know what I must do. I know what others expect of me. I’m not sure I want it. I think I do? I do believe.

The silence is deathly…

There is no noise inside my head – nothing cluttering my mind. I can see the other edge of the pool or is it a mirage? Hmm the edge. 100 metres butterfly, that’s all. Easy.

I have spent years getting ready for this. I’m on the cusp of winning. I know I am. Coach believes in me. Mother does. I know dad does too, deep down in his own way. Will I do it? Am I fast enough? Mr Doubt.

I have always possessed a steely determination to keep going. Never giving up. Mrs Belief.

Then, a huge crack of the starting gun…

I hurtle off my block into the crisp cool water. No more sweat. Before I know it I’m up on top of the water skimming along like a motorboat.

I can feel I’m synchronised – my arms and legs perfectly. All there is, is water, breathe and movement. My heart beating like a Mauri bongo drum. Thump, thump, thump. I am ahead, leading the pack. No wake to worry about, I’m in the middle lane. I had the fastest time in the qualifying heats.

Two strokes with my head down. That’s keeping me streamlined. I know this. keep the legs going. Beautiful rhythm, as I glide through the water like a stingray. I look to the right.


My arms begin to ache. Heavy. Someone’s pushing them down. They don’t appear to rise above the water. I can’t get them up and over. Rhythm? I’ve lost it. What’s happening? Why did I look left? Why didn’t I stay focused? Always getting distracted. Loosing faith. In that moment I stopped believing. I’ve lost traction. I give up!

Where there is no hope, Mr Doubt creeps in. I lose my purpose. Why am I here?

I look right again. There’s no-one to my left. I can sense it. Jack, I see him. He’s now half a body length ahead of me. I pull harder and faster. The pain in my arms is so intense. They’re numb, yet nail-penetratingly painful. The vice-like grip on my chest from the water takes my breath away.

I pull up alongside Jack. We are neck-and-neck. If I just reach I can do this. Reach. Pull a little harder. You know why you are here. Your purpose is clear. Fingertips inching towards the edge of the pool in split-second time. My fingertips caress the side of the pool. You’d have thought I would slam into the pool edge with me hands.

I come up from the water and look around, Jack is right there. I look up at the timekeeper for my lane – it is the early 1980s no digital pad embedded into the poolside…

“Excellent time Deon, well done.”

I nod. All I want to know is did I beat him….Jack beat me by 1/100th of a second.

Scientific evidence of faith…

I lost faith. A split second of doubt. I gave up on hope.

We all know scientific studies have recognised the power of positive expectations in business in life, in the treatment of people who are suffering from various illnesses. The so-called “placebo” effect is very powerful. The placebo is probably the oldest and simplest form of “faith healing” there is.

There is actually scientific evidence that the human brain manufactures chemicals in response to positive expectations. In studies people who reported a reduction in pain in response to a placebo were actually producing greater amounts of endorphin, and producing feelings of euphoria. I had this high in the race. Then lost it.

Why has modern medicine been so slow and reluctant to acknowledge the power of positive expectations and spirituality in improving human health? 

I think it’s because modern science has been based on certain metaphysical assumptions about nature which have been very valuable in advancing knowledge historically, but are ultimately limited and flawed.

The problem with these metaphysical assumptions, however, is that they draw too sharp a separation between the human mind and what exists outside the mind. The human mind is part of reality, embedded in reality.

Roger Federer said after winning this year’s Wimbledon crown, “I never stopped believing.”

Scientists rely on concepts created by the human mind to understand reality, and multiple, contradictory concepts and theories may be needed to understand reality. And the human mind can modify reality – we can have hope – it is not just a passive spectator. I modified my reality in a split second.

The mind affects the body directly because it is directly connected to the body. But the mind can also affect reality by directing the limbs to perform certain tasks — construct a house, create a computer, or build a spaceship. Or win a race. Hit the perfect backhand. “A sports high.”

So if the human mind can shape the reality of the body through positive expectations, faith, can positive expectations bring additional benefits, beyond health?

Performance in sports is often influenced by athletes’ expectations of self. People who are optimistic and visualise their ideal goals are more likely to actually attain their goals than people who don’t. I visualised winning – the goal of qualification. But in a single moment of doubt, I lost that vision.

I lost faith and my belief in self. For me, I had lost hope.

It wasn’t the preparation, the strategy, the resources, the networking of relationships. It wasn’t the input of my team or mine.

Now, I am not about to tell you that hope is good in all circumstances and that you should always have faith.

So what is the proper scope for faith? When should it be used and when should it not be used?

Here are my three rules:

First, faith (or hope, belief etc) must be restricted to the zone of uncertainty that always exists when evaluating facts. We can have hope in things that are unknown or not fully known, but we should not have faith in things that are contrary to facts that have been well-established. Spending more money, than you are bringing in will end in failure.

Second, the benefits of hope shouldn’t be used as evidence for belief in certain facts.

Finally, hope should not run unnecessary risks. Hope is a supplement to reason, research, and science, to robust business planning not an alternative and having a clearly defined purpose. Science, including medical science, works. If you get sick, you should go to a doctor first, then rely on hope or positive expectation.

Where there is no hope, doubt creeps in. Purposeful living and leading needs hope, it breeds self-belief.

Join the Truth.Works Facebook group ‘Purpose to Impact’ to learn more.