Your subconscious mind doesn’t understand the word “don’t.”

A tightrope walker doesn't look down, he looks forward.
In life, as in tightrope walking, you always have to look to where you want to be. (Click to Tweet)

To illustrate, don’t think of a warm, piping hot pizza.

What did you just think of? There is a good chance your mind pictured the details right down to the bubbling cheese, oily pepperoni, and steam rising from the surface. (Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need a snack…and by snack I mean large artery-clogging feast)

Never Look Down

I recently read a story about a tightrope walker who was asked about the secret to his success. His reply applies to achieving any goal in life:

The secret is to keep your eyes fixed on where you are going. You never look down. Where your head goes, that’s where your body is going too. If you look down, there’s a good chance you will fall. So you always have to look to where you want to be. (emphasis mine) From Become a Better You by Joel Osteen

Looking down only identifies where the tightrope walker doesn’t want to be. Immediately thoughts such as “don’t fall” go through his mind. That usually leads to a whole range of visions that play out in his mind…and ultimately an ugly fall.

What Water? A Lesson from Golf

When I was 16, my dad bought me a book that forever changed the way I look at the mind. It eventually led me to being a psychology major (for two glorious semesters) in college.

The book was Golf is Not a Game of Perfect by Dr. Bob Rotella, a legendary sports psychologist. That book introduced me to the concept that the subconscious mind doesn’t process the word “don’t.”

The example he used in the book is the golfer who thinks, “don’t hit it in the water left.” The mind translates that immediately to an image of the ball traveling left, into the water. Taken to the extreme, some players (I was among them) would take the visual so far as to imagine the exact ball flight and resulting disappointment with the shot.

As I read the book, I imagined one particular hole at my home course, with water all down the left side. I picked a specific target in my mind without even playing the hole. I clearly saw the ball landing there. I rehearsed that shot repeatedly in my mind.

When I played that hole, I never saw the water. I never realized how narrow the fairway was until look at it on a satellite image recently.

Sure enough, though I played the hole more than 200 times after reading the book, I never hit it in the water. In fact, I hit it within 50 feet of my target close to 100% of the time.

Even at my skill level, statistically I should have hit 10-15 balls in the water on that hole. But not one ball ended up there.

All because of a clear, powerful, and positive vision of the result I wanted.

Have you let “don’t” cause you to do the very thing you wanted to avoid?

Two other posts related to this topic: Be a Furniture Mover – Visualize and Rehearse Success and Leaders, You Are What You See, Part One and Part Two

0 thoughts on “The Four-Letter Word That Buries You

  1. Lauren Phelps says:

    Thank you for the reminder, Matt. I’ve heard this concept in many forms and stories, however, I always seem to forget. We must have a vision and focus on the goal. Have a fabulous day!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Awesome Lauren.

      You have a great day too!

  2. Steve Pate says:

    Thanks Matt for posting. I find the though part for me, is when I do slip into the “don’t” zone, or ” I can’t” mode its tough for me to climb out of it.

    That’s why I love and hate golf! But in life, I just need to take some time to go back to the basics and relax and do something “I can” do to rebuild my confidence when approaching a project.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      It can be tough Steve once you go down that trail.

      I’ve found that you must train yourself to catch the word “don’t” and refocus. It takes a while but if you are really conscious of it for even a week, it will change you. It helps to get an accountability partner like a spouse to help you. Give her permission to correct you. A week or two of that will drive you crazy, but will change you man.

      1. Steve Pate says:

        can’t do it man….sorry couldn’t help it! Awesome advice and I’ll take you up on that starting today! I’ll let you know how it goes!

      2. Dan Erickson says:

        So rather than saying “don’t hit that tree” we should say “hit the tree” and then we won’t?

      3. Matt McWilliams says:

        No. Both of them conjure up the image of hitting the tree. The point is that the word “don’t” is removed by the mind.

        Don’t think of pizza.
        Think of pizza.

        They result in the same image.

    2. Mark Sieverkropp says:

      back to basics and relax! Great advice Steve!

  3. Mark Sieverkropp says:

    Wow, thats profound. The mind doesn’t process “don’t”. I could sit and think about that for sometime…and all the times that I’ve asked my mind to process “don’t” and the result.
    That alone was worth the price of my year subscription to this blog! thanks for the great content!

    1. I’m with you Mark. I don’t use that word that often. Ha

      1. Matt McWilliams says:

        Love it guys!

    2. Dan Erickson says:

      How do I don’t not renew my subscription.

  4. Kathy Leicester says:

    The Power of Don’t. Perfect book title, yes?

    Today is a dream-building, goal-setting day, and because of this blog I’m putting my goals in the form of the all-powerful “don’t.”

    Don’t start speaking.
    Don’t start that bog and write every day.
    Don’t move north to Seattle to be with family, ‘specially aging parents.
    Don’t believe the future is bright.

    This is the most fun ever. Though I’d have to say that maybe it isn’t that the mind won’t process “don’t,” but that it processes it upside down.

    1. Dan Erickson says:

      But Seattle is a great place to not move to, Kathy.

  5. Wade_Thorson says:

    I would say “don’t” and a negative attitude go hand in hand. I see it often when someone tells me they don’t think it will work that is what happens because they are looking at the negatives all the time. But as soon as you change that mindset you can see the potential opportunities and go around any roadblocks. You hit what you are focusing on everytime!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      “You hit what you are focusing on everytime!”

      Right on Wade. Rather you are saying “don’t” or not, you will hit it.

      1. Dan Erickson says:

        I’m confused. So I don’t not want my books to be bestsellers and then they’ll be bestsellers?

      2. Matt McWilliams says:

        Not sure it works like that. Wanting something and “don’t wanting” something are not the same.

        A lot depends on how your mind translates it.

        “Don’t hit it in the water” conjures up an image of hitting it in the water.

        “Don’t write a good book, promote it like crazy, and get really good at interviewing to back it up….” That’s different. Best sellers are dependent on quality of work, effort on promoting, and fortune/luck/timing/however you want to word that.

  6. Joshua Rivers says:

    So true, Matt! Thanks for the reminder and encouragement. Don’t write another great post!

  7. Tom Dixon says:

    There was an episode of Frasier (hope others remember that now “old” sitcom) where he was learning to ride a bike – but kept running into a tree because he was so focused on not hitting it. Anyway, this reminded me of that. Thinking in terms of what you want to do and visualizing what that looks like is powerful. Visualize achieving your goals every day, and if you aren’t careful you might just do it.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Now, that is funny. Who knew that show had an abject lesson in the power of proper visualization? 🙂

      1. Tom Dixon says:

        Ah…there are a ton of life lessons in Frasier…one of my favorites because it does have a “thinking” element.

      2. Dan Erickson says:

        It’s a fun show with a bit more intelligence than many.

  8. Dan Erickson says:

    I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it much, but now I will.

  9. Jon Stolpe says:

    This is somewhat true in running. When you come to the bottom of a big hill, it is not helpful to look down at the hill or to look to tilt your head too high to the top of the hill. It’s often best to look from side to side. This permits you to enjoy the scenery and to avoid being too discouraged by the seemingly huge mountain ahead of you. Also, on any of my longer runs, it’s much better to focus on the feeling of accomplishment that will happen when I reach the end. If I concentrate too much on how far I have to go, it can seem overwhelming.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      So true Jon. “Only 11 miles left” is NOT helpful. Even “Only 2 miles left” is not.

      Just enjoying it and picturing that finish line is what keeps me going. I try to replay that moment over and over as I run. The feeling of joy, accomplishment, even the exhaustion from a well run race…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.