When it comes to the work, itself, many of us are in our element.

We’re satisfied by the mere act of producing the widget, slinging the widget, selling the widget, or servicing the customer who bought the widget.

Whatever angle we have on the widget is fine with us. When the world around us is confusing, at least our specialty, the widget, makes sense to us. And we desperately need things to make sense. That’s the view from the workstation, at least.

Zoom out a bit and you’ll gain a different perspective. Is your worker’s paradise looking troubled? Are there politics? Have the suits reorganized what was a fine workflow into a Rube Goldberg scheme? Maybe the TPS reports require a cover sheet now?

Context is everything. Depending on how our cheese got moved and, more importantly, our reaction to such events, our widget station can go from a great place to work to a grind. The trick is to keep our hand to the wheel and prevent performance from slipping while things shake out and settle. But how?

I’d like to remind you (me, too) about how we can manage ourselves through challenging times. I’ve seen many variations of this advice before, but I’m crediting Dr. Shad Helmstetter with this articulation because I’ve been reading his book, What To Say When You Talk To Yourself, and he’s got a nice expression of it in chapter eight. In it, he describes a sort of domino effect that begins in the mind.

This is Captain Obvious stuff, but it bears repeating because it explains effects that begin with thoughts that later manifest themselves in all areas of our lives, the job included.

Let’s take Helmstetter’s chain of causation in reverse order, starting with Behavior. What we do or don’t do determines our success or failure. We will be happy and productive. Or neither.

I like to think of productivity as a wheel. It works like this: “We must be happy in order to be productive. We must be productive in order to be happy.” And so the wheel turns. This is the perpetual motion principle of creation.

When happiness flags, so does productivity. When productivity falters, happiness follows suit. One feeds the other. We need both in operation or we’re in trouble because behavior and feelings form a symbiosis.

Helmstetter extrapolates all this, tracing everything back to its source, explaining that feelings are influenced by attitudes, which are governed by beliefs, and which ultimately trace to programming. It’s this all-important programming piece, the self-talk principle, that forms the gist of the book.

Self-Talk can make or break us.

Just as the parent who tells the child, “you’ll never amount to anything,” we can be our own worst source of messaging. We do the same thing in subtler ways. “I just can’t get the hang of this” or even, “I’m so tired today.” All of our thoughts are inputs, and they add up to programming. Like instructions that tell the computer how to operate, our thoughts program us.

When I find myself out of sorts, listless and restless, somewhere east of Eden, I go to work on my self-talk. But I begin with the self-interrogatory. How did I get here? What’s changed? I ask myself a lot of questions, trying to sort the wherefore and the why of my feelings.

And that’s a key principle. Never disregard your feelings as mere emotion, as if they don’t have a rational basis. There is a reason you feel the way you do. A progression of logic lies beneath, even if it’s flawed.

But dejection isn’t the normal state for optimistic persons like us, so we need to figure out why we’re feeling the way we do. There may be obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. We must be ruthless interrogators of ourselves if we are to get to the bottom of it all.

Remember Helmstetter’s chain: Programming, Beliefs, Attitudes, Feelings and Behavior. What if you’ve uncovered an ethical concern, a principle that can’t be massaged away like a knotted muscle? That’s an objective problem, isn’t it? It’s an issue you’ve made clearer for yourself, but also thornier.

What if your Beliefs prevent you from waving away the problem, winking at it as you whistle past the graveyard? I’m reminded of the lyric, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” Like a bur in the mind, ethical problems don’t resolve themselves. Emotional excavation may make things clearer, but not necessarily easier. They stick in the mind. They lodge in the conscience. They demand action.

Back to the pertinent question: How do we maintain our performance when there’s trouble in paradise? The answer is to build a protective cocoon of self-talk. We need to hear a voice that insulates us. (Isolation is impossible.) We must remind ourselves that we are doing work for which we are suited, that there is dignity in all work, that we do it well, and that satisfaction may be had in the artifacts we leave behind.

Those thoughts, by themselves, narrow our concerns to our own little cubicle. This may be enough to raise happiness and take the edge off things. And if we have a vision that we still believe in, a sense of purpose that provides a foothold, all the better. It helps to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. It shifts our focus from self to supporting others. Tis better to give than to receive — the recipe for satisfaction.

I’m reminded of the old story about the bricklayers. Two of the three had no vision for what they were doing. They were setting bricks or making a few bucks. But the third was animated by thoughts of the beautiful cathedral he was helping to create.

Feelings come and go, moods ebb and flow, which is why creative pros don’t rely on the fickle muse in the first place. They start right in with the workmanlike ethic of the craftsman. They don’t wait for inspiration. Nevertheless, the muse is likelier to show up where it finds hands that are already busy.

In short, the battle is in the arena of the mind where it always was, so let’s be circumspect in our self-talk. Let’s bar the door from low thoughts and shun our shadow selves (Jung). Let’s open windows and allow sunlight to stream in. Let us speak well. Of and to ourselves.

Remember the domino effect: Programming (Self-Talk) > Beliefs -> Attitudes -> Feelings -> Behavior.

“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”


Anthony Rotolo talks to himself.