November 30th, 2020

Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz

I came across Psycho-Cybernetics when Jack Butcher recommended it in an episode of Gumroad Creators Studio as one of the books that changed his life. I'm a big fan of Jack's work, so I didn't hesitate to add it to my ever-growing reading list. I was a bit surprised that I had never heard of this one, considering its long-time bestseller status.

The cover of Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz

The author Maxwell Maltz was a cosmetic surgeon by trade. He mixes ideas from "psychotherapy of the self" developed by Prescott Lecky and the field of cybernetics that emerged during the Second World War. The book's central idea is that the human mind, much like a self-guided missile, is a goal-striving mechanism that always seeks to reach its given target. As the operators of our mind, it is up to us to feed it with the right information, so that it becomes a "Success Mechanism" and leads us to a better life.

As I was reading it, some of the claims Maltz makes seemed questionable, if not borderline woo-woo. But I don't know enough about how our brains work to label them as such. There is a discussion on Quora that unpacks it in more detail. In any case, the book is full of valuable ideas and exercises that have certainly changed some of the ways I view my life and goals. If you're going to read one self-help book, Psycho-Cybernetics is a good choice.

The Self-Image

All humans are capable of achieving great outcomes in life but are often limited by their self-image. We form our beliefs about ourselves based on past experiences, successes and failures. They define what is possible in our minds. Positive thinking is not effective when it's applied as a band-aid to a negative self-image.

We all have goals, whether we deliberately define them or not. An inadequate self-image creates negative goals that our minds subconsciously work toward. If a shy person sees their shyness as an inseparable part of their identity, they're creating a subconscious goal to avoid many social interactions.

  • To improve your self-image, practice regularly recalling past successes, even small ones like being able to ride the bicycle for the first time.

The Success Mechanism

The mind has a built-in servo mechanism that reacts to what is happening around us. It corrects errors to keep moving toward its goals. A self-guided missile works in much the same way. Its response to positive feedback—being on the right path—is to do nothing. When it veers off course, it reacts to negative feedback and makes small corrections until it is moving in the right direction again.

We can say that failure is nothing but negative feedback — an opportunity to learn and make corrections. When the automatic mechanism has had enough chances to course-correct, doing the right thing becomes automatic:

  • A baseball player running to hit the ball at exactly the right time and place, with exactly the right force, at exactly the right angle.
  • Infants learning to use their muscles to make coordinated movements.
  • Someone learning to ride the bicycle.

Humans are engineered for success. When we very specifically define our goal (the what) and tell our minds that it is possible to achieve, the mind will figure out a way to get there (the how).

Imagination

Humans behave the same, regardless of whether they are actually experiencing something, imagining it, or "reliving" it (e.g. during hypnosis). Someone who has certain mental images of themselves will always act as if they were true.

Experiments have shown that role-play and imaginative practice have real effects on what a person can do in a real-life situation. People who practice throwing imaginary darts at a target actually improve their aim.

  • Use your imagination to prepare for high-stakes situations like job interviews, sales calls, public speeches.

Getting Rid of False Beliefs

Being convinced that an idea is true has an effect like hypnosis. Bad students don't often improve in school because they truly believe they are bad students.

Being inferior to someone at something doesn't make us an inferior person. There is no reason to strive to "measure up" to someone else's norm. The struggle to be like someone else only causes more frustration. No one is supposed to be like anyone else.

Using will-power to change our beliefs is not effective. False beliefs are formed without any strain or effort, and the same applies to cultivating new, positive beliefs.

  • Practice physical and mental relaxation to let go of negative beliefs.
  • Intentionally schedule some time to relax every day to help control your attitudes.

Rational Thinking

Rational and logical thought can be leveraged to influence subconscious mechanisms. The present and the future are only changed by cultivating new habits and ways of thinking. Dwelling on the past does not get us ahead.

Once we've learned all lessons from a past mistake, we must consciously forget it and not feel guilty about it. Obsessing over a past failure situation can make it a subconscious goal, and we keep on repeating the same mistakes.

If rational thinking is to be effective, it must be accompanied by a true desire for change.

  • Be enthusiastic and deeply invested in your goals. Picture them in great detail.
  • Do what you do when you worry, but "worry" about success instead of failure.
  • Concentrate on what you want to happen, not what you don't want. The success mechanism will make it happen.

Relaxation

Creative ideas come to us when we're relaxed. If we're making a conscious effort and try to be creative at all costs, it simply won't work. People arrive at ideas or solutions to problems during activities that aren't cognitively demanding, such as taking a shower.

If you want to solve a problem, you should still be truly interested in it and study its every detail. Once you've done it, it no longer serves you to obsess about the problem. Solutions are more likely to occur to you when you're doing something else.

Some people have good ideas or breakthroughs in their sleep. It's useful to keep a notepad and a pen on the nightstand.

Five rules for freeing your creative mechanism:

  • Do your worrying before you place your bet, not after the wheel starts turning.
  • Form the habit of consciously responding to the present moment.
  • Try to do only one thing at a time.
  • Sleep on it.
  • Relax while you work.

The Habit of Success

Happiness is built into every human mind. We think and feel better when we are happy. Happiness is a way of thinking about life.

  • To be happy, enjoy life now and don't wait for some arbitrary future outcome. Don't live life on a deferred payment plan.
  • Letting external factors upset you makes you a slave.
  • Recalling pleasant memories from the past helps in feeling happy in the present. Dwelling on failures and worrying about the future do the opposite.

The Ingredients of the "Success-Type" Personality

SUCCESS stands for:

  • Sense of direction
  • Understanding
  • Courage
  • Compassion
  • Esteem
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-acceptance

Sense of Direction

Like bicycles, humans maintain their balance as long as they are moving in some direction. Always have a goal worth working for. If the word goal seems too ambitious, think of a project to work on.

Understanding

Always seek true information about yourself, others and life's problems. It doesn't matter who's right, but what's right. Understand your mistakes.

Courage

Successful people have the courage to take calculated risks and make bets on their ideas. Everyday life requires courage, too. Any decision we make may be the wrong one, but we still need to act on it. Be willing to suffer short-term pain for long-term gain.

Compassion

Our feelings about ourselves often correspond to our feelings about others. If we feel that other people are worthy, we think of ourselves as worthy. Appreciate people and take the time to stop and think of their feelings. Treat them like they're important because they are.

Esteem

Self-doubt and low self-esteem are the causes of jealousy and hostility. Appreciate your own worth and build up and adequate self-image. Respect and appreciate other people, and your self-esteem will go up as well.

Self-Confidence

Start small and build up a portfolio of tiny successes to boost your confidence. Always remember and reflect on your past successes and happy moments, no matter how big or small. Learn from failures and then forget them.

Self-Acceptance

Those who try hard to be like somebody don't find purpose and meaning in life. Be yourself and learn to embrace your unique mix of qualities and flaws. Acknowledge your imperfections but don't despise them.

Making the Failure Mechanism Work for You

FAILURE stands for:

  • Frustration
  • Aggressiveness
  • Insecurity
  • Loneliness
  • Uncertainty
  • Resentment
  • Emptiness

We can cure failure symptoms if we understand their cause and acknowledge that they don't serve us.

Glance at negatives, but focus on positives. On the way to reach a goal, you will inevitably come across mistakes and negative feelings. Acknowledge them for what they are and take corrective action. Never lose sight of the positive target.

Frustration

Everyone must experience some frustration as part of their life. Chronic frustration is a result of setting unrealistic goals and/or an inadequate self-image.

Relax and don't aim for perfection—instead, seek to get to the next level and then recalibrate.

Aggressiveness

Aggressiveness in and of itself is not a bad thing. It serves us well when directed at achieving a goal, but wreaks havoc when misdirected.

Understand the causes of aggression and find appropriate ways to express it. One great way to blow off steam is physical exercise. If you're angry at a person, write them a letter—get all your thoughts out on paper, then destroy it.

Insecurity

Insecurity is a belief of not measuring up to some required standard. It's often caused by using the wrong "measuring stick".

Loneliness

Loneliness in moderation is natural as we're all individuals. Chronic loneliness and reclusiveness lead to failure. Always strive to create new relationships with others and keep up old ones, even if you don't feel like it. Humans are social creatures, and socialisation is fundamental for success.

Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a way to avoid making decisions and taking action in fear of being wrong. Sometimes it causes us to make decisions without much thought and blame the consequences on someone else.

We come back to failures and mistakes being a necessary component on the path to success. We must take ownership of our mistakes, learn from them, and not be afraid of making them.

Resentment

Resentment is a way of making your own failure seem acceptable by saying that someone else done you wrong. Even if that's true, it doesn't make things better because resentment can easily become a habit. If you allow yourself to feel resentment, you are letting other people dictate how you feel.

Emptiness

The feeling of emptiness is a symptom of living for the wrong goals that don't provide fulfilment. There's little joy in being successful at something you don't truly care about, something you are doing to please someone else.

Emotional Face-Lifts

Like a physical scar, excessive "emotional scar tissue" makes us more vulnerable, to the point where we may cut ourselves off from other people.

Studies have shown that humans can't have negative feelings when their physical body is completely relaxed. Similarly, when a physical wound heals, much less scar tissue forms when the skin is not under tension.

  • Learn to not react to negative comments to remain unhurt emotionally.
  • Forgive by completely forgetting, so you don't reinfect old wounds.
  • Be careful not to develop a totally hard shell instead of a sufficiently thick skin. Be willing to be a little bit vulnerable to enjoy a creative life.

Unlocking the Real Personality

Our real personalities can be "locked up" if we get too much negative feedback or are too sensitive to it. It helps to remind ourselves what negative feedback means—that what we are doing, is wrong, not that it's wrong to do anything at all.

If we want to make a good impression on someone, we must never consciously try to do it. Wondering what the other person thinks of us is a recipe for anxiety and excessive carefulness.

  • When feeling uncomfortable around certain people, try to imagine having dinner or drinks with close friends.
  • Consciously practise being less careful and concerned. Try to speak before you think sometimes.

DIY Peace of Mind

We're used to immediately responding to different stimuli. Whenever a phone rings, we tend to react right away, but we don't have to. We can let it ring and not answer at all, or answer after a few rings.

We can practise "not answering the phone" in other areas of life. If we feel uncomfortable around strangers, we can always delay leaving the scene by some amount of time. Eventually, it can eliminate our conditioned response to react in the first place.

  • Build a mental "quiet room" to periodically retreat to when feeling tension. Try to imagine in great detail a location where you are completely relaxed and undisturbed. Close your eyes for a few minutes to go there and relax.
  • Try to live emotionally in the present moment and use these techniques as an emotional thermostat.

From Crisis to Opportunity

Crises are make-or-break type events. If we react properly, they can provide powers and wisdom that we don't normally have.

One can practice for crisis situations in advance by doing "shadowboxing". Learning the correct moves without inhibiting factors helps form a mental map of the situation. The mind can use that map when it's time for the actual performance.

  • Line up empty chairs to practice speaking in front of many people.
  • Be ready to "fail" in advance. Treat a sales call as practice and don't have expectations to make the sale.
  • Fear and nervousness are nothing but excitement directed at the wrong goal. Direct your excitement toward doing better in a high-stakes situation.
  • Be clear about what failure really means. What's the absolute worst that can happen?

That Winning Feeling

One must be able to clearly see a goal as a possibility in the present so that it becomes real to the brain. Likewise, if we think about and visualise failure, it becomes as good as real, and we experience the feelings that go along with it.

  • Always capture what success feels like and recall it later.
  • Even if you're highly skilled in an area, you can sometimes get stuck. It helps to take a step back and "play" at an easier level for a while to reinforce the feeling of success. There's a parallel to weight training here—when athletes plateau, they reduce the weights and/or change up their routine to include somewhat different exercises.
  • The more often you recall stories with happy and successful endings, the more conditioned your brain becomes to operating in success mode.

More Years of Life, More Life in Your Years

There's a relationship between our mindsets and how our physical bodies react to stress and time. It's been observed that those who are happy and positive tend to recover more quickly from major medical procedures. They often also outlive others.

If we expect to become "old" at some arbitrary age, we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and giving our Creative Mechanism a negative goal to strive for. We start reducing physical activity and mental stimulation, creating a downward spiral.

The more positive goals someone has, the more "life fuel" they need and the further they will go. Optimism, faith, courage and a forward-looking mentality are vital ingredients for life energy. Everyone's true goal is to "live more". As you experience more life, you will be happier, accomplish more, love more, be more loved.

© Siim Männart 2021