How the power of negative thinking can supercharge your career and life


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There’s this notion in the self-help world that positive thinking is key to success in pretty much any endeavor—whether you’re seeking to score a date for the weekend, get a job, overcome a bad habit, or whatever else. As the narrative goes, if you visualize the outcome of every situation with optimism, you’re likely to get farther than if you spend precious mental energy obsessing over the worst-case scenario. And then there’s that woo-woo philosophy of “like attracts like”—the idea that negative thinking will actually make negative experiences happen. Um, yikes?

If you don’t naturally dwell on the bright side, hearing these ideas over and over again can be a bummer. Like, are you doomed to mediocrity if your future visions aren’t always filled with stardust and rainbows? Stress not, pessimists: Laura Xiao, CEO and cofounder of luxury lip-care brand Henné Organics, is here to tell you that’s definitely not the case. Mindful negative thinking has actually brought her some powerful results. After all, her natural beauty line is now on shelves at Anthropologie, The Detox Market, and Credo stores from coast to coast.

Xiao first started working with negative thinking during her previous life as a professional table tennis player. “I’d visualize winning and the different ways I could win,” she says. “However what I believe was equally important was how I’d also visualize certain roadblocks that may occur: being down in points in a game, getting injured, getting sick, if the opponent cheats, or if the umpire makes an unfair call.”

“[Through negative visualization], I pretty much always realize that there is a feasible solution to each conflict and that, ultimately, I will be okay.”—Laura Xiao, CEO and cofounder of Henné Organics

Picturing the not-so-great possibilities actually made her feel more confident going into matches. “When pretty much all of these things did happen, sometimes several in one day, I wasn’t blindsided and felt more prepared to tackle them,” she recalls. (Note: Envisioning potential negative outcomes from a purely objective place is different than negative self-talk—AKA beating yourself up for a mistake, or telling yourself you’re not enough, which will not benefit you.)

Xiao took this mind-set with her when she launched Henné Organics, with zero experience or contacts in the beauty industry. “I envisioned growing Henné into a wildly successful business, but I also visualized the adversity I would face: Rejections, packaging and sourcing complications, business relationships that would go sour, money problems,” she says. “This combination led to me taking more calculated risks and also helped me cope better when some of these issues arose.”

Science actually backs up Xiao’s theory that negative thinking can lead to positive things, at least from a business perspective. A recent study found that entrepreneurs with above-average optimism were 30 percent less profitable than those with below-average optimism, since the pessimists were better able to see flaws in their businesses and pivot accordingly. So it stands to reason that she’s onto something by also applying this measured pessimism to her relationships. For instance, talking about potential difficulties helped her successfully navigate a long-distance relationship with her now-husband; and thinking about someday losing her older family members inspires her to spend more quality time with them. When used mindfully, negative thinking holds the power to help you stay accountable in so many arenas of life.

Still, Xiao suggests striking a certain balance between hoping for the best and expecting the worst—and if negative thinking makes you feel noticeably anxious, sad, or burned out, dial it back. “I try to focus on the positive around 95 percent of the time. The other 5 percent, I don’t necessarily focus on the negative, but I contemplate what potential conflicts could happen and how I can overcome them,” she says. “I pretty much always realize that there is a feasible solution to each conflict and that, ultimately, I will be okay.” And just like that, after acknowledging the empty space in the glass, it’s possible see it as half-full again.

If you have a hard time ever thinking positively, you might just need to train your brain—here’s how. It’s worth doing so, since optimism’s proven to be good for your heart

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