A lot of massively successful business people, Oprah included, attribute their success to something called the law of attraction. According to the law, your mind determines your reality—if you radiate positive energy, you’ll see fantastic results. If you focus on what you fear, those fears will come true. This mind power concept appeals to many entrepreneurs, but there’s a dark side to it, one that Carla, a business coach, fell into.
The end of negativity
A few years ago, Carla, a marketing executive friend of mine, told me she had quit her job to found a life coaching business. With great enthusiasm she described the future of her career, which included a book, speaking engagements across the country, and yearly retreats with hundreds attending. She was absolutely certain it would all come true. In fact, she could feel it like it was already happening. She told me she’d stopped letting doubts and negativity into her mind. This new approach to life was inspired by The Secret, which a friend had introduced her to. The Secret is a book, as well as a film, that had recently re-popularized the concept of the law of attraction—an ancient concept that has seen many incarnations over the last hundred years or so, probably most notably Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.
An ancient law
The appeal of the law of attraction for an entrepreneur like Carla makes total sense. Building a business means creating something that doesn’t exist yet. And we’re not talking about creating something simple like a sandcastle. To build any successful business, you have to create a colossal amount from scratch. You need great ideas, services to sell, marketing materials, clients willing to pay you. There are so many questions. Will your clients like what you do? Will they refer you? Will a competitor try to steal your clients? You don’t have the answers to those or the hundreds of other questions that swirl in your head.
A storm of unanswered questions
To venture into a storm of unanswered questions takes a ton of courage. Not everyone is willing to do it, especially when the stakes are so high. So, when you’re heading into the vast unknown, it can be comforting to believe that you can actually know ahead of time that the answers will be the ones you want…so long as you truly believe in those answers, and never waver from your positive, affirmative thoughts. In this model of the world, you’re in charge. You’re in total control. All you have to do is exert mastery over your mind. That’s possible, isn’t it?
The sound of crickets
Carla and I stayed in touch occasionally as she tried to build her business. I saw her go through what almost every single entrepreneur experiences—things taking longer, people letting you down, something big going wrong, the sound of crickets when you’re expecting the phone to ring off the hook. And through all this, Carla would continue to bubble forth with positivity. But something had been going wrong. The things she envisioned, that she saw so clearly, weren’t coming true. And at some point, the dark side of the law began to rear its ugly head.
The law’s ugly head
Carla and I got together around this time. She looked exhausted but was still trying to put on a brave face. Reluctantly and with obvious guilt Carla began to tell me the various challenges she was facing. Her biggest client had run into financial trouble and had to cancel her business. She was having trouble finding new clients. Her book kept getting rejected by publishers and agents. She’d only managed to secure a couple of small speaking gigs. She’d had to tap into her life savings to keep going and she didn’t know how much longer she could last.
That’s when the dark side sprang forth… Carla looked at me and said, full of shame, that she had brought all the troubles upon herself. She had attracted it all.
All your fault
I advised Carla not to go down the self-recrimination road. But she couldn’t help herself—the law had led her there. If you believe that you create your reality through your thoughts, then if you’re not happy with your reality, you’ve got nobody but yourself to blame. If you want the good side of the law, you end up taking the dark side too.
I continued to try to steer Carla away from the downward spiral, but ran up against a terrible foe—the fact that Carla hadn’t been able to completely get rid of negative thoughts. They would just creep up on her. For example, several times she had found herself worrying that her biggest client would go under. She’d beat herself up for that negativity, reminding herself that expressing a fear attracted it into her life. And when that client did cancel their business, Carla knew she’d brought it upon herself—and upon her client. A guilt that haunted her.
The slippery slope
The slippery slope Carla was plunging down was something I’d seen many times with proponents of the law of attraction. It’s a problem that’s virtually inevitable, because negative thoughts are part of being human. Everyone gets them, no matter how much mastery over your mind you have.
An unfortunate paradox of the law of attraction is that it almost always gives negative thoughts more power than they otherwise would have. When you’re terrified that any little doubt you experience is drawing doom toward you, you can’t help but fear that negative thought, and then you fear your fear…and so on and so on into the kind of dark place Carla found herself.
Carla eventually asked me a question she hadn’t yet—whether I believed in the law or not. I told her I believed that thoughts are more powerful than is commonly accepted, then added that what I knew for certain was that—for many people—the law of attraction leads to dark places, as it had for her.
Not good for business
One major problem with that dark place is that you’re in a state of overwhelming emotions, which makes it hard to deal with all the questions you face running your business. Should you give up on that prospect? Take on a partner? Dig into your savings? Develop a new service? Fold the business and try something else? Massive decisions like this weigh on you every day, and if you’re beating yourself up, you tend not to make the best choices.
“But whether or not you feel bad about thinking them,” Carla said, “don’t the negative thoughts themselves make it hard to make the right choice too?”
“Negativity actually has a good side,” I said, before giving her the following example about the time I woke up in the middle of the night panicking that something was going to go wrong with a conference the small company I ran at the time was organizing. Instead of trying to bury the negative thought as some kind of guarantee that something bad would happen at the conference, I used the worry to spring into action. I got out of bed and, fuelled by dread, scoured the project plan for the conference. In the end I discovered that the conference materials were being shipped to the wrong address, and set about fixing it.
A brilliant insight
Carla considered my story for a moment before adding the brilliant insight that perhaps my desire to have the conference succeed attracted the negative thoughts that inspired the necessary fix. Seeing things in this way made her realize she could have reacted differently to the fear that her biggest client would go under. Instead of getting wrapped up in more negativity she could have focused on preparing her business to absorb the loss. The insight that she could use her negative thoughts to motivate positive action was a new beginning for Carla.
Over the next couple of years, she began to make great strides in her coaching business, winning some great clients and speaking engagements. She still wasn’t quite where she wanted to be, but she didn’t let herself get dragged down into guilt and self-recrimination. Because of that, she felt more positive than ever and attributed the success she was experiencing to staying clear headed and trying to be as rational as possible for every decision she made. I should add that she still believed she could attract success, she just decided to take the good half of the law, and drop the bad half.
The big takeaway: The law of attraction is a wonderful thing if it helps you continuously throw positive energy into building your business. But if it makes you fear your negative thoughts so much that you get swamped with guilt, then it’s bringing greater negativity into your life—the opposite of what you’re hoping for. If you like the good side of the law, by all means, keep it—just avoid the dark side like Carla learned to do.
If you want to share your own experiences with the law of attraction, please let us know in the comments section below, or shoot me an email at donald (@) freshbooks (dot) com.
Author’s note: this post is based on a business owner I have coached. I’ve changed her name and some telling details.
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