Here’s a simple mental framework that I find to be incredibly useful:
Offensive vs. Defensive Thinking.
In general, “Offensive Thinking” is thinking about what you want, or things you like, and how to move toward that.
“Defensive Thinking” is considering what you don’t want want, and planning ways to avoid it.
For example, taking some time to go on a vacation, think about what you really want, and set some goals – that’s offensive thinking. Pursuing a passion, trying out learning a new skill, making a commitment to seeing friends you love – all offensive thinking. It’s pleasure-seeking, positive, and not fearful.
If you are thinking about a problem that might occur and trying to keep it from happening, that’s defensive thinking. A reasonable example might be considering how a boss or supervisor might react to an email you’re about to send, and taking some time to craft your phrasing to avoid possible problems. Defensive thinking is pain-avoiding. It’s often fearful.
I propose both types of thinking can be useful, at certain times.
Sometimes, it makes sense to think about what you want, and to go after your passions, and to take time away from worries to actually do what you love.
Sometimes, it makes sense to think and take steps to protect yourself from a negative outcome you wish to avoid.
However, much like with problem anticipation, we all tend to get stuck in “Defensive Thinking Mode” almost all the time.
I think if you take some time to consider it, you’ll agree:
We are CONSTANTLY thinking DEFENSIVELY.
Here’s the thing:
A little defensive thinking goes a long way. We don’t really need much of it.
And there are fundamental limits to what you can achieve via defensive thinking.
Defensive thinking – even at its very best – can still only help you try to minimize a potential downside to something. It won’t really help you grow, and it won’t really help you achieve anything you want.
Defensive thinking, alone, never produces insane success or deep happiness. All it can lead to is: “well at least that didn’t happen quite as badly as it could’ve.”
Further, defensive thinking begets more, fearful, defensive thinking. If you’re wondering about things that could go wrong and how to stop them, your brain will start to come up with more things that could go wrong – and how to stop them. It’s easy to fall in a defensive thinking trap where you’re just scrambling to protect the status quo, and not actually growing. You’re afraid, protective, and playing defense.
So, I believe it’s important to time constrain defensive thinking. It’s important to be aware and notice when you’re in this mode and ask yourself:
“Is it really that important to be thinking these thoughts right now?”
You may be surprised to find that you can significantly cut down on your own “defensive thinking” with ZERO downside.
So what, do I propose, should you focus on?
In its simplest, and broadest form, offensive thinking is really any type of thought that seems to move toward what you want. It feels good.
(While the most obvious example of offensive thinking is daydreaming about things you desire, setting goals, and going after them, I think the definition can be even broader than that.)
I propose: anytime you “set down” your current thinking patterns – taking a break from all the defensive thoughts you’ve been ruminating on – you’re actually thinking offensively.
Anytime you get away from your normal routine – whether it’s a new environment, or a road trip, or a vacation, or a flight – you’re thinking offensively. You’re opening yourself up to new possibilities. Even mentally “setting down” your current goals – to see if you’re actually going after what you truly want – is a form of offensive thinking.
Anytime you ask yourself what you really desire, anytime you listen to your gut – your emotions – and do what feels right and feels good – ANYTIME YOU’RE DOING ANYTHING THAT RESONATES WITH THE WORD “PASSION” – you’re thinking offensively.
So do whatever you have to do to get the hell out of “defensive thinking mode.”
Even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Stop thinking about what might go wrong, and how to protect yourself. Stop thinking about all the downsides, problems, risks. Just for a few minutes.
And instead, focus on what you love. Focus on what excites you. Think about what sounds enjoyable, and make that happen. Go towards pleasure, rather than just away from pain.
(What you’ll find is, not only does your life become more enjoyable when you do this, but you’ll realize that often, offense really is the best defense.)
(Sometimes, the best way to protect yourself from all those anticipated downsides, instead of worrying about them, is in fact to simply go after what you ACTUALLY want.)
Focus on what resonates with you, and feels good. Focus on that.
To paraphrase the words of Tim Ferris –
Whatever you think failure is, whatever you’re afraid of – that’s not failure.
True failure is the boredom from not even trying anything that actually excites you.
And true success is the excitement that comes from going after what you love.
So ask yourself – “what excites me?”
That’s offensive thinking.