September 2012

Last week, I wrote about what I believe is the key to effective problem-solving. In fact, I called it solving the problem before the problem. That key is attitude. I believe that a positive attitude in the face of a problem affects how you approach it, which can set you up for a positive solution.

Today, to continue the conversation, I want to discuss another area where attitude makes a huge difference: communication.

As a communicator, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to say to help people. I prepare as much as possible to make sure my words add value to others. And yet, I am deeply aware that no matter how much I craft the words of a talk, there is one persistent message that everyone who comes in contact with me will receive. It’s the first – and most powerful – message I deliver.

What is that message?

You guessed it: My attitude.

More Than Words

Now, let me say that attitude certainly can be communicated through words. Everyone can choose to use words that lift up, encourage, and express a positive vision. And those words make a big difference in how the rest of the conversation or message is received. But it’s very important to remember that before we can ever say a word, our internal attitude is communicating something. And the message it sends is louder than any words we might choose.

And how does it communicate, if not through words? Through body language and facial expressions. If you walk into the office and slam the door, you’re communicating your attitude. The moment you walk into the house and slump on the couch, you’re communicating your attitude. And if you step up to a podium and with a scowl on your face, you’re communicating your attitude.

And in each situation, people are receiving your message loud and clear.

It Always Starts on the Inside

Now, this post is not about just making changes to how you carry yourself, or about pasting on a smile in order to appear happy. Those are superficial changes, and even if they fool others for a short while, your real attitude always eventually shows through.

The message I want to emphasize is the one that I shared last week: Attitude is a choice. Choosing a positive attitude is not always easy. And sometimes we’re tempted to just let a negative attitude flow. But when we do, it will show on the outside. And it will have an effect on our interaction with others.

An advisor to President Lincoln once suggested a certain candidate for the Lincoln cabinet. Lincoln rejected the recommendation, saying, “I don’t like the man’s face.”

“But sir,” said the advisor, “surely he can’t be responsible for his face.”

“Every man over forty is responsible for his face,” Lincoln replied.

The same is true for all of us, and it really applies at any age. I’m responsible for my face. And you’re responsible for yours. You choose your message when you choose your attitude. Choose a positive one, and your interactions are more likely to be positive. Your most persistent message is the one you choose to have in your heart and wear on your face.

Make it a good one.

Do you know the number-one mistake most people make when encountering a problem?

They don’t solve the problem before the problem.

Now, you may be asking yourself, What’s John talking about? How can there be a problem before my problem? My friend, I assure you that there is, and I’m going to tell you what it is and how to solve it.

The problem you must solve before your problem is one of attitude. Whenever you encounter a challenging situation, you have a choice: What attitude will you have about it?

You see, most of us naturally see a problem as something negative: An obstacle, a pain in the neck, or even a disaster. I mean, let’s be honest – most people don’t look at a problem and say, “Oh boy!” Most of us look at a problem and say, “Oh no!”

And that’s the problem.

Your Problem Is Not Your Problem

A negative attitude toward a problem only makes it worse. That’s because negative thinking is an amplifier: It takes small issues and increases their emotional weight. It can “make a mountain out of a molehill,” so to speak. And when small problems get amplified, we can tend to become overwhelmed or even paralyzed. We don’t know what to do, where to turn, whom to call on. This can create a downward spiral, in which our attitudes and our problems both get worse and worse.

The only way to break that cycle is to choose a positive attitude at the onset of the problem.

Choosing to see a problem in a positive light – as a possibility or even as an opportunity – helps you in several important ways:

A Positive Attitude Tempers Your Emotional Response

Emotions have tremendous power. But casting a problem in a positive light at its outset can weaken a negative emotional response. By not seeing a problem as a disaster, you are more likely to stay calm. Instead of watching your fears run away with you, you can master your fears. The ability to keep a calm head in the face of a problem is the first step toward a good solution.

A Positive Attitude Fosters Creativity

How you define a problem makes a huge difference in your ability to solve it. That’s because seeing a problem as an opportunity does more than calm your emotions; it opens your eyes to options. And clarity about your options results in greater creativity. After all, when we see a problem as just another fork in the road, we can see more clearly all of the possible routes that might lead to a solution. Creativity makes you a better problem-solver, and a positive attitude increases creativity.

A Positive Attitude Empowers You to Take Action

Think of a positive attitude as a momentum-builder. Positivity about the problem combats paralysis and gets you moving past fear. Creatively exploring options keeps you energized and making progress. And with all of that forward momentum, the only thing left is to begin trying out solutions. By removing obstacles like fear or tunnel vision, a positive attitude clears the way for you to make decisions and act to solve the problem.


A member of my team recently shared a story of how his daughter solved the problem before her problem. One afternoon, the young girl left her lunch box at school. So her parents told her that the next day she would have to eat the school food for lunch. The next morning, all the way to the bus stop, the little girl complained about how terrible the school food was, and how she was going to starve, and how unfair it all was.

Finally, her father said, “You’re making this worse than it is. All of the school’s food can’t be horrible – you need to change your attitude and look for something you like, or else lunch will be a disaster.”

The girl glumly nodded her head and said she’d try. That afternoon when she got off the bus, she was beaming. Surprised by his daughter’s positive outlook, her father asked her, “So, how did lunch go?”

“It was great!” the little girl replied. “They had chicken and waffles, and they were so yummy!”

“But I thought you said all the school food was awful,” her father said.

“Well, it was awful – but I chose to have a good attitude about it, and it got better!”

Because she chose a good attitude about her problem, that little girl was able to find a solution. You can do the same. Instead of saying “Oh no – a problem!”, you have the option of saying, “Oh boy – an opportunity!” When you do that, you can feel better about the situation, see more possible solutions, and choose and act on the best one. When you solve the problem before the problem, you will be able to solve the actual problem in the best way possible.  

From the day you are born until the day you die, there is one constant throughout your life: CHANGE. From your physical appearance to your intelligence, from your emotional awareness to your spiritual well-being, you are constantly in a state of flux. You are changing.

Many of these changes come without effort on your part. You don’t make your hair grow - or turn gray. You don’t wake up in the morning and grow your fingernails. You may do things that impact those changes, like eat healthy or take vitamins, but you are not causing those changes. They are part of what it means to be human.

There are, however, changes you do have control over. They are in areas like relationships, passions, and work. These kinds of changes might also happen without much effort from you, but they usually turn out poorly without your input. That’s why so many people spend so much time thinking about the changes they wish they saw in their lives.

There are two types of changes a person can make when it comes to relationships, work, or passion. In fact, the same two types of change are present in almost any area where you have some say in the process. The two types of change are novel and needed.


A novel change is distinctive, and it brings a fresh energy. It creates a sense of value and momentum. It gets us excited and invested in the outcome. It can sometimes seem like it came out of nowhere. Novel change, however, is not always necessary. In fact, sometimes it’s just change for its own sake.

Think of how your phone suddenly becomes “obsolete” when a new model comes out, even if it’s only been less than a year since you bought it. The differences between your old phone and the new model are often slight, so the selling point is often simply, “It’s different!”


Needed change is often viewed as the lesser cousin of novel change. Needed change isn’t always sexy, or unique. It rarely generates excitement or energy. It often feels gradual, or even tedious. Because it’s necessary, it can feel like an obligation or a reaction. In fact, needed change is vastly under-appreciated in part because it’s needed!

But here’s the truth, in both business and life:


Because needed change is usually small and gradual, its results aren’t always exciting – or even apparent. Only by making needed changes over time can we see our progress. Steady improvements in areas of need are what yield the dramatic breakthroughs that make people say, “Wow!”

Think about it in terms of fitness. You don’t fall asleep with flabby and soft muscles, and then wake up the next morning to chiseled abs and big biceps, do you? No! You have to go to the gym regularly for months in order to achieve the look that causes others’ jaws to drop. You have to consistently make the needed changes – in your diet, exercise regimen, schedule, and personal discipline – in order to be rewarded with a novel change.


You can’t avoid change. No matter how hard you try, tomorrow will always be different from today. But you can focus your energy on making the needed changes that produce the novel results. By making those changes consistently, day after day, you can be better today than you were yesterday, and better the next day, and the day after that.

The more you grow – the more you make steady, needed changes – the more opportunities you’ll have to experience “Wow!” moments in your relationships, work, and passions. While so many resist change and pay the price for staying the same, and others chase novel changes that they may never catch, the person who embraces needed change will keep moving forward, step by step, on the journey of success and fulfillment. You might not see the results immediately, but they will come. And when they do, you and others will say, “Wow!”