04/09/2011 04:57 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Secret to Making Positive Thinking Work

If you can dream it, you can do it. Rah, rah you!

If positive thinking alone were enough to propel one to success, I'd be an Olympic gymnast. I spent an entire decade dreaming about becoming the next Nadia Comaneci. Nadia made back flips look easy. I found them to be hard as heck. In reality, I spent more time dreaming about gymnastics than actually practicing it. In the end, optimism could not conquer gravity.

People are always trumpeting the benefits of positive thinking. A can-do attitude, a vision board and a copy of "The Secret" are all you need to dream your way to success. But before you pin your hopes on a piece of poster board, you should know that several studies reveal that overly optimistic thinking can actually impede your ability to achieve your goals.

Motivational psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson says that when you expect something to be easy, you get quickly discouraged when it's not, and you're more likely to quit. Halvorson's extensive studies in motivation and achievement reveal that people who think the path is difficult actually invest more effort and work harder than those who expect things to be easy. For example, the people who believed that getting a good job after college would be easy sent out fewer applications. (See for a goal-troubleshooting quiz.)

In her new book "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals," Halvorson writes, "Most of us blame our failures on the wrong things." For example, we tend to think that some people are born smart or naturally athletic, or that they have more willpower. We assume that that's why they succeed in areas where we fail. But we couldn't be more wrong.

Halverson says that even very smart, accomplished people don't understand why they succeed or fail. Citing her own experience as a bookish, non-athletic child, she says, "I had always been a straight-A student. I always thought I was good in school and disastrous at sports because I was born that way. But I was the kid who was ridiculously prepared. I was always putting in the effort; I always had my nose in a book. It never occurred to me that's why I was succeeding. ... We are so quick to chalk everything up to ability, even when the evidence is staring you in the face."

This is how unrealistic positive thinking sets us up for failure. When you assume that success should come naturally, you're more likely to blame any failure on lack of ability or lack of willpower. However, one of the secrets of achieving your goals is to recognize that they're going to be challenging. It sounds counterintuitive, but compare the dieter who says, "This new diet is going to be a breeze; I'm going to drop 20 pounds just like that," with one who says, "It's going to be hard to give up fatty foods, but it's doable."

The key, says Halverson, is "realistic optimism." Acknowledge the difficulties you will probably face and keep up your confidence by creating strategies to overcome them. Perhaps if I had spent 10 years practicing back flips instead of dreaming about them, I would have my own line of leotards by now.

The truth is that if you can dream it, you probably can do it -- you just need to be prepared for some hard work along the way.

Lisa Earle McLeod is a keynote speaker, author, columnist and business strategist and the President of McLeod & More, Inc., and international training and consulting firm. Her newest book, "The Triangle of Truth," was named by The Washington Post as one of the Top 5 Business Books for Leaders, calling it "the ultimate guide for solving problems and managing conflict." Visit for a short video intro.