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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Changing the Way You Think Can Change Your Life

Swimmer Michael Phelps is a living legend. He’s the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time with a total of 28 medals, and also holds the record for Olympic gold medals. But you probably already knew that.

In his book, No Limits: The Will to Succeed, Phelps tells a story about when he was training as a little kid. His coach, Bob Bowman, would push Phelps until he was completely exhausted, and then give him a new series of exercises to do. When little Michael looked at his coach with wide eyes exclaiming “I can’t!” Bowman gave him some of the most important advice of his life:

“There’s a big difference between I can’t and I won’t.”

Bowman explained: “Can’t—that’s a tough word. Let’s preserve our power and quit throwing around can’t when we really mean won’t.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in this advice. If Phelps had continued to think in terms of “I can’t” instead of “I won’t,” he would’ve had a completely different mindset. And if he still got to publish a book, a more accurate title would’ve been something like Some Limits: The Will to Be Okay. Not a very compelling title.

Still, most of us live our lives like it’s this book we’ve been reading.

The Science of Mindsets

In research, a “mindset” is defined as: “a mental frame or lens that selectively organizes and encodes information, thereby orienting an individual toward a unique way of understanding an experience and guiding one toward corresponding actions and responses.”

In other words, your mindsets are the lenses through which you perceive the world. These are colored by your beliefs and attitudes and help determine your response in any given situation.

And these mindsets have some fascinating implications. For example, research has shown that:

Your Mindsets Determine Your Outcomes

As we go through life, we pick up beliefs that help us navigate the world. And as the research above suggests, these beliefs have very real consequences for our psychology, physiology, behavior, and performance.

One mindset can flood your system with stress hormones and make you anxious. Another can boost your testosterone levels and make you feel confident. And this is why I suggest the following:

It’s up to you to choose what to believe, so why not pick the most empowering beliefs you can possibly find?

How to Change Your Lenses and Realize Your Full Potential

Here are the most powerful ways I’ve come across for changing your lenses:

Put Your Thoughts in Perspective

Realize that you are not your thoughts. You are the one who’s observing your thoughts. Whenever a limiting belief shows up, listen to it, but don’t necessarily believe it. A thought is not an accurate representation of reality, it’s just a thought. So treat it accordingly.

Use Empowering Language

Instead of saying “I can’t” say “I won’t.” Instead of “I have to” say “I’m going to.” Instead of “I don’t know” say “I’ll figure it out.” Pay attention to the language you use and get rid of any phrases that imply helplessness.

Change Your Feelings

Copy the body language of the person you want to become. Strike a powerful posture and smile. Doing this for just a couple of minutes will make you feel less stressed and more in charge.

Surround Yourself With the Right People

The people around us have a huge influence on how we feel, what goals we pursue. You become the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so choose your social circles wisely.

Take Control of Your Behavior

Run daily habits that help you realize your full potential. Build your fundamentals, master your craft, fill your mind with ideas from great books, journal about what you learn, and focus on the process rather than your results.

To realize your full potential, you need to remove the barriers you’ve put up for yourself—and that’s when you’re really living.

This article was originally published on It has been republished here with permission.

Photo of person thinking courtesy of David Lees/Getty Images.