The 51% Zone: Redefining a “Good Day”

The 51% Zone.

What do they call a presidential candidate who wins with 51% of the vote? They call him Mr. President. What do they call a president who spends 4 years trying to please the 49% who didn’t vote for him? A one-term president.

When you’re in the 51% Zone, you redefine a good day as anything above the 50% mark, and you put your energy in having more 51% days. Too often, people hold out for 100% days before allowing themselves room for celebration, and that means they have few days worthy of a happy-dance.

Research tells us that the same hyper-drive and high expectations that make the United States great also serves to create a citizenry more prone to depression and discontent. Are you one of those who focus on the disappointments instead of the successes? How do you respond when…

  • Your child brings home 5 As and B? Most American parents focus on the B, as in “What the hell? I know you are capable of getting all As! What happened?”
  • You go out for dinner at your favorite restaurant with your favorite person and order your favorite meal with your favorite glass of wine, but the waiter is slow getting your more wine, or perhaps there’s a loud couple at the table next to you?
  • Your spouse spends all day doing something wonderful for you…something like cleaning the garage, making a fantastic meal, filing taxes, or doing a weeks’ worth of laundry, but you see a pile of dishes in the sink?

If you’re like most Americans, your mind fixates on the B, the slow waiter, and the sink of dishes. When you focus on flaws, imperfections drive you to distraction.

The Thinking.

How can you keep yourself from sinking below the 50% mark? Use positive counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking literally means thinking that is contrary to facts, and it takes places when we ask ourselves “What if…” questions that lead us to imagine either more favorable or negative outcomes. For example, a very talented junior high school athlete gets miffed when picked first for a game in gym class. Why? He practiced negative counterfactual thinking in which he imagined himself as the TEAM CAPTAIN who picked the teams instead of a good player picked first. His negative thinking makes him focus on what he thinks he could have/should have had instead of celebrating being picked first. Then consider the uncoordinated kid who got picked next to last who practices positive counterfactual thinking. This boy tells himself how lucky he was to NOT be picked dead last! In his view, anything above DEAD LAST is cause for celebration!

We use counterfactual thinking all of the time. Think about having a bad day at work where you can’t seem to catch a break. Finally, the day is over, and on your drive home, you encounter terrible traffic. Figures! While replaying various discouraging events of your day, you add to your thoughts some negative counterfactual thoughts about the traffic, chiding yourself by thinking, “Why didn’t I leave work 30 minutes earlier? I would have avoided this whole mess!”

Moments later, though, you see the cause of the traffic snare: a large truck jackknifed, and in the process several cars were crushed. Police cars and firetrucks are on the scene, and you see stretchers being lifted into the back of awaiting ambulances. Your thinking shifts from negative to positive counterfactual thinking. You no longer consider leaving 30 minutes earlier as the better choice; rather, you view leaving the office when you did with gratitude, because “Otherwise, that could have been me…”

Same situation, different thinking.

The Challenge Questions.

It takes practice to stay in the 51% Zone, and it doesn’t require a car accident or a tragedy as a catalyst. But it does require challenging your perspective when negative events occur. Here are some questions to ask yourself when the call of the 49% threatens to pull your thinking down with it:

1. Could it be worse? The answer is “yes.” ALWAYS. Even in the worst of circumstances, things could always be worse. Instead of focusing on the ideal state of how you hoped or pictured things to turn out, remind yourself that “It’s better than getting poked in the eye with a sharp stick!” A comment like that sounds silly, but it’s effectively putting positive counterfactual thinking to work.
2. Can this lead to something good? Even things that can serve to discourage us often contain the seeds of something good. Believe in the silver lining, and look for what good might come out of even bad situations. Years ago, a boss gave me an assignment that I felt was impossible: create and deliver a one-day class within a two-day turnaround. It turned out that it was quite possible, and I loved it! I ended up using this new-found skill to build my talent as a consultant and coach. The “bad situation” seeded something positive.
3. How would I sell this current situation to a friend? Let’s say that a good friend came to you feeling blue because she just broke up with someone who was “cute but inattentive.” You would probably say something like “Eye candy doesn’t translate into caring. You’re such a beautiful, wonderful person that you don’t have to settle for someone who is one or the other! You deserve someone who is both!” When you are faced with a situation that falls below the 50% mark, tell yourself what you would tell a good friend. In other words, encourage yourself by taking an objective view of the situation to prevent the 49% from growing into something bigger.

Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” You get to choose to be in the 51% Zone today. See you there!


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