Positive Thinking – Key to Success or Recipe for Disaster?

You’ve probably heard about the benefits of thinking positively. Of rock-solid self-belief.

But what about the risks?

Can’t being over-confident make things worse? Aren’t you in danger of having a completely unrealistic view of your abilities?

As you read on, you’ll discover when the positive viewpoint is exactly what the doctor ordered. And when stark realism should rule the day.


The problem with overly positive thinking

The danger is real.

If you have an unrealistic perception of your skills, then this can lead to:

  • Not doing enough practice
  • Taking on gigs or material that is too advanced for you
  • Not concentrating hard enough when you play because you think something’s easy

These are certainly things that you want to avoid.

Thinking positive thoughts in those situations might feel great to start with. But you’ll come back down to earth with a bump.

Just as soon as that unrealistic picture of yourself brushes up against reality.

But don’t jump to conclusions too soon. There’s another side to the story as well...

The very real benefit of being confident and optimistic

Take two musicians who are equal in all other ways. Same technical skills, same familiarity with the piece, etc.

The only difference is that one of them believes he’s likely to give a good performance – while the other believes he’s likely to perform badly.

In this case, the confident musician will perform better.

It’s not only that they’re more likely to get through the piece without mistakes. But that confidence will also come through in their playing. And this makes the performance more enjoyable for the audience.

As Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying:

“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right”

Confidence affects the bigger picture too. It determines how willing you are to:

  • Seek out opportunities to play with better musicians (this is one of the best ways to improve)
  • Step up to more challenging gigs as early as possible (you miss out on growth if you leave it too long)

You don’t want to miss out on all these benefits. But you need to avoid the dangers of over-confidence.

How do you strike the right balance?

The secret lies in the fact that you’ve probably been sold the wrong idea of what positive thinking is all about.

What does positive mindset really mean?

This is not about living in fantasy land.

You’re not looking to fool yourself.

But things aren’t black and white – extreme pessimism and unbounded optimism aren’t the only games in town.

There’s a middle way that allows you to be realistic and positive at the same time. I’ll show you how to construct that in a bit.

You also need to recognise something else.

The world is unpredictable. That’s just how it is.

In most situations you can’t know ahead of time whether you will succeed or fail. Both outcomes are possible.

When the situation is balanced like this, then it’s not unreasonable to take the optimistic view. And, if it turns out that you do fail, that doesn’t necessarily mean your optimism was misplaced.

Confidence is really about belief that your underlying ability is appropriate for the challenge and that you’ll put in your best effort. It doesn’t mean that you’re sure you will succeed.

Go with the most helpful thoughts

So here’s the master key.

The mindset you want is always the one that’s most helpful to your musical outcomes.

It’s as simple as that.

And, when you look in detail, this guideline tells you exactly how positive your thoughts should be.

If your thoughts are wildly unrealistic then your subconscious simply won’t accept them as true…


If they lead you to skip practice that you know deep down you’d benefit from doing…


If they convince you to say yes to a gig that’s way beyond your current level…


This test covers one side of things. It guards against anything that’s too optimistic.

But that doesn’t mean you have to accept your current thoughts just as they are – however negative that may be.

A basic recipe for helpful thoughts

The ideal thought is one that:

  1. Won’t be rejected by your subconscious
  2. Leads you to play better (or, at the very least, doesn’t lead you to play worse)

The trick is that there are a million different things that are true at any one time – some helpful, some not.

And you get to choose which ones you pay attention to.

For example, when thinking about a challenging phrase you’re working with, these statements can both be true:

  • I have messed this up 90% of the time in the past
  • I can play this correctly when I focus

But it’s obvious that the second one is more helpful.

And don’t worry – you’re not denying the truth of an “unhelpful” thought if you swap it for another.

At any one time there are an infinite number of true thoughts available to you. You can’t possibly focus on all of them, so you have to make a choice.

The thought that your mind goes to by default isn’t the “best”, or “right” choice. It just reflects your mind’s current habits.

Get used to taking control of this decision and consciously choosing the thought that’s most helpful for your playing.

The audience will thank you too.


Thinking: “I can play this correctly when I focus” gives you a realistic, positive angle on the possibility of success. You’re not assuming that it’s guaranteed – even in the case where you concentrate.

If you were to think “I will play this correctly”, then you’d be assuming success. That’s getting unrealistic.

An alternative ​approach you could try is to visualise yourself playing it correctly.

Next steps

If you had previously dismissed positive thinking as unrealistic, then use the recipe outlined here and give it a try.

You may not feel comfortable shifting your mindset at first, but that’s ok. If you’ve been used to one way of thinking for a while, then change is bound to feel strange.

If you’ve already adopted some aspects of positive thinking, then check how these measure up against reality.

Are your positive thoughts so far off the scale that you need to rein them in?

Or are you under-selling your potential self-confidence by focusing on negatives rather than positives?

Do you usually see the positive side when you play music? Let me know in the comments below.

Oh and before I go

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