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Jon Acuff on Unlocking Your Potential

Jon Acuff on Unlocking Your Potential

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Jon Acuff knows what it’s like when it feels as if your mind is going a thousand miles a minute. The author and motivational speaker is a proud overthinker. And he’s used his nonstop thinking skills to help others understand how and why their minds overthink, and how to utilize this skill to your advantage. Acuff recently released his seventh book to help others unlock the potential running through their mind.

We spoke with Acuff about his book, the power of overthinking, and how you and others can tap into potential.

Jon Acuff, author, motivational speaker and proud overthinker.

Did you start writing this book during the pandemic?

Jon: I started working on this back in 2008, when I was stuck in my career. I had hit a ceiling, which you don’t want to do when you’re 32. It was really terrifying. I had started a blog, and then somebody out of the blue asked me to speak at their event. I didn’t even know that was a thing. But I had this tiny little new thought that I could be a public speaker.

And so I really started to go, okay, I’m going to work on that thought and turn it into action and then see what happens. It ended up changing the whole course of my life. But the book itself, I really started to go a couple of years ago, do people overthink too? Am I the only over thinker? So I asked Dr. Mike Peasley to help me research my books, which has been a great help to me, because then it’s not just an idea in my office, it’s something we test first. 

We asked 10,000 people if they struggle with overthinking, and 99.5% of people said yes — and this was before the pandemic. 2020 was catnip for overthinking. Everyone is overthinking because now everything is a thing. Now everything you do in life has extra layers of overthinking capability. But I’m not in the sense of thinking everyone in the world actually needs this book because everyone is overthinking.

Define some terms for me here. When you say overthinking, what’s the metric we’re using there?

Overthinking is when what you think gets in the way of what you want. A common question a lot of people ask is how do I know if I’m overthinking versus I just like to be prepared? Here’s how you know: Being prepared always leads to an action. Overthinking always leads to more overthinking. So be prepared, detailed, organized, analytical, but ask what did that turn into?

That’s the big difference. There are already a bunch of great books about the topic, but most of them say, stop [overthinking]. And I kept thinking, why would I ever turn off this amazing thinking machine? I’m very good at thinking. What if I just fed it with thoughts that pushed me forward, not thoughts that pulled me back? Most people don’t understand they can choose their thoughts and can work on their thoughts. They think a thought is something you have, not something you hone. And when you realize you get to choose the thoughts you have, which end up choosing the actions and choosing the results, it changes everything. 

What sort of disciplines then need to be implemented?

Really simple ones. The heart of the book is this: You retire your broken soundtracks — and a soundtrack is just my phrase for a repetitive thought, something that tends to play automatically in the background of your life — replace them with new ones, and repeat the new ones so often they become automatic. 

An example of that would be, you talked to somebody the other day and they said you got fired years ago. Now, every time you see a door closed on a meeting you think, “I’m not invited in, I’m going to get fired.” But that happened five years ago. Overthinking steals time, creativity and productivity. So 10 minutes a day, every time you see a door closed, multiplied over years — that person has lost years of really great creativity to imagining “I’m about to be fired.” So you have to decide if that soundtrack helps you by asking three questions: is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind? You find that soundtrack and go, “okay, that’s not one I want to have. What can I replace it with? How do I repeat it to make it an automatic new one?”

Is there any part of this that involves learning how to think more positive affirmation-type thoughts? 

The funny thing is, we never found somebody in the research who over-thought compliments about themselves. No one was like, “my big problem is I think I’m such a good dad.” I actually didn’t want to explore positive thinking. Every time I see someone who’s like, if you say a desire, the universe conspires to help you—No, it doesn’t. The universe is busy being the universe.

This weird thing happened to me where I started to talk to really successful people that I looked up to and I’d ask what they thought about positive thinking. They all had some positive affirmation practice. So I thought maybe there is something there.

And here’s the thing, on a simple level, I’ve never walked away feeling bad after I’ve encouraged somebody. I’ve never walked away feeling good when I’ve discouraged them. So at a basic human level, when you go, “hey, let me encourage you,” it feels better to my entire day and then you back it up with science. There’s reams of research about the thoughts you put into your head. There was a study that came out from UT about even just hearing positive news versus negative news for five minutes a day, changes your belief in the world. The things you put into your head, and whether you say affirmations, declarations, pep-talk, whatever, the thoughts you have, have physical ramifications on how your life goes.

You touched on something there that I want to come back to, which is the compliments for encouraging other people. It feels like it’d be one thing to implement this for yourself, for your own internal life. But if you’re trying to set a culture for your family, your business, your community or your church, what does that look like?

Company culture is just a group of soundtracks everybody’s listening to at the same time. I think one of the most important things you can do as a leader is create a space where people can talk about those soundtracks. And as a leader, you have to be open to the fact that they might not be the ones you think. If you’re defensive, you shut down the conversation and what they’ll learn is to tell half-truths. It’s important to have a willingness to create a space where people can say, either here’s a soundtrack we have or here’s a soundtrack we want. 

One [soundtrack] I’ve given a lot of companies this year is “be a tourist.” This is new for all of us. Another soundtrack I’ve given people is you should say, out loud, “this is my first global pandemic.” I keep talking to people, parents, for instance, that’ll be like, I’m bombing virtual school. I’m doing such a bad job of virtual school. And I’ll say, “yeah, you should be. You should suck at that. You’ve never done it. You’re probably terrible at hang-gliding too. I bet you’re the worst hang glider.” But there’s this thought of “I should be doing better at this.”

So I think whether you’re an individual saying, “this is my first global pandemic” or you’re a team going, “we’re tourists. We’re headed to a new place that we haven’t gone to before,” you can then admit that this is new and you’re going to have the mindset of a tourist. Because what do all tourists have in common? They ask questions. They find experts and go “you know something I don’t know. Can you help us?” They have fun. They make mistakes. They don’t pretend to be experts. If you pretend, you don’t get to learn. The goal of the book isn’t that you have a bunch of new thoughts, it’s that you turn them into actions, which turn into new results. 

It seems like this is the sort of thing where it would really help to have mentors or guides who you could follow in their footsteps on. What are some people or companies who others can model their initial soundtrack situations after? 

Signet Jewelers owns jewelry stores in every mall in America. They’re a client I’ve worked with and one of theirs that I think is great is “match the pace.” They say to themselves, “We match the pace of the person coming in the door.” So some people have a speed pace. Some people have a story pace. Some people have a value pace.

So I would take that and as a church, I’d ask what’s the pace of a preschool parent? Because, as a church example, some churches get it wrong, where they go, “Jon, we’re having a hard time having our preschool parents show up to all our stuff” and I’ll say, “yeah, exactly because they’re preschool parents. They’re barely keeping their head above the water. You adding three new events isn’t helpful. Match their pace. It’s a different pace.” What’s the pace of a teenager? What’s the pace of an introvert? Most welcomes at a church are based on an extrovert, seven people telling you hello. If I’m an introvert, maybe I don’t want anybody. So what if a church said, “okay, we’re going to have an introvert.”

Another one is to ask the people in your life what their soundtracks are from a mentor perspective. You might use a different word, like “what’s a rule you live by?” or “what’s something you think about?” 

Do you think that some of those things that you picked up, or maybe in some cases you’ve helped other people pick up, are going to continue to influence the way these people’s lives or their companies are?

A hundred percent. I’ve been telling people, this is the year of the heart. When I talk to a company, I do a pre-call to kind of figure out the audience and what they really need. And 90 percent of the time they’re like, “land on like 80 percent instruction, 20 percent inspiration.” But this year it’s flip-flopped. People have gone, “we need heavy inspiration, low instruction because people are hurting.” People are isolated. People are stuck at home. So I’m seeing companies lean into their people and go, “you’re a full human and you’ve gone through a challenging thing, how do we support you in that? How do we help you in that?” I think those are the kind of healthy structures we’re going to see companies invest in for sure years going forward.

Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking is available here.
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