Why You Need to Stop Visualizing and Start Taking Action

“All men have the will to win. But it’s the man who has the will to prepare who’s going to win.” – Bob Knight

In 1975, the legendary college basketball coach, Bob Knight, led his Indiana Hoosiers to an undefeated season and a national championship victory – something that hasn't been accomplished in over 40 years since.

Upon his retirement, he wrote a book about his psychological approach to the game of basketball. He called it, "The Power of Negative Thinking."

“Everybody wants to win. It doesn’t take positive thinking for you to want to succeed in life and have nice things. However, not everyone wants to prepare. Not everyone wants to do those things that it actually takes to win.”

Optimism, in Knight’s mind, led teams to underestimate their opponents. It led teams to believe that they didn’t need to practice as hard because they were so confident in their own abilities.

That is why he preached the power of negative thinking to his team.

No matter who they were facing, he wanted his team to believe that they might lose their next game. He actually wanted his team to be pessimistic!

How could that be?!

How could a coach want his team to believe they were going to lose? How could that possibly lead to winning?

Yet, winning is exactly what Knight’s team did.

With this philosophy, he has won the 2nd most NCAA basketball games of all time. All through the power of negative thinking. [1]


You might be thinking that this is a horrible way to live life. The power of negative thinking? Who would ever want to believe that?

I’ll admit, when I first picked up Knight’s book, I thought it was just going to be the rumblings of a grumpy old man getting mad about kids getting participation trophies. But, Knight's philosophy seemed to have some merit to it.

After all, his teams kept winning!

So, as with all articles on this site, I turned to scientific evidence to try to learn the truth.

The best scientific evidence in favor of the power of positive thinking is what is known as the "Law of Attraction". When you visualize success and positive outcomes, your brain will genuinely believe that you are already in possession of them!

The theory, then, is that by visualizing these positive outcomes, your brain will motivate you to the actual attainment of them. This theory makes sense. The more you believe you will be successful, the closer you come to actually achieving success. [2]

However, there is recent evidence that this may have some negative consequences.


“Just because you’re a dreamer, doesn’t mean you’re a doer." - Gabrielle Oettingen

Oettingen has been studying the brain and motivation for over 20 years. However, she has come to some very different conclusions than the research above in her work on positive thinking.

In one ingenious experiment, Oettingen and her colleagues had a group of participants come into the laboratory in a dehydrated state. They made each participant sit a room for an extended period of time by themselves.

One group of participants was to sit there patiently waiting, while the second group was to visualize themselves drinking an ice cold glass of water. 

It was amazing how the brains of those in the second group reacted to the visualization of it! The bodily reaction of each participant acted as if he or she had indeed drank a glass of water. [3]

But which group of participants do you think worked harder to get an actual glass of water - the ones who feel like they've already drank one? Or the ones who are still dehydrated?

Exactly. The ones who visualized drinking the water, didn't need to work for it!

Oettingen’s conclusion, therefore, was that positive visualization does indeed make you believe that you are already in possession of the thing you want. So why bother working for it? 


These are just two examples, but as you can see, there is scientific evidence that supports each theory. Although each does hold its own merit, I believe it is reasonable to say that the evidence at this point is inconclusive.

There is just as much evidence supporting positive thinking as there is against it.

One clear finding, however, is that taking positive action will lead to successful outcomes. There is no debate about whether engaging in deliberate practice, strengthening your willpower, or being relentless will lead to successful outcomes.

Positive action is real. It is grounded it reality. And it will lead to success if you are willing to put in the effort to stop visualizing your reality and work on creating it.

You can put your faith in the "Law of Attraction" bringing you the things that you are visualizing, or you can put your faith in taking one step at a time to earn them. One of these methods is inconclusive, the other is real.


There is one instance in which thinking positive is necessary, however, and that is when you need to believe that achieving something great is possible.

In order to tap into your most powerful form of willpower - Want Power - your brain must genuinely believe that your goal is attainable. [4

If you do not have the self-esteem and confidence to achieve your goal in the first place, then it is valuable to use the power of positive thinking to get to that point. 

But, once you genuinely believe you can achieve your goals, then you need to stop visualizing and start acting.


The power of positive thinking has a lot of value and scientific evidence behind it. However, there is as much evidence disproving it as there is confirming it. What isn't up for debate, however, is whether taking action towards your goals will lead to success.

Bob Knight holds the second most wins in NCAA basketball history because he was pessimistic about his teams chances of winning. This led to his team to taking action and preparing for each team they faced. 

Every team has the will to win, but it is the team that has the will to prepare that is going to win. In life, everybody wants success, but it is those who are willing to do the hard, boring things to make success possible that are going to actually achieve it.

So stop visualizing and start acting.


  1. Knight, B. (2013). The power of negative thinking an unconventional approach to achieving positive results. Boston: New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  2. Guinagh, B. (1987). Cognitive Self-Help: Positive Thinking. Catharsis and Cognition in Psychotherapy, 81-89.
  3. Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1198-1212.
  4. McGonigal, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery.