Thought Determines Behavior

Socrates said that thought determines behavior, so it follows that if we want to improve our behavior, we should improve our thoughts. How do we do that? Our brain is the most powerful and complex organ in our body. It can accomplish wonderful things when we allow it to work naturally, as it is designed.

Consider the way children approach learning. They ask questions. When we provide the answer, they probe deeper with why or how questions. As we journey further into the subject that has most recently captured their imagination, we notice two things – our patience diminishes as their eagerness to learn grows. What can be exhausting for us excites them as they are learning naturally, as their brains are wired.

Thousands of years ago, Socrates observed the power of questioning to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes. The difference from children is that Socratic questioning is “systematic, disciplined, and deep and usually focuses on foundational concepts, principles, theories, issues, or problems” according to Richard Paul and Linda Elder.

I recently re-read some notes from a seminar by Bob Dunwoody that I attended many years ago as a young stockbroker. That one-day talk relayed some of the most thought-provoking ideas and truths I’ve encountered in my professional life. Let me share a few with you here.

There are three perspectives on knowledge:

  1. Knowing what you know – experience
  2. Knowing what you do not know – power
  3. Not knowing what you don’t know – dangerous

We all live in our own little box. 97% of us try to make the box smaller by controlling as much as we can in our lives. The more we know or think we know, the smaller our box becomes. The other 3%, successful people as Bob calls them, are open to possibilities and are ever-trying to expand the box containing their universe – questions answered are energetically followed with deeper or broader questions.

We’ve heard all our lives that we can’t have it all. Figure out (with our help if needed) what the ‘its’ are that you want included in your life, prioritize them, and discard the ones you are unwilling to execute. Organize your daily activities to accomplish those that remain.

Belief Systems:

Work – the objective is not to lose
Play – the objective is to win

Successful people are doing what they love to do, engage in activities they see as fun, not work.

Retirement for the 97% is doing nothing or anything but work
Retirement for the 3% is doing what you want, even love to do

Fail is just a word, not an end. Instead of fail, say “it didn’t work.” People whose aim it is to never fail will never accomplish anything.

Find out how good you are. You haven’t failed until you stop.  Let go of things that don’t work. Comfort and fear of failure keep people in the box.

People tell the truth but nobody listens, except successful people.  For example, “I’ll try to come to your party” really means, I am not coming to your party.

3% Successful People 97% Victims
Cause Effect
Hope dominates Hopeless
Will do or will not do Will ‘try’ very hard, try = lie
Committed Wishes and dreams
Yes or No ‘Maybe’
Linear world If only
Designed to go somewhere Goes nowhere
Real world Quit world
Watch Face the Nation Watch Opra
Did it Should have
Produce About being busy
Now Past/future, could have some day
Count on me Emotional
Linear Circular domain -“cocktail party talk”
Responsible Doesn’t go anywhere
Few really care what I do Everybody is out to get me
About choices Has to be right, “have to do it” dis-empowers


Our brain is a database filled with a lifetime of information. All the bad data that has been loaded over a lifetime is weighted equally with the good. Put better information in the brain. If we want to improve our behavior, we should ask specific questions that are aligned with the who we are committed to being or the what we are committed to achieving.

Bob encourages us to harness the power of this magnificent machine by asking questions precisely to get precise answers, allowing the brain to access all the knowledge we have gathered in a lifetime. But he warns us to remember that we don’t know what we don’t know. Unless we seek counsel in areas where our experience and knowledge are lacking or wrong, we will almost certainly fail by acting on incomplete information or bad habits.

By asking questions that discover deeply held hopes and desires, we regularly empower our clients to set higher goals than they might on their own.

Other questions uncover convictions and beliefs from past experiences that could be harmful or helpful to the realization of their goals. Remember, behaviors are driven by thoughts – right or wrong.

By identifying negative propensities early, we help our clients steer clear of behavioral mistakes that could undermine the best of plans and investment processes. Conversely we leverage their positive convictions (such as willingness to save, work longer, or take more risk) to further improve the confidence of their plan.

While children may not teach us much about planning, we can learn a lot from their unquenchable appetite for knowledge. The process is both frightening and exciting at the same time. When was the last time you thought something for the first time?