Provision #395: Avoid Magical Thinking

Laser Provision

Do you want to have more fun in life? Then give up the notion that there is a magic formula for success. There is no formula and there are no guarantees. But any and every experience can afford us the incredible opportunity to extend ourselves in love. If that sounds attractive, then read on. We may have to disabuse you of some cherished ideas, but you’ll come out better in the end.

LifeTrek Provision

On Wednesday, January 12, 2005, the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy Thompson, announced newly-revised diet and exercise guidelines. They increase the exercise recommendation to as much as 90 minutes a day, for optimal weight maintenance, and they strongly support a calorie-controlled, fiber-rich diet of whole foods and lean meat with little or no added salt or sugar.

Will those recommendations make a difference? They will certainly impact school lunches and other federally assisted programs for the next five years. But most people in the “real world” will find it difficult to carve out 90 minutes a day for exercise or to give up their convenient and tasty processed foods. “Every American is looking for the National Institutes of Health to come up with that magic pill,” Thompson quipped, “but it’s not going to happen.” There’s just no substitute for hard work and healthy eating.

Thompson is more right than he knows when it comes to magical thinking. Something there is in each of us, indeed, in the human condition, that wants a sure-fire formula for success. We yearn for a magical, quid-pro-quo universe, a this-for-that transactional formula that will make our dreams come true. And we resist suggestions to the contrary.

Perhaps this is why one long-time reader unsubscribed last week, noting as she did so that she did not agree with my statement that there were “life-giving principles and practices that most people share in common” nor with my implication that some religions erroneously exhort their adherents to “believe the right things, do the right things, and sacrifice the right things in order to be spiritually well.”

Frankly, her unsubscription surprised me. I was not surprised when people unsubscribed from Provisions in the wake of my comments after the events of September 11, 2001. Trying to understand the mind and motives of the attackers, let alone to suggest that we needed to temper our response with love, was not a popular position then or now. So I expected my foray into politics to be controversial.

But I had not thought of my remarks last week as treading on the other great human nerve: religion. Yet that was exactly what this reader took away from our first Provision on spiritual wellness. If spiritual wellness doesn’t require faith, action, or sacrifice, then what does it require? And doesn’t the abandonment of such requirements undermine the teachings of not only Christianity but of many other world religions?

Unfortunately, our newly unsubscribed reader will not receive this Provision to read the clarification. And the distinction is important for those who would know spiritual wellness: breaking the quid-pro-quo connection between faith, action, or sacrifice and spiritual wellness does not undermine religion (or at least not true religion). It undermines magical thinking and practices, which is the first step to spiritual wellness.

Ironically, for all his disdain over the much-sought-after “magic pill,” Thompson risks substituting one form of magical thinking for another. Instead of popping a pill, Thompson suggests that we commit ourselves to hard work and calorie control as the fount of health and wellness. Even though Thompson’s recommendations have the weight of scientific evidence behind them, they become magical thinking whenever we turn them into a quid-pro-quo formula for success.

Let’s be very clear about the problem: there are no guarantees in life. There is nothing we can believe, nothing we can do, and nothing we can sacrifice that will guarantee success in either this life or the next.

  • We can exercise for 90 minutes a day and still die from a heart attack on our next long run.
  • We can make sure that our Body Mass Index is perfect and still come down with a fatal illness.
  • We can invest our money wisely and still lose everything.
  • We can build the perfect resume and still be unemployed for weeks, months, or years.
  • We can maintain open communication with our spouse, only to have them leave us for someone else.
  • We can give our children great families and education, only to have them reject and walk away from it all.
  • We can put our creative energy into the world without receiving anything commensurate in return.
  • We can carry our lucky charm and still lose the game.
  • We can say our daily prayers and still be swept away in a tsunami.
  • We can work for peace and justice only to have the world succumb to a spiral of violence.
  • We can set clear intentions for our future and still suffer insurmountable roadblocks along the way.
  • We can do everything we are supposed to do and still fail miserably.
  • We can die and go to heaven, only to find ourselves surprised as to who gets in and who gets left behind.

Are you beginning to get the idea? Allow me to repeat myself. There is nothing we can believe, nothing we can do, and nothing we can sacrifice that will guarantee success in either this life or the next.

That will come as a bitter pill for anyone who has succumbed to those infomercial marketers on television, radio, or the Internet. They all promise a sure-fire formula for success. Whether it be the latest exercise machine, nutritional supplement, kitchen appliance, diet program, real estate investment, revenue stream, or devotional practice, they all want you to believe that their system will deliver the goods, without fail, for those who diligently practice the system.

Which makes you the scapegoat for every magical system that doesn’t work out as promised. If the program doesn’t deliver, if you don’t get the results that you saw on the television, heard on the radio, or read about on the Internet, then you must not have done something right. Perhaps you cheated on the diet, or failed to use the product as directed, or did your breath work without crossing your legs into the proper position. The excuses go on ad infinitum. And they are all designed to protect the cover of magic.

No wonder so many people are taking mental-health drugs! Nothing is more discouraging or depressing than to find the magic formula, the magic elixir, only to have it fail to work due to our own incompetence, inconsistency, or incapacity. We are being brutalized not only by the ups and downs of life but even more so by the failure of magical thinking to deliver on its promises.

In his excellent book, “Health, Money, and Love & Why We Don’t Enjoy Them,” Robert Farrar Capon points out that any approach to life can suffer from this kind of thinking, including science and religion. He also notes that religions are particularly prone to this kind of magical, quid-pro-quo thinking since religions tend to admonish their adherents with creeds, cults, and conducts that promise both temporal and eternal benefits.

But, as he notes in his delightfully sarcastic way, “none of it works. You can pour out your son’s blood as a sacrifice on the stones of the piazza and you can bury his body in the foundation of the city wall; but a big enough army can take your town away. You can conform intellectually to every scrap of your creed and still be hit on the head by a loose gargoyle off a buttress of the cathedral.”

“You can fast three days a week and eat nothing but broccoli and brown rice the other four and still die of pneumonia, if not malnutrition. And you can be as good as gold • but if the powers that be decide they don’t like the cut of your jib, you can also spend the rest of a long life in prison, or of a short one at the end of a rope.”

In other words, religion as magical thinking inevitably disappoints • making it more about spiritual illness than spiritual wellness. Or, again to quote Capon, “besides being ineffective and impossible to fulfill, such religion is just no fun. It may begin by holding out the carrot of approval; but it always ends up beating us with the stick of condemnation. It is a mirthless subject which, if we thought about it carefully for two minutes, no sane (and certainly no fun-loving) person would have any truck with.”

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the explosion of commercial Spam and the steady stream of get-rich, get-thin, get-love, get-saved, or get-whatever-you-want schemes and programs, magical thinking continues to be one of humanity’s favorite subjects. “Everyone,” as Thompson noted, “is looking for that magic pill.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can be set free from magical thinking in order to recognize and revel in both the limitations and the potential of the universe. That is certainly the hope for this new Provisions’ series. We hope to disabuse you of some ideas, which lead to spiritual illness, and infuse you with other ideas, which lead to spiritual wellness.

This often forms the kernel of the coaching process, when we work with our individual or group clients. But you can wean yourself away from magical thinking, with or without a coach. All it takes is a willingness to be ruthlessly honest with yourself and with others as to what is going on and how life works. If there was a sure-fire, guaranteed formula for success, of any sort, it would have been discovered long ago and we would all be living in paradise.

But look around. Take off those rosy-colored glasses. No one is living in paradise. Stop fooling yourself, stop deceiving yourself, and instead start celebrating the ups and downs of life for what they are: learning experiences that afford us the incredible opportunity to extend ourselves in love.

From this vantage point, we really can be set free from magical thinking. We can both work hard and rest well without turning either one into a magic formula. We can believe deeply in sacred truth without turning it into a magic potion. We can live by good, clean values without turning them into a magic system. We can practice our rituals of religion, culture, and choice without turning them into magic mandates for all the world to adopt.

If you want to get on the road to spiritual wellness, start by letting go of the magical universe. Once you give that up, there’s no telling what you will see or where it will take you. And in the meantime, you will definitely have more fun.

Coaching Inquiries: How does magical thinking sneak into your consciousness? Is it more about belief, action, or sacrifice? What do you need to let go of in order to start having more fun? Can you bear to live in a world with no guarantees? How might the truth set you free?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us, use our Contact Form, or give us a call in the U.S.A. at 757-345-3452 to request a complimentary coaching session.

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..


Thanks for your Provision on “Zestful Living.” Keep up the zest!!!!


I just read your Provision titled “Unpublished Grace,” in the LifeTrek archive, on your experience of qualifying at age 50 for the Boston marathon. Bravo! It was wonderful. Just imagine the abundance of untapped, unpublished Grace all around us!


I really enjoyed your poetry. I was wondering, do you mind if I read “Deep” at a local poetry reading in my town? Thanks, and keep expressing yourself! (Ed. Note: I do not mind at all, but I do appreciate your asking. Thanks.)


It’s interesting to note that Iraq is not listed as receiving your Provisions. (Ed. Note: If there are readers in Iraq, please let us know.)


Keep up the good work with Provisions. I can tell that a lot goes into all that you share with us who are fortunate enough to get your ezine.



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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