Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.

Insights and interesting reads delivered straight to your inbox.
Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.

Book Notes: “The Magic of Thinking Big” by David J. Schwartz


The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz (1959) is a classic in the self-help genre and one of the best-selling books of all time with over 6 million copies sold. The key message of the book is one of belief and attitude: “The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief. Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success.”

The author finds ways to come at this message from different angles over the course of thirteen chapters. One early chapter focuses on the bad habit of making excuses for ourselves. Another discusses the positive and negative influences of our environment and advocates for creating a “first-class” existence for ourselves. Action and initiative are praised as the positive side-effects of positive and big thinking.

If the contents of the book sometimes seem stale, this is less a fault of the author and more a consequence of the wealth of self-help books published in the wake of books like “The Magic of Thinking Big.” The book’s prose is old-fashioned, but the contents and underlying message of the book remain timely as ever. David J. Schwartz’s book remains a worthwhile read despite the abundance of newer and flashier offerings in the genre.

Pros: Timeless ideas about attitude, action and personal responsibility are presented plainly and effectively.

Cons: Prose is old-fashioned and message might seem stale if you are familiar with more contemporary books from the genre.

Verdict: 7/10

Notes & Highlights

Chapter 1: Believe You Can Succeed and You Will

  • The New Testament of the Bible, Matthew 17:20 — Faith can move mountains. “Believe, really believe, you can move a mountain, and you can. Not many people believe that they can move mountains. So, as a result, not many people do.”
  • If you don’t believe it possible to climb high or achieve great things, your behavior will remain that of the average person.
  • “The how-to-do-it always comes to the person who believes he can do it.”
  • “Belief is the thermostat that regulates what we accomplish in life.”
  • “In the boom period ahead, most people will continue to worry, to be afraid, to crawl through life feeling unimportant, unappreciated, not able to do what they want to do. As a result, their performance will earn them petty rewards, petty happiness.”
  • “Those who convert opportunity into reward will be those wise people who learn how to think themselves into success.”
  • “The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief. Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success.”

Chapter 2: Cure Yourself of Excusitis, the Failure Disease

  • Look to emulate the models for success from studying successful people (and conversely avoid the habits of unsuccessful people).
  • “Excusitis”: Condition where “the fellow who has gone nowhere and has no plans for getting anywhere always has a bookful of reasons to explain why.”
  • Four common forms of Excusitis:
1. “But my health isn’t good.”
2. “But you’ve got to have brains to succeed.”
3. “It’s no use. I’m too old or too young.”
4. “But my case is different; I attract bad luck.”

Chapter 3: Build Confidence and Destroy Fear

  • “Fear is real…we must recognize it exists before we can conquer it.”
  • “Action cures fear.”
  • Two-steps to curing fear and winning confidence: “(1) Isolate your fear. Pin it down. Determine exactly what you’re afraid of. (2) Take action. There is some kind of action for any kind of fear.”
  • Hesitation magnifies and amplifies fear. Take decisive action to counter it.
  • “Much lack of self-confidence can be traced directly to a mismanaged memory.”
  • Successful people don’t give unpleasant, embarrassing or discouraging situations a second thought. They get over it and move on. Unsuccessful people dwell on these events and cannot move forward.
  • Fear of other people can be managed by maintaining a proper perspective: (1) Remember that you are an important person too. Respect yourself as much as you respect the other person in any exchange. (2) Develop empathy for the other person. Remember that most people are good people. If they are angry are short they often do so for any host of reasons (most of which aren’t your fault). “Let the other fellow blow his stack and then forget it.”
  • More tips for building confidence:
      – Sit in the font seat for meetings and other events.
      – Practice making eye contact.
      – Walk 25% faster.
      – Practice speaking up.
      – Smile big.

Chapter 4: How to Think Big

  • Can a person who equates success with security (which is how most people think) be expected to take risks and think big?
  • This was written in 1957 but still holds true today: “Why should young people these days be so ultraconservative, so narrow in their view of the future? Every day there are more signs of expanding opportunity. This country is making record progress in scientific and industrial development. Our population is gaining rapidly. If there ever was a time to be bullish about America, it’s now.”
  • “The tendency for so many people to think small means there is much less competition than you think for a very rewarding career.”
  • “The greatest human weakness is self-deprecation—that is, selling oneself short.” This manifests itself in defeatist thinking like “I’m not good enough to do .”   
  • Ask yourself if you face problems (negative thinking) or challenges (positive thinking)?
  • “To think big, we must use words and phrases that produce big, positive mental images.”
  • Example: Negative: “It’s no use, we’re whipped.”; Positive: “We’re not whipped yet. Let’s keep trying. Here’s a new angle.”
  • “Big thinkers train themselves to see not just what is but what can be.” [me: I definitely fall into the trap of failing to see the future trajectory or changes and assume that situations are static. They aren’t, especially when we are taking action.]
  • Seeing potential and creating stories around future possibilities is one way to avoid narrow thinking.
  • Focusing on trivialities can hamstring your efforts in so many ways. For instance, relationships can be damaged when both parties focus on trivial or perceived slights. Look at the big picture and try to see beyond your own bruised ego in these types of situations.
  • Ask yourself when confronted with something that might be trivial: “Is it really important?” “Is it important enough for me too worked up about it?”
  • Magnify opportunities rather than scrutinize trivialities.

Chapter 5: How to Think and Dream Creatively

  • “Creative thinking is not reserved for certain occupations, nor is it restricted to superintelligent people.”
  • “Creative thinking is simply finding new, improved ways to do anything.”
  • Eliminate the word impossible from your thinking and speaking vocabularies.
  • “The traditional thinker’s mind is paralyzed. He reasons, “It’s been this way for a hundred years. Therefore, it must be good and must stay this way. Why risk a change?”
  • “Average people have always resented progress.”
  • As a test, propose one of the following ideas and watch their behavior (if they laugh at these ideas they may be traditional thinkers):
1. The postal system, long a government monopoly, should be turned over to private enterprise.
2. Presidential elections should be held every two or six years instead of four.
3. Regular hours for retail stores should be 1pm to 8pm instead of 9am to 5:30pm.
4. The retirement age should be raised to seventy.
  • To counter traditional thinking engage in these behaviors:
1. Become receptive to ideas. Destroy these thought repellents: “Won’t work,” “Can’t be done,” “It’s useless,” and “It’s stupid.”
2. Be an experimental person. Break up fixed routines. Expose yourself to new things…
3. Be progressive, not regressive. Not “That’s the way we did it where I used to work…” but “How can we do it better than we did it where I used to work?”
  • Always ask: “How can I improve? How can I do better?”. Author suggests asking this question before you begin the day.
  • “We learn nothing from telling. But there is no limit to what we can learn by asking and listening.”
  • “Ideas are fruits of your thinking. But they’ve got to be harnessed and put to work to have value.”
  • Some ideas for harnessing and developing your ideas:
1. Don’t let ideas escape. Write them down. Every day lots of good ideas are born only to die quickly because they aren’t nailed to paper.
2. Review your ideas. File these ideas in an active file. [Get rid of the bad ideas and save the good ones.]
3. Cultivate and fertilize your idea. Think about it. Investigate all angles.

Chapter 6: You Are What You Think You Are

  • “Thinking regulates actions. If a man feels inferior, he acts that way, and no veneer of cover-up or bluff will hide this basic feeling for long. The person who feels he isn’t important, isn’t.
  • “How you think determines how you cat. Ho you act in turn determines: How others react to you.
  • “To gain the respect of others, you must first think you deserve respect. And the more respect you have for yourself, the more respect others will have for you.”
  • Dress smartly and take care with your appearance: “It helps determine what others think of you…your appearance is the first basis for evaluation other people have.”
  • Think and treat your work as important. Famous story of the three bricklayers: “The first bricklayer says he’s laying brick. The second says he’s making $9.50 an hour. The third says he’s building the world’s greatest cathedral.”
  • Give yourself a pep talk throughout the day: “Remind yourself at every opportunity that you’re a first-class person.”
  • Ask yourself when confronting a situation: “Is this the way an important person thinks?”

Chapter 7: Manage Your Environment: Go First Class

  • “The mind reflects what its environment feeds it just as surely as the body reflects the food you feed it.”
  • “The number one obstacle on the road to high-level success is the feeling that major accomplishment is beyond reach.”
  • Many suppressive comments discourage us from our dreams. Examples: Your dreams are foolish. Your ideas are impractical, stupid or naive. Luck is what wins and you are unlucky. You’re too old. You’re too young. You don’t know the right people.
  • “People who tell you it cannot be done almost always are unsuccessful people, are strictly average or mediocre at best in terms of accomplishment.”
  • “Accept negative advice only as a challenge to prove that you can do it.”
  • “Make it a rule to seek advice from people who know.”
  • Make your social environment “first class” by doing the following:
1. Do circulate in new groups. Restricting your social environment to the same small group produces boredom, dullness, dissatisfaction…
2. Do select friends who have views different from your own.
3. Do select friends who stand above petty, unimportant things. Select friends who are interested in positive things…
  • Gossip is poison. Avoid it and people who spread it.

Chapter 8: Make Your Attitudes Your Allies

  • “Attitudes are mirrors of the mind. They reflect thinking.”
  • “We read attitudes through expressions and voice tones and inflections.”
  • Author recommends growing the following attitudes:
1. Grow the attitude of “I’m activated.”
2. Grow the attitude of “You are important.”
3. Grow the attitude of “Service first.”
  • “To activate others, you must first activate yourself…to get them to be enthusiastic, you must first be enthusiastic yourself.”
  • Tips for improving your enthusiasm:
    1) Dig into the subject more deeply.
    2) Lift everything you do up: Shake hands with effort/energy, smile with your eyes, make your actions deliberate and meaningful (rather than just sleepwalking through the motions).
    3) Broadcast good news: The act of transmitting good news to others will grab their attention and make them feel good. This can be in the form of compliments, affirmations and a general “I feel great” attitude.
  • Everyone has a shared desire: They want to feel important. Consider this and take steps to make others feel this way. “People do more for you when you make them feel important.”
  • Some tips for helping others feel important:
1. Practice appreciation.
2. Practice calling people by their names.
3. Don’t hog glory, invest it instead.
  • A “service first” attitude will lead to financial success.

Chapter 9: Think Right Toward People

  • “Success depends on the support of other people.”
  • “Think right toward people” and treat them right and they will, in turn, like and support you.
  • “Successful people follow a plan for liking people.”
  • President Lyndon Johnson used the following 10-point formula for success before becoming President:
1. Learn to remember names. Inefficiency at this point may indicate that your interest is not sufficiently outgoing.
2. Be a comfortable person so there is no strain in being with you. Be an old-shoe kind of individual.
3. Acquire the quality of relaxed easy-going so that things do not ruffle you.
4. Don’t be egotistical. Guard against the impression that you know it all.
5. Cultivate the quality of being interesting so people will get something of value from their association with you.
6. Study to get the “scratchy” elements out of your personality, even those of which you may be unconscious.
7. Sincerely attempt to heal, on an honest basis, every misunderstanding you have had or now have. Drain off your grievances.
8. Practice liking people until you learn to do so genuinely.
9. Never miss an opportunity to say a word of congratulation upon anyone’s achievement, or express sympathy in sorrow or disappointment.
10. Give spiritual strength to people, and they will give genuine affection to you.
  • “Take the initiative in building friendships—leaders always do.”
  • Six ways to win friends by exercising initiative:
1. Introduce yourself to others at every possible opportunity.
2. Be sure the other person gets your name straight.
3. Be sure you can pronounce the other person’s name the way he pronounces it.
4. Write down the other person’s name, and be mighty sure you have it spelled correctly.
5. Drop a personal note or make a phone call to the new friends you feel you want to know better.
6. Say pleasant things to strangers.
  • How to improve your attitude towards others:
1. Recognize that no person is perfect. People make mistakes.
2. Recognize the fact that. The other fellow has a right to be different.
3. Don’t be a reformer. Most people intensely dislike being told “you’re wrong.”
  • “The average person would rather talk about himself more than anything else in this world. When you give him the chance, he likes you for it.”
  • “Don’t be a conversation hog. Listen, win friends, and learn.”

Chapter 10: Get the Action Habit

  • “Everything we have in this world, from satellites to skyscrapers to baby food, is just an idea acted upon.”
  • “As you study people you find they fall into two classes. The successful are active; we’ll call the activationists. The just average, the mediocre, the unsuccessful are passive. We’ll call them passivationists.”
  • “Mr. Activationist does. Mr. Passivationist is going to do but doesn’t.”
  • Avoid waiting until conditions are perfect before acting. The reality is that you should always expect obstacles and difficulties (and be prepared to overcome/solve them).
  • “Ideas are important. We must have ideas to create and improve anything. Success shuns the man who lacks ideas. But…ideas in themselves are not enough. That idea for getting more business, for simplifying work procedures, is of value only when it is acted upon.”
  • “Action feeds and strengthens confidence; inaction in all forms feeds fear. To fight fear, act. To increase fear—wait, put off, postpone.”
  • Now is the magic word of success. Tomorrow, next week, later, sometime, someday often as not are synonyms for the failure word, never.”
  • Say to yourself “I’ll start right now” rather than “I’ll start someday.”

Chapter 11: How to Turn Defeat into Victory

  • Success is what comes to the persistent man who never considers themselves defeated.
  • Learn to “salvage something from every setback.” Identify how to improve in every situation and you will get better and start to win more.
  • Failure is valuable if we learn from it.
  • “Being self-critical is constructive. It helps you to build the personal strength and efficiency needed for success. Blaming others is destructive. You gain absolutely nothing from proving that someone else is wrong.”
  • “Stop blaming luck. Blaming luck never got anyone where he wanted to go.”
  • Persistence alone isn’t sufficient. Learn to combine experimentation with persistence to overcome failure.
  • “Persistence blended with experimentation does guarantee success.”

Chapter 12: Use Goals to Help You Grow

  • “A goal is an objective, a purpose…it’s the dream being acted upon.”
  • “A goal is a clear ‘This is what I’m working toward.’”
  • Dave Mahoney quote: “The important thing is not where you were or where you are but where you want to get.”
  • “We can and should plan at least ten years ahead…form the image now of the person you want to be ten years from now if you are to become that image.”
  • “Before you start out, know where you want to go.”
  • John Wanamaker quote: “A man is not doing much until the cause he works for possesses all there is of him.”
  • The five weapons used to commit success suicide (avoid/destroy these inclinations):
1. Self-depreciation. “I can’t do it.” “I lack brains.” “I lack education and/or experience.”
2. Security-itis. Persons who say, “I’ve got security where I am” use the security weapons to murder their dreams.
3. Competition. “The field is already overcrowded.”
4. Parental dictation. “My parents want me to do this, so I must.”
5. Family responsibility. The attitude of “It would have been wise for me to change over five years ago, but now I’ve got a family and I can’t change.”
  • “When we face the day with a plan, we get things done.”
  • “You will accomplish only what you plan to accomplish.”
  • “Folks who regard retirement as the end of purposeful living soon find retirement is the end of life itself. With nothing to live for, no goals, people waste away fast.”
  • “Progress is made one step at a time. A house is built a brick at a time.”
  • “Every big accomplishment is a series of little accomplishments.”
  • Evaluate which actions are bringing you closer to your goals by asking the question: “Will this help take me where I want to go?”
  • “The biggest and most rewarding kind of investment is self-investment, purchasing things that build mental power and proficiency.”

Chapter 13: How to Think Like a Leader

  • The four leadership rules:
1. Trade minds with the people you want to influence. (i.e. look at the problem you are trying to solve from their perspective)
2. Think: What is the human way to handle this? (Use empathy, respect, fairness and transparency when dealing with your employees and peers)
3. Think progress, believe in progress, push for progress. (Adopt an always improving mindset and set high standards)
4. Take time out to confer with yourself and develop your supreme thinking power. (Spend time alone thinking and planning)

Get weekly email updates and additional content: Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.