It can be really easy in life to spend time looking backward, ruminating on what has already passed. That word, “ruminate,” is interesting. There are two meanings for it. First, it means to go over in the mind repeatedly, and often casually or slowly. Second, it speaks to how a cow eats. Simply put, they digest their food by chewing it, swallowing it, and then bringing it back up so they can chew it all over again. Repeating this un-swallowing process over and over improves digestion.

Ruminating works great for cows. Unfortunately, it can create very different results for us.

Going back to that first definition, ruminating speaks to us going over things in our minds repeatedly. Very rarely does this kind of thinking focus on our wins, successes, or things we did well. Instead, we get caught in vicious “shoulda,” “woulda,” and “coulda” conversations with ourselves. We rewind and replay all of our missed shots, failures, and defeats over and over in our heads, picking apart every detail and mis-step.

To be fair, we can learn from our failures. There is generally some solid data and experience to be gained when we try something and are unsuccessful. Almost always, success comes after multiple tries. We never nail it the first chance we get, and in every loss, there are things we can learn and take with us to our next attempt. “It didn’t work when I tried this, so I’ll adjust course a bit and try again.” That is healthy and can be the very thing that launches us into our successes. When we talk about failing fast and celebrating failure, this is the part we’re focusing on – the things we’re learning and how it’s helping us grow.

In the book, It Takes What It Takes, mindset coach Trevor Moawad shares the power of neutral thinking. His experience working with world-class athletes like NFL quarterback Russell Wilson speaks to the power of staying neutral. In essence, we want first to avoid negative thinking. Most everyone reading this will nod their heads in agreement. Negativity does nothing but drag us down. So that must mean we just need to think positive, right? 

As Moawad shares, that’s not it either. Slipping into an overly optimistic mindset can also set us up for failure. Life is not all unicorns and rainbows and sunshine. Somedays include storms, challenges, and dragons. Positivity alone won’t change our circumstances. Instead, we need to stay neutral. We need to read our environment, look at all the things around us that we know to be true and accurate, and work from those. We need to take in the data from around us and read what’s going on – then choose our next action based on what is true, not what we feel.

As Moawad shares, “Neutral thinking is ‘The past is real, but it’s not predictive.’ What happens next is based on what you do, not how you feel.” He goes on, “Where you were won’t define you. What you do next will.”

Rumination isn’t focused on where we’re going. It’s focused on where we were, and it tells us that our past IS predictive. Ruminating thoughts keep us re-chewing what happened behind us rather than thinking about what we’re going to do next as we move ahead. When we un-swallow our past over and over again, we can’t move forward. We’re stuck in reverse.

In It Takes What It Takes, Moawad talks about his divorce, which got me thinking about my own. The only reason I was successful in creating a life after divorce is that I didn’t spend time ruminating on the past. Instead, I shifted quickly into neutral and focused on what was true at that moment. I was a divorced dad with two young children who desperately needed me. I was an entrepreneur with a business that was growing. I was in the prime of my life, and there was a lot of future in front of me. And, I had my faith and was surrounded by a group of like-minded men who were there to help hold me up. That was my reality when I embraced neutral thinking.

In that moment, I saw this one thing clearly… If I spent any time allowing myself to ruminate on what had been, I was going to jeopardize what could be as I moved forward. That was the truth, and I needed to stay neutral to create new success.

Yes, positivity played a role. It was part of the playbook, and I know there is a place for positive thinking. It simply has to be positive thinking based on a foundation of reality. At the same time, there is no place for negative thinking. That needs to be rooted out quickly and shut down. This can be hard, but negative thinking is a weed that will crowd out everything else if left unchecked. 

The best way to control the negativity? Quit ruminating on it. Quit un-swallowing your past failures and challenges, setting them on replay so you can watch them over and over again. Quit exposing yourself to the outside influences that fuel your negative thinking – the news and social media that you’re chewing and re-chewing. Quit being reckless with what you verbalize and speak into reality – it’s like chewing with your mouth open.

Instead, get back to neutral thinking, laser-focused on what is true and real. You may be frustrated by challenging circumstances or things from your past, but stay in the moment and use neutral thinking to start moving forward.

The Takeaway

First, be careful when you catch yourself un-swallowing and ruminating on your past. Second, make room for neutral thinking. Your past doesn’t define you. What you do next will. Make that your go-to. 

Ready for more?

Curious about the book It Takes What It Takes? Find it here:

Follow me here for more tools like this, weekly encouragement, and insights to help you create more impact in your life. You can also listen in on the Grit Meets Growth podcast that I share with Chris Cathers. It’s available here or on your favorite podcast platforms. – John