Part I | Part II
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was a positive genius—someone who sees that he has the ability to do something about the negative realities in the world, by the grace of God. In his book, Before Happiness*, Shawn Achor lists the five skills of a positive genius, and I could see each one in the Prophet ﷺ.
The first skill is choosing the most valuable reality. Our biggest mistake sometimes is believing that our negative perception is the only reality that exists. Now what was the Prophet’s ﷺ reality? He was an orphan, no brothers or sisters, with a handful of believers who were harassed and abused by the wider society. When his uncle and wife passed away, there was literally nothing preventing Quraish from murdering him—and we know they tried. And this is reality, is it not? He could have focused on that. He could have been so consumed by that reality that he could not see anything else. But when his uncle passed away, he focused on Taif. When Taif fell apart, he knew he had the hajj (holy pilgrimage) season to look forward to because all the tribes would come to Makkah from all over Arabia. But things were not easy for the Prophet ﷺ even after migrating to Madina. Actually, they were difficult. The companions became ill. They missed Makkah and recited poetry about it. So what did the Prophet ﷺ do? He prayed to God to make Madina as beloved to them as Makkah. He knew that his du`a’ (supplications) could change reality. And it did—after the conquest of Makkah, the Prophet ﷺ and many of the companions went back to Madina.
Secondly, the Prophet ﷺ knew what was meaningful to him. Achor defines “meaning markers” as things in your life that matter to you, which you use to draw mental maps to success. Without meaning, we burn out. This can be applied to things like activism or our jobs to things like prayer. When we get tired of praying, it is because we have not connected to the meaning of prayer, or we forgot along the way. It becomes a chore. Similarly with activism, we burn out because we forget what gave it meaning to begin with. We get tired and then maybe leave it. When Aisha, radi Allahu ‘anha (May Allah be pleased with her), saw the Prophet ﷺ praying for so long that his feet became swollen, she said to him:
“O Messenger of Allah, why do you undergo so much hardship despite the fact that Allah has pardoned for you your earlier and later sins?”
He ﷺ responded: “Afala akuna abdan shakura? – Should I not be a thankful servant?” (Bukhari)
This is why we are taught to attach a sincere intention to everything we do. This gives what we do meaning. You can give current things in your life meaning by attaching a sincere intention to them (for example, your halal income), but once you know what is truly meaningful to you, you can change your present situation to include those things (starting a hobby outside work for example). Moreover, it is about diversifying. If we only attach meaning to our jobs, and forget our family and friends, pretty soon we will find ourselves drained. The Prophet ﷺ was balanced. He spent quality time with his family. Aisha (ra) said that the Prophet ﷺ would joke with them, talk to them, and even race with Aisha (ra). He spent quality time with the companions. Amr bin al-Aas (ra) said that the Prophet ﷺ was so attentive to him he thought he was the best companion! He ensured his time with his Lord was about quality too, as we saw with the hadith (tradition of the Prophet) above.
Thirdly, he knew how to propel himself more quickly towards his goal. Achor explains that the closer we perceive ourselves to be to our goal, the faster we move towards it, like a runner finishing a race – he speeds up. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (Exhalted is He) promises in the Qur’an that He will make after hardship ease. The conviction in that alone meant the Prophet ﷺ knew that there would be something good coming. Moreover, the Prophet ﷺ did not focus on the problems of the present, but saw each step (no matter how small) as him getting closer to his finish line. And that made what he went through worth it, and it gave him energy to continue. It is not about how far or near the goal actually is, but where we perceive it is. If you want to encourage people to donate money for a cause, what encourages people more is knowing that, for example, you have already raised 10%. If you tell people you need to raise $100,000 and you have already raised $10,000, it is easier to get people to donate than to tell them you need to raise $90,000 and you have nothing. At the end, the amount you have to raise is the same, but it is our perception that gives us the energy to move towards the goal.
So that is what our brain responds to. When the Prophet ﷺ was migrating from Makkah to Madina under dangerous circumstances, he said to Suraqa bin Malik (who was initially trying to kill the Prophet!): “What about a day when you will be wearing the bracelets of Kisra.” Suraqa was shocked. “Kisra?!” And the Prophet ﷺ said “Yes, Kisra the son of Hermuz” (the leader of the powerful Persian empire). Simply by being en route to the safety of Madina, the Prophet ﷺ saw his finish line as closer. And he was confident about reaching his target.
Fourthly, he canceled out the noise, and focused on the signals. Achor says in the book that your brain can process only 40 bits of information per second despite the fact that you are inundated with 11 million pieces of information coming from all your nerve endings! Most of that is just noise, meaning information that distracts us from making positive change. What we choose to process then in turn reflects where we put our energy. So noise is information that is negative, false or simply unnecessary, whereas signals are pieces of information that are true and reliable and alert us to possibilities. The Prophet ﷺ focused on signals, meaning things that he could actually use. For example, if he focused on all the noise that was telling him that everyone was out to get them, he would not have been able to utilize the opportunities when they came up. But when the Muslims migrated to Madina, the Prophet ﷺ conducted a population census—he even created a signal, because that information would come in handy. He then set up a new market so the Muslims could begin to work and trade. What he could have done was worry about imminent attacks from the Mekkans. It’s not that there wasn’t that threat, but he gave them the attention that they needed, and not more. He could have focused his energy on arming the Muslims, but he dealt with that aspect by concluding treaties with the different communities in Madina for protection. He then worked on getting the companions settled.
An important aspect is he did not have the issue of internal noise. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy with the negative talk we subject ourselves to. But he had a strong relationship with Allah (swt), and thus he knew his worth to Allah (swt).
The fifth skill? He transferred his positive reality to others. He taught people how to see the good. He taught us not to belittle any good deed, even a smile to someone. When Mu’adh bin Jabal was sent to Yemen, the Prophet ﷺ told him:
“Make things easy and do not make things hard. Tell people of glad tidings, and do not push them away.” (Bukhari)
He reminded us always that the door to God is always open. When a man came to Prophet ﷺ confessing that he had done impermissible things with a woman he was not married to, the Prophet ﷺ recited the following verse to him:
“And establish prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approach of the night. Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember” (Qur’an, 11:114).
That is why the companions were the best of people. They internalized the positive genius of the Prophet ﷺ, and created their own positive realities.
So are you a positive genius?
*Much of the advice from this article is based on Shawn Achor’s book, Before Happiness.