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Positive Thinking

Next time someone tells you to think positively, tell them no, or at the very least ask them to define precisely what they mean by it.


Run through some websites and self-help books and it doesn’t take long to realize that the positive thinking being expressed is really no more than a euphemism for maintaining unbridled blind optimism, they contain simple mantras designed simply to make us feel good, regardless of our circumstances.

Consider the stories of Rear Admiral James B. Stockdale, who during the Vietnam War was forced to eject from his aircraft and was taken into captivity by the Vietnamese.  At the time he was the highest ranking Naval Officer in captivity and was therefore quite a prize for his captors.  In captivity he embarked upon various resistance activities, at one stage he cut his scalp with razors, disfiguring himself in order to stop him being used for propaganda, when they put a hat on his head to cover the scars he then battered his own face with a chair.  He spent 7 years in atrocious conditions, including 4 in solitary confinement, before finally being freed. 

The Stockdale Paradox 

Stockdale was interviewed as part of Jim Collins research into his book 'Good to Great', Collins had noticed some similarities between Stockdale’s approach to his situation and that of companies that had become “great” for a sustained period of time.  Stockdale’s philosophy was simple, he was in a very bad place and he recognized that, but he maintained his faith that one day he would be ok and his experiences would be the making of him.   When asked about those that failed to return he described them as the optimists; the ones that believed they would be free by Christmas, then free by Easter, free by their birthday, free by the next Christmas – they died of broken hearts as their dreams of freedom consistently evaporated.  The lesson that Stockdale described, which Collins then called the Stockdale Paradox, was that:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The Stockdale Paradox points precisely to the major problem with unfettered optimism or Positive Thinking.  It allows us to exclude the bad things, the obstacles and the hindrances that will prevent our success, from our thinking and decision-making.  Unfettered optimism allows and even encourages us to plough on regardless of the realities of the world around us.  You will see this consistently in failed businesses and on Dragon’s Den, the 'realists' are the Dragons and the 'optimists' are the ones who stand before them with a loony-tunes idea that no-one will buy, or the poorly researched business-plan that predicts growth previously never witnessed, they’re often the ones that tell the Dragons they are wrong and that they will be sat in that Dragon’s chair in a year or two.  The rejected investment opportunities are often the ones that are not grounded in reality where Theo asks, of the man who has mortgaged his house in support of a gizmo or doodad for which there is no market, 'What planet are you living on?

Failure Is Allowed

Positive Thinking as a mantra fails to serve us in another more fundamental way.
If we tell ourselves, constantly, that we must remain positive, we deny ourselves the right to feel some very real human emotions around our failures to meet our own expectations, if we tell ourselves we must always be positive we start to make ourselves wrong when we cannot maintain that positivity, even for a moment.  We heap further pressures on ourselves and ultimately we impede our own performance further still as we feed our inner critic who will gnaw at us saying, “Ha! I told you so, you are shit, you will be found out, you loser”.

Focus on What You Want

A very natural and human tendency is to focus on the consequences of our failures, our thoughts then becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We all know what that is like, Rowan Atkinson’s “Best Man” back in the eighties certainly did:

“This morning I said to myself, ‘The last thing I must do today, is forget my speech’, and sure enough, the last thing I did…”

It is the same for the golfer that fails to hit the fairway and finds the solitary bunker that they are aware they need to avoid, the world class tennis player serving a double fault that they know they cannot afford to make and the Olympic archer who sees their opponent hit a 6 and thinks to themselves “I must not hit a 6 like they did” before going on to hit a 6…

The most successful people differ from others in that they focus with great intensity on what they are looking to achieve, directing their energies towards attaining their objectives and maintaining faith that they will get there if they continue in the right direction.

Generate Positive Actions

The answer is not to think positively, but to:

  • Maintain your focus on your objectives
  • Continue to have faith that you will, eventually, attain your goals
  • Reflect on your situation with honesty, confront the brutal facts of your reality; engage, examine and understand the world as it really, really is for you.
  • Having recognized the obstacles, consider what has worked, what hasn’t been so effective and what you need to do differently.
  • Make the necessary calibrations to your plans and activities, continue the journey towards your goal and review your progress against your objectives regularly.

    Exercise your Realistic Thinking to generate Positive Actions.

~ Gary Walker

After nearly 25 years as a business insurance advisor and salesman I now work almost exclusively as a freelance assistant to Philip Goldman, one of the UK’s top Leadership Coaches.  Philip works with CEOs at the highest level, his clients include some of the world’s best known brands and FTSE100 companies.  I credit Philip with fuelling my interest in what it means to be a world class leader and that coaching in business is neither about providing solutions and using the latest management “tools” nor hugging trees and mopping furrowed brows, but helping those we work with to understand the emotional drivers that make humans what we are and how we can all go on to true self-empowerment, discovering for ourselves what it takes to be the best person, whatever that means for us individually, that we can be.

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