Back in 1952, a Protestant minister from Ohio published a book whose title, over time, has become a catch phrase unto itself. That man was Norman Vincent Peale and the book is The Power of Positive Thinking. It’s almost become a cliché unto itself in terms of people talking about how to get through difficult times – “Be positive! You know – the power of positive thinking!” It’s also one of those things that someone can say to you when you’re mired in the midst of a complete bog of suckdom that makes you just want to go upside their head. Oh come on! Don’t act like I’m alone on that one.
Anyhoo, as someone who does my best to maintain a good frame of mind (with varying degrees of success, admittedly), this piece over at Psychology Today’s blog (brought to my attention by the good folks at Lifehacker) jumped out at me a bit. While I am certainly a fan of trying to keep things in perspective and seeing the good, even in bad moments, I’m always intrigued by those who cut across the grain. People who challenge commonly established dogma tend to intrigue the hell out of me. I’m not always going to agree with them, but I will certainly try to take a few nuggets from whatever they may have to say. Except for those dudes who are obsessed with the whole Mayan calendar and 2012 nonsense. Dude… please. Take it down a few notches.
The point of the blog piece by Srikumar Rao is simple: when we constantly put events or situations we encounter into the black and white buckets of “good” and “bad”, we will end up on the losing end one way or the other. Why? He explains:
No matter what happens to us in life we tend to think of it as "good" or "bad". And most of us tend to use the "bad" label three to ten times as often as the "good" label. And when we say something is bad, the odds grow overwhelming that we will experience it as such. And that is when we need positive thinking. We have been given something bad, a real lemon, and we better scramble and make some lemonade out of it and salvage something out of this "bad" situation.
How tiring and tiresome!
So if we say something is bad, we are highly likely to have the experience of that event being bad. We will then likely feel compelled to make something good of that situation… and now the pressure is on. It’s certainly an interesting view.
Personally, I’m not sure I would view this as a stressor, but more our natural reaction of “Well, I don’t like bad… so how do I find something of value in this moment?" Where’s the silver lining?” I know I do this, but I am the first to admit it’s about 1,000 times easier doing this when viewing a tough event a friend is enduring as opposed to turning the penetrating eye of clarity upon myself.
This recalls for me an excellent portion of Jim Collins classic book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. One of the points Collins seeks to make about companies who are able to transition from being merely good to being exceptional is that they need to be committed to succeeding, but all the while, they must squarely confront the brutal facts. In order to illustrate this story, he discusses a meeting he had with Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking officer kept as a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. Listen to this clip of Collins explaining his meeting with Stockdale:
It’s a powerful and challenging thought: the ones who didn’t make it were the optimists. Stockdale was able to survive because he was 100% resolute in his belief of prevailing, but he did that in light of the brutal facts of being held prisoner in an absolute hellhole.
Maybe you really can be too positive… but only if you do so in an utterly blind belief about your circumstances or why you are seeking to be positive in the first place. The “Stockdale Paradox” is a notion I find truly appealing and defining because it’s sort of like optimism with a truly wicked chip on your shoulder. In an odd way, it’s part of what has inspired me to push through some challenging times the last few years… that life may be giving me a lot to handle… but I’ll be damned if I let myself relent for a moment because I will come through.