Before I decided to study literature in college, I took the typical freshman approach: I changed my major again and again, based on the whims of my current fascinations, causes and favorite professors. It’s scary looking back, considering I could have based my life’s career goals around an affinity for a class that happenstance scheduled following my afternoon latte boost.
One of my favorite diversions was a foray into sociology. My alma mater, UW-Madison, had a very interesting program full of fascinating idealists, which coincided nicely with my 18-year-old optimism and tattered thrift store clothes. Together we would change the world, one faded ironic T-shirt and clipboard at a time.
I’ve never lost my interest in this field, and I’ve found as I’ve gotten older, my interest in reading novels is oftentimes trumped by an interest in sociological discourse. I read a fascinating book a few years back called Nickle & Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, which chronicled the author’s one-year experiment of trying to live off low-skill, minimum wage jobs in America, including services like waitressing and housekeeping. The book was a sad and telling sign of the state of the less fortunate end of the American workforce and I found it incredibly moving. When I stumbled upon a recent interview with Ms. Ehrenreich on her newest book, I was both amused and surprised. Here’s the basic overview:
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America tackles the topic of our shared cultural fascination with the “power” of positive thinking. Ehrenreich recently wrote a column on the topic in TIME and I have to admit, it was both fascinating and disheartening.
The author’s argument is based on the thesis that the trend towards positive thinking—reinforced by our Oprah-like “me power” culture, not to mention novels like The Secret, which suggest you can have everything if you simply optimize your mental powers to “attract it”—is dangerous and, more importantly, delusional.
“Optimism wasn't just a psycho-spiritual lifestyle option; by the mid-'00s it had become increasingly mandatory… In the workplace, employers culled "negative" people, like those in the finance industry who had the temerity to suggest that their company's subprime exposure might be too high. No one dared be the bearer of bad news. The purpose of work, at least in white-collar settings, was to flatter and reassure the boss, who had in turn probably read enough of the business self-help literature to believe that his job was to motivate others with his own relentless and radiant optimism.”
Her argument is in favor of “reality,” a “stuff happens” approach. It has a clean, non-stardusted feel to it. I’m all in favor of pragmatic, justified thinking, but I wonder if the optimists are doing as much damage as she suggests. Delusion is one thing, but is it so bad to be a cheerful face in a tough business environment?
“The threats that we face, individually and collectively,” says Ehrenreich, “won't be solved by wishful thinking, but by a clear-eyed commitment to taking action in the world.” That’s hard to argue with, although I wouldn’t necessarily classify optimism and wishful thinking into synonymous categories. Don’t we have the capacity to combine hard numbers, useful steps towards success, and—gasp—a leadership position of positivity that encourages our employees to look towards a better future for the industry and the company?
Looking back on college, I don’t think it was optimism that nurtured my success, but I do think the optimism helped build the confidence that allowed me to go after things I wanted.
I understand Ehrenreich’s fear of a dangerous precedent in a business environment—that positive thinking replace more tangible elements—lest we freefall into a bed of pillowy language and platitudes. Pats on the back do not a business plan make. But I wouldn’t blame you if you smiled once in a while…
What are your thoughts? Is optimism over-rated—even dangerous? Email me at email@example.com.
Certainly Ehrenreich is correct that we need to take action, because our problems won’t be solved by wishing them away with positive thinking. However, we can’t just eliminate faith, hope, and a vision of how things should be. Either extreme is going to limit our effectiveness at what we do and how successfull we are. In reading your article I think you have hit upon the answer: we need to be balanced in our thinking. We need a true understanding of the current reality and an action plan to deal with it as needed. But on the other hand, we need to be able to think positively on how things can be improved... there IS power in positive thinking but it has to be backed up with action.
I’m not sure if we can equate our current economic troubles with optimism. Those in the finance sector probably did smile and say to themselves, “Everything will work out in the end, it always does.” However, this is more of a delusional mindset rather than an optimistic one. Maybe the two are one in the same, as your column suggests, but I’m not sure.
Probably the biggest problem in our society is a culture of passing the buck. If you’re doing your job the way you’re instructed, you and others will certainly take the responsibility for business outcomes, positive or negative. I think that scenario rarely happens — businesses and employees tend to contrive elaborate excuses. Of course, business ethics becomes the next concern.
One thing I do remember from college is “groupthink.” Is that a term from sociology? Oftentimes, I think groupthink is more likely to form in overly positive situations. Although an employee might have reservations about an idea or project, he or she might not want to seem like the negative person within a group that seems committed toward the same ideal. If an overly positive environment = groupthink, then would an environment that favors ideas and critical thinking be better for business?
Great piece on “Positive Thinking.” We have actually banned negative thoughts here at my company as we search for new business. But as negative thoughts creep in, we do take a "**** happens" approach also. We just lost our “bread and butter” client and were down in the dumps for several months. We have yet to replace that client but have learned a lesson. Optimism is not over-rated, just over-shadowed sometimes.
I am a self-taught small business owner who is struggling to get beyond this current cycle in the economy. Nevertheless, here is my viewpoint.
Optimism is a good and necessary part of survival, both in the business world and in your personal life. I believe that the real issue here is a person's ability to balance that optimism with reality. If you are the "eternal optimist", you are most likely escaping the reality of today. However, if you can look at situations with an open mind, separate the good from the bad, and be optimistic about the good, then you have the necessary balance to survive.
Having said that, in the business world you do need the ability to show your optimism when appropriate, and your pessimism when appropriate — always weighing one against the other. This used to be called a realistic viewpoint.