Friday, November 20, 2009

Sunny Side Down

I went to hear journalist, author and all-around rabble-rouser Barbara Ehrenreich speak recently about her new book, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Undermined America."

Ehrenreich is probably best known for her 2001 book, "Nickel and Dimed," which recounts her undercover experiment trying to get by on the low-wage jobs that typically are done by this country's working poor.

The new book grew out of her diagnosis of breast cancer shortly after "Nickel and Dimed" was published. Immediately, Ehrenreich says, she was bombarded with "think positive" messages - something that grated on her as a natural pessimist.

"Bright-Sided" debunks the notion that positive thinking contributes to recovery from cancer or any other disease (studies show that cranky people recover just as often as perky people do) and also examines how the wave of positive thinking has affected the business world.

Ehrenreich shows how the banishing of bad news from the corporate board room contributed to last year's horrific financial meltdown. Top CEOs (who have no excuse for not knowing better) fell for the "we can do anything we try!" motivational mentality and kicked naysayers out of their ranks.

Risk managers - those "just say no" guys and gals who have usefully put the brakes on stupid risks and harebrained plans for years - were fired or shut down. They weren't positive enough, you see.

The same thing happens in all kinds of firms, when CEOs become so isolated or intimidating that no one on the staff dares to cross them, or warn that their new ideas aren't so great. In fact, it's the number one reason companies fail, according to Billion Dollar Lessons, by Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui (highly recommended).

This month's Atlantic cover story takes a similar theme, laying some of the meltdown at the feet of the evangelical "prosperity gospel" preachers and televangelists.

I'm such a natural optimist that I doubt I could think negative thoughts very long even if I tried. But I sympathize with those glass-half-empty folks who are made to believe that if their disease returns or they don't get that raise, it's their own fault. That's not positive at all - it's just plain cruel.


  1. Just because you're an optimist doesn't make you impractical--I think confusing those two separate issues and blaming it on optimism is misguided. I wouldn't call hearing what you want to hear optimism. Confirming our biases is pretty much human nature--and that's what con artists thrive on.

  2. It's good to be either an optimist or a pessimist, I think. I struggle with both, which isn't good, because I'm in a constant mental battle. Sometimes I'd rather be sure, even if I was wrong, just to be more comfortable.

  3. The latest research shows that we are pretty much born with a personality type, including half-full/half-empty, and it's rather futile to try to change that entirely.

    There's something to be said for recognizing which you are and trying to balance it by doing specific practical things.

    For instance, I have to constantly ground myself and check my overly optimistic impulses, because they have gotten me in trouble in the past (lack of planning for or anticipating obvious setbacks).

    I think pessimistic types would do well to remind themselves to consider the positive possibilities and perhaps make sure they have contact with "up" people on a regular basis.

  4. Pessimists do well in certain professions. George used to call himself a "professional pessimist" because, as a commercial lawyer, his job was to envision the worst disaster scenarios (and then protect the bank against them).

    I like optimism with action, not the offensive "Secret" type of positive thinking.

  5. Those professional pessimists are an important check and balance, particularly in business. One problem precipitating the latest financial crisis is that those "Georges" of the world were either ignored, marginalized or fired. The excuse given was that they weren't positive enough - despite the fact that their role was to be the "reality check" on runaway optimism.