The positive power of negative thinking

Do you remember when ‘The Secret’ was all the rage?  Vision Boards were created en masse, with the belief that untold riches and happiness would be ours if we only pictured it hard enough.

I’m a pretty optimistic person, so the belief that you ‘bring about what you think about’ appeals to me.  I find that focusing on a positive outcome, even when I have no evidence to support it, allows me to get on with the task in hand, without getting bogged down by potentially disastrous outcomes.

Yet, research suggests that positivity and optimism can actually hold us back if it’s not tempered appropriately with negativity and pessimism.  If we only focus on a positive outcome, we’re not equipped to cope when things do fail or go wrong (a certainty in life, no matter how optimistic you are).  Visualizing the worst-case scenario can actually reduce anxiety about the future. Similarly, self-awareness is a great counter-balance to optimism.

This NYT article about the near-demise and subsequent rise of restaurateur, David Chang, demonstrates this theory perfectly.

The story starts with Chang’s dream restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar in dire straits.  Despite his hard work, talent, and experience, Chang was struggling to keep the lights on.   What he did next was a life-changing decision.  He released his attachment to his vision and questioned, everything: from his assumptions and biases, to his methodology.  Rather than continue trying and make his dream work against the odds, he decided to try something radically different. He and his chefs went into the kitchen with one directive: cook the dish of your wildest dreams.  The outcome: “the crowds came, rave reviews piled up, awards followed and unimaginable opportunities presented themselves.”.

If you feel inspired to embrace your inner pessimist and optimist, these strategies will help you find your balance:

1) Look for a positive outcome in everything

When faced with adversity or criticism, it’s natural to dig in and defend our position. But in doing so, we deprive both parties of an opportunity to create something really great. Rather than feeling defeated by a client’s lukewarm response to your brilliant ideas, try seeing it as an opportunity to learn more about what they do like.  Take your findings back to the drawing board and try again. If it were easy to create top-quality creative, everyone would be doing it!

2) If something’s not working, ask why

It’s easy to assign blame or put our heads in the sand, but there’s always something we can do to improve the outcome.   When we remove ourselves emotionally, we’re able to see the problems more clearly and make informed choices.  That said, being objective can be hard when comes to your baby, ahem, business. Which brings me to #3.

3) Invite your trusted circle to weigh in

I find it incredibly helpful to run things by a few trusted confidantes.  While they should always be supportive, it helps if they have a different perspective.  For example, my friend Marsha knows my business inside out and is always very optimistic.  My husband, on the other hand, asks tough questions and helps me get past the fear and resistance to make a plan for positive action.

4) Make changes based on your findings

Change is hard, but why cling to an assumption or methodology that’s not serving you?  Be honest with yourself about why things aren’t working.  Do you need to pursue a new path? Do you need to stop working with certain clients or collaborators? I recently wrote this post about my own experience of looking at what wasn’t working and making some big changes in my business. It wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do.

5) Be fearless

Have you ever noticed how we perform better when we have nothing to lose?   Even if you’re scared witless, go for glory!

I won’t be ditching my glass-is-half-full ways anytime soon, but isn’t it empowering to know that more than one approach can serve us?

Which way do you lean?  Are you a gung-ho optimist or a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist?  I’d love to hear how your view of the world affects the way you live and do business.

If you’d like to learn more on this topic, here are a couple of recommendations:

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

Good to Great by Jim Collins

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