Adventures on the Negative Path

I was listening once again to someone bloviating about how success depends on determination, pushing through, persevering in the face of the array of negative forces arrayed against you when I finally tumbled to what bugged me about it. Success does often depend on those things.

But so does failure.

One criticism of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided is that it identifies the problem with positive thinking but does not offer a solution. Now, I don’t think the two need always come packaged together; just because you’ve identified that things are wrong does not mean that you instantly know how to make them right. In fact, finding a solution is often a team effort predicated on sufficient numbers of people acknowledging a problem exists.

That said, Ehrenreich’s book left me in the dumps. And with “positive thinking” the very target of the book — well, what are you going to do instead?

Oliver Burkeman’s book Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking offers some good suggestions. Starting with the premise that the cult of positivity is not only useless but actually actively harmful, Burkeman examines several cultures and philosophies that meet head-on what positivity tries to paper over.

He starts with stoicism, which is not the joyless, Spock-like logic I imagined it to be, then proceeds through Buddhism, the uncharacteristically selfless New Age thought of Eckhart Tolle, and closes with the practice of Memento Mori — including death in life, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

But it’s not all philosophy. He also examines how goal-setting becomes self-defeating and can lead to disaster, as it did on Everest. He visits a museum of failed product design, which is needed and valued because many companies not only refuse to acknowledge their errors, they can’t even remember they’ve made them. And he also explores how constant grasping after security, stability, and safety also locks us out of life (while giving us the TSA).

I recognized little bits of myself and my own thinking throughout the book. Stoicism, for example, is the most effective method I’ve discovered for dealing with air travel. I’ve never been big on goal-setting, either, but now at least I don’t feel like I’m doing life wrong by not having a ten-year plan.

A lot of people will have this experience with the book. It may not actually tell you anything you didn’t suspect to be true already. But it is good to hear someone else say it, to write down in book form that there’s nothing broken with your brain because you fire-walking is a neat physics trick and not proof of the power of focus and determination. Positive thinking is so pervasive, in western spiritual life as well as businesses, that thinking like this can start to feel very isolating. The great value of Antidote is that it argues, effectively, that you are not alone.

And that if trying to Think Positively makes you miserable, well, it would be a small miracle if it did anything else.


Barbara Ehrenreich opens Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America with the tale of her own treatment for breast cancer and the pressure put upon those with breast cancer to maintain a relentlessly cheerful and positive outlook — lest they weaken their immune system with negative thoughts. Although that sounds hyperbolic, Ehrenreich has stories of women lectured in hospitals, scolded in support groups, and — in one case — even called out by Deepak Chopra for what most people would consider an absolutely normal response to a life-threatening illness.

From there, Ehrenreich traces the history of the Positive Thinking movement as a response to Calvinism and the birth of Christian Science, then examines Positive Thinking’s role in business, religion (as the “prosperity gospel”), modern psychiatric research, and — finally — its role in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.

Of course, positive thinking works — to a certain extent. Ehrenreich credits Christian Science with frequently effective treatment of nineteenth-century invalidism, for example. And it’s easy to mistake her argument as opposing incidental optimism or a generally positive outlook. She says in the introduction:

At the risk of redundancy or even tautology, we can say that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be “positive,” certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad. [p. 2]

What is at stake in her argument is the culture of the relentlessly positive — that simply through visualizing health, success, and positive energy, everything will work out for the best. That has a dark side. Not only does it blame the afflicted while patting the comfortable on the back; it prohibits the critical thinking and analysis needed to avoid disaster and chart a course to success.

Five Babble-Busting Business Books

Most bookstores have shelves and shelves of very serious-looking business books. You know, the ones with names like The Seven Good-to-Great Habits of Getting Highly Effective People to Yes. You might pass these by, thinking their promise of easy riches and fool-proof business success schemes are too good to be true.

I used to. But then I picked up a few and read them, and suspicion turned into certainty. Books in this section of the store might sell a lot, but the question is: are they serious, valuable business books? Or are they self-help books dressed up in accountant eyeshades?

Here are five books that cut through the nonsense so you can answer that question.

The Management Myth, by Matthew Stewart

Two true things. One: we have a vast educational network training managers. Two: Dilbert has been popular for decades.

What Dilbert’s popularity suggests is that management training is not all it’s cracked up to be. Matthew Stewart thinks he knows why: we’ve been treating “management” as a scientific rather than interpersonal skill, abandoning known effective management techniques for pseudoscientific theories.

And those theories have not worked out as well as we might have hoped. It turns out that management is still working with people, and yes, you do need to know something about the work you are managing in order to be an effective manager.

If you want a thumbnail look at Stewart’s ideas, you can read his 2006 Atlantic article.

Fixing The Game, by Roger L. Martin

You might have thought that a CEO’s job was to run the company effectively, competitively, and profitably. You thought wrong. Since the seventies, the CEO’s job has been to make sure dividends get delivered and stock prices stay high. So the CEO’s primary concern is not the customer, it’s the shareholders. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Martin tells us where this theory came from and how it became regulatory law. His theory is that maximizing shareholder value has focused corporate innovation on gaming stock prices, cost-cutting, and fraud. He suggests several regulatory and compensation changes to encourage CEOs to refocus on the important things that are supposed to make capitalism a social good: customer service and fulfilling real needs.

It’s a fascinating book, and even if you’re not in a position to make the changes he suggests it goes a long way to explaining both how companies get into legal trouble and why you can’t find a knowledgeable store clerk at Best Buy when you need one.

Forbes did an excellent review with the headline “The Dumbest Idea in the World: Maximizing Shareholder Value.”

The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosenzweig

In B-School classic Good to Great, Jim Collins makes a lot of hay out of the years and boxes of research he and his graduate students did to find out how good companies turn into great companies. Rosenzweig says it doesn’t matter how much research you do if your methodology is crap, and Collins’ methodology is exactly that.

In fact, a lot of the more scientific-sounding books in the business inspiration genre turn out to be based on no real science at all, which is why the people who read them don’t suddenly become enormously successful.

The Halo Effect is more than just a takedown of the business inspiration genre, though; it’s also a great lay-person’s guide to what real research looks like and how to recognize writing that masquerades as science, no matter what the field.

You can read an interview with Phil Rosenzweig at the Business Intelligence Network.

Pound Foolish, by Helaine Olen

Telling folks they are horrible humans for being fiscally ignorant is big business (and politically useful), as popular finance gurus like Dave Ramsey can demonstrate. Pound Foolish starts out as an entertaining critique of these folks, pointing out how their austerity philosophy is both hypocritical and destructive. Olen’s examination math and business model behind David Bach’s Latte Factor® alone is worth the cover price.

But these people are easy pickings, and Olen soon moves on to a convincing and depressing account of how most “responsible” savings strategies are risky and untested — those profit-sharing plans and retirement accounts make a lot of money for the administrators now, but will they really perform well enough in the future?

The book has been dinged a lot in Amazon reviews for being intensely negative while not offering many solutions. That’s not quite accurate — Olen does have some solutions. Unfortunately they are neither market-based nor something individuals could put in place without dirtying their hands with politics, so most people will discount what she says needs to be done out-of-hand.

Depressing though it is, it’s a great antidote to the think-and-grow-rich pablum filling the finance aisles. It also makes a compelling case for not privatizing what’s left of our social security.

Bob Garfield of On the Media interviewed Helaine Olen, and you can listen to the segment or read a transcript.

Start With No, by Jim Camp

If there’s any book on this list that reads like business-babble, it’s this one. Camp is relentlessly self-promotional and he makes some extraordinary claims about the efficacy of his method. That said, it’s hard to argue with his critique of “Win-Win” negotiation. Espousing win-win, he says, is a strategy endorsed by large companies because it is so easy to take advantage of. If you’re the one looking for a win-win solution, you’re affectively negotiating against yourself. Protect your own interests, says Camp, and let the other business party look after theirs — then win-win should happen on its own.

Two critical ideas from the book: Camp says you can’t negotiate unless you are willing to say “no.” And he also encourages you to offer your opposite party the opportunity to say “no” also. Doing both of these will save time and help outline the boundaries of what a good deal will look like.

If you want to get a sense of Camp’s philosophy, he wrote a short article on Forbes recently called “ 3 Tips on How to Negotiate with the Tiger.

So that’s five books to read, and individually they are pretty interesting. Collectively, they’re downright apocalyptic. Read them together and you’re likely to think the business world is populated by improperly trained people following arbitrary advice to advance the wrong goals while haranguing you about fiscal irresponsibly, so you’re better off stuffing your cash in your mattress.

Of course, if you already feel that way, there’s not much of a risk there…

Poor execution of theme

Some years ago I read the His Dark Materials books without knowing anything about them. After the first book I thought it was supposed to be a pagan version of the Narnia books. By the last one I was convinced I’d just read an allegory of the Christian conquest of pagan culture.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned Pullman intended the books to be Atheist tracts.