Wednesday, January 21, 2009


In the 1970’s I read Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” and have worked on being a positive thinker ever since. There have been many evolutions and adaptations on positive thinking over the past decades.

In the 1980’s positive thinking was overtaken by “Positive Mental Attitude”, which was largely positive thinking with an emphasis on one’s attitude for the purpose of improving performance.

In the 1990’s it evolved into “positive attitude” which focused entirely on attitude rather than thinking or performance. Considering the possibility of negative outcomes as a part of understanding various courses of actions was branded as “negativity” which was bad because it made it hard to maintain a positive attitude. In corporations, government, and across the globe talking about negative outcomes, downsides, or catastrophes that might happen became unacceptable. Over time nothing depressing or negative, no matter how much evidence might exist to support it, could be mentioned in any forum and those that did were criticized and often removed from their positions.

The positive attitude culture that dominated the early 2000’s has lead to a “positive” view of reality where housing prices always go up, anyone can make a quick $100K by working weekends fixing up and flipping houses, everyone can retire rich without saving, corporations can be successful without being profitable, and the US economy can thrive even with all the jobs going overseas.

This positive attitude delusion lead to the “internet bubble”, the “housing bubble” and what is surely coming next the “bailout bubble”. The internet bubble made us rich by owning stock or options in companies that had no market or income, the housing bubble made us rich by just living in a house owned by the bank, and the bailout bubble will save us from a depression and allow us to continue our collective delusional lifestyle. In every bubble, thinking and work is not required, just the positive attitude that things will somehow magically work out.

I view positive thinking as using your mind to understand the problems in order to come up with the best solution. The positive part is the belief and faith that those problems, however difficult or hopeless they seem, are fixable and there are opportunities that can be discovered in understanding the problems fully. One of the examples of positive thinking in Peale’s book is about an incident while he was in London in the early 1940s while the city was being bombed. He was in a crowd that noticed a young child trapped in a burning building. As the crowd stood staring in horror, Peale scavenged through the wreckage found a long board, carried it up the stairs of a nearby building, put it across to the building that was burning, and convinced the child to crawl across the board to safety. Positive thinking focuses on believing that there is a solution, thinking about what can be done, and carrying it out. I am sure some of those in the crowd had a good attitude but the attitude did not lead to any action that helped the child.

Our “positive attitude” culture has made it easy for mangers and leaders to deceive the world about the results they are producing in return for their multi-million dollar bonuses because the focus is on attitude and feeling rather than objective results. Good attitudes do not empower people or society to understand the problems we face or motivate us to do the hard work to solve them.

I don’t see value in wailing about the problems facing me or the world, instead I see great advantage in thinking about the issues in the pursuit of understanding what I and the world are facing so that I can come up with the best solutions possible. Thinking about the economy, retirement, global weather, and other challenges of our day, I am motivated to ask, How can I make things work better?, What better solution is waiting for me to discover?, What difference can I make to my family and community? Though the answers may be slow in coming, the effort of thinking about the questions with the faith that answers will come has added greatly to my life.


larry said...

In the 1990’s this also evolved into sports without scores where kids played team sports but no scores were kept because that would lead to one side losing.

seeing only bad or only good is not seeing the whole picture and leads to trouble, just look around right now and you can see evidence of this from the stock market to housing millions of people only saw positive things ahead and made no plans for any other outcome and now we all are paying for it...

Keahi Pelayo said...

Our thoughts create our world and there is a relationship between how we feel (attitude) and our thoughts. Given this link both are important. As for companies, I would rather deal with one that sees a bright future.

kjc said...

Your post is thoughtful and well written.
It works for me sometimes to look at what really is and act accordingly while focusing on what is working and can be appreciated.
A good portion of my difficulty today comes from overriding my sense to follow the suggestions of expansive, "unlimited", positive-speaking experts.
Now, regrets and "crying over spilt milk" need to be cleared out and good decisions made from what is today.
I am fond of conspiracy theories, though, and tend to see much of this as orchestrated and planned.

Anonymous said...

@kjc in order for there to be conspiracies there need to be brilliant people to make the plans, the people in government and wall street are not that smart, unless part of their plan is to lose a whole lot of money.

karim said...

Very Good post on positive thinking.

karim - Positive thinking

Anonymous said...

People should have a balance. Otherwise it's too easy to fall into a very pessimistic attitude of "oh, what's the use?" "nothing ever changes", 'there's nothing I can do about it." Why would anyone want to have that sort of defeating attitude? Better to be positive than negative in most cases. Positive with a bit of reality, I say...

Ian said...

Enjoyed your post. I believe that we first have to accept reality and take resposibility for where we are at in life. We can then move forward with a positive attitude and be optimistic about the future.There will no doubt be some bumps in the road, but a positive attitude will help you navigate around these bumps and perhaps keep you going when others may quit. Sounds like you are well on your way.....

heatherlee77 said...

I really liked the break down of the evolution of positive attitude/action. Acting in a positive manner is actionable, it definitely does not just "happen" and we have to work hard to make things turn out ok. Elizabeth Scott talks about the power of positive thinking and action in an article she wrote for, and while she wrote it to help with stress management the principle ideas are the similar. The link is

She talks about the importance of using all your facilities to change your thoughts to positively affect others. It's a great article--Thanks again for writing such and insightful piece and sharing it.