The Power and Pitfalls of Positive Thinking

This article was published more than 1 year ago. Some information may no longer be current.

That granddaddy of inspirational authors, Napoleon Hill, wrote in his classic Think and Grow Rich, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” In doing so, he infected generations of business people with the virus of positive thinking. This virus has been spread and aggressively commercialized by modern self-help advocates of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) pseudo-science.

At its core, positive thinking is based on faith. And while faith gives welcome direction and solace in many people’s lives, it is an unreliable basis upon which to build a business. Specifically, the danger with positive thinking is that it too easily mutates into mere wishful thinking.

Positive Thinking Vs. Wishful Thinking

Positive thinking should mean making decisions, and acting, based on conviction. The better justified your conviction, the more sound your decisions and the better executed your actions, the more likely you are to succeed. There’s a clear logic that starts with facts and intuition, leads to analysis and thoughtful decision, then motivates robust action.

The energy in positive thinking sustains people through adversity and should cause them to react and innovate as they learn from their experience.

In contrast, wishful thinking is just believing in belief.  It leads to ignoring inconvenient (and potentially fatal) facts due to confirmation bias.  Anyone that’s been successful in anything knows that it’s not really the strength of your wishing that makes things happen.  It’s the gutsy decision to take action, work hard and implement with tenacity.

Everyone’s favourite self-help guru and student of NLP, Tony Robbins, opines, “It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.” To which he adds the warning, “Remember, a real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.”

Even old Napoleon Hill in one of his more lucid moments said, “Wishing will not bring riches. But desiring riches with a state of mind that becomes an obsession, then planning definite ways and means to acquire riches, and backing those plans with persistence which does not recognize failure, will bring riches.” Of course, he also claimed that one of the secrets to success is to transmute your sexual energy into creative business energy (which, apparently, is why men tend to become successful only after they have passed 40 years of age and have stopped chasing skirts!).  Make of this what you will.

The Cure for Wishful Thinking

The two things that can protect us from wishful thinking are facts and perspective. Facts, first and foremost, because they are the unbiased light that can be shone on a situation and are the fuel for informed, intelligent decisions. Perspective because as emotional creatures we can’t always trust ourselves to correctly interpret the facts.

The best way to get perspective is by working with a diverse team and engaging in healthy debate about the facts.  But be warned that even debate can be futile with a dyed-in-the-wool wishful thinker.  Since beliefs aren’t conclusions based on facts they aren’t falsifiable through logical argument.  Even Seth Godin throws up his hands and advises, “Don’t argue about belief, argue about arguments.”

A Reality Check

If you happen to be a business person who has been leaning pretty heavily on the power of positive thinking lately, here’s a 6 point reality check:

  1. Have you been collecting the facts about your current situation?
  2. Are you interpreting those facts with the help of diverse colleagues?
  3. Are you making concrete, fact-based decisions?
  4. Are you demonstrating that you’ve truly made these decisions by acting upon them?
  5. Are you really working hard (hustling rather than hoping)?
  6. Are you building this discipline into your journey towards success?

If the problem you’re trying to solve is motivation, then by all means lay on the positive thinking. If, however, you’ve been banging your head against the same wall for too long, maybe it’s time to give your head a shake and start learning from your experience.

If it helps, remember that one of the pre-suppositions of neuro-linguistic programming is “There is no failure. Only feedback”. The question is whether with all that positive thinking going on you’re actually paying attention.