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Norman Vincent Peale, born today in the Victorian year of 1898, when the surging Industrial Age gave people are sense of mastery and dominion over their world and their destiny. Peale was the first lifestyle ‘inspirational’ writer I read. My high school English teacher was a fan who recommended his books. I enjoyed his writing, but how can a young, idealistic kid not?

My perspective on ‘Positive Thinking’ has refined over the years. Like any form of power, and PMA is powerful, is has as much potential for harm as for good. It is the gas for ‘Dream Bubbles’. And that gas can fuel…or explode. The problem with these ‘you can do anything’ gurus is that they are volatile and often unregulated gas for the bubble. PMA can make you ‘better’, but not necessarily the best. Scott Adams described it well talking about Tiger Woods in his post ‘Labels’.

  • “[Tiger’s] optimism is probably a big part of what makes him a spectacular golfer. No one would practice as much as he did from an early age without some sort of crazy optimism that he was The One. And it has to help your nerves in critical situations if you are optimistic that your putt will go in. If Tiger hadn’t succeeded in becoming the greatest golfer of his day, he’d be the crazy caddy with delusions of greatness. The only difference between crazy and confident is that the confident guy was lucky enough to have the resources to pull it off. Somewhere in China there’s a guy with just as much golfing talent and optimism as Tiger.”

The ‘best’ takes resources, hard work and luck (in fact, ‘resources’ is sort of a version of luck). If there are 100 places in professional NBA basketball, not all million children who dream of being a pro basketball player can have that dream come true no matter how much Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) they apply. PMA is essential to get better, but inadequate to get to the best. It is a weapon and a tool for your own success, but only at the expense of another candidate in this zero-sum world. If your competition also embraces PMA, then you net position is levelled and the advantage is negated.

This myth of attitude is often the result of “Survivor Bias”. Everyone turns to the winners and asks them for their secrets that we can all mimic for success of our own. Admitting the sheer lottery-like fortune of the success is never very flattering so people turn to a range of self-aggrandizing assessments. Like this interview with CEO Bob Fish of Biggby Coffee. When asked “Why are we growing and somebody is not…Because we approach our business every day with a positive attitude. Period. It’s that simple.”

David Collinson has a great term for excessive acolytes of the PMA cult like Bob Fish – “Prozac Leaers”. His FT article “Negative side of positive leadership” describes…

  • “Business schools and other development providers have been culpable of being part of this trend towards what I describe as “Prozac leadership”, where leaders, managers and society as a whole are addicted to an excessive and artificial positivity. Believing their own words that everything is going well, Prozac leaders discourage open debate and criticism. Unwilling to listen to alternative views, they misunderstand or miss problems entirely, leaving their organisations ill-prepared to deal with unforeseen events and setbacks.”

Not all huge successes are seduced into this delusion. For example, comedy titan Tina Fey does not attribute her industry-leading position with talent, attitude or 10,000 hours of work. But instead luck as she describes in this Times interview

  • “Career advancement comes down to serendipity. That people should decide I looked like Sarah Palin at a time when she was becoming such a media sensation was exactly that, a perfect storm. “

Life and business is more about luck than people are prepared to admit. That is why understanding, appreciating and managing the upside and downside of life is an essential skill.  The key is balance and anyone unhealthily imbalanced to negativity has much to gain from NVP’s compelling words and insights about PMA.  PMA can be an essential tool to apply in the skill of balancing personal and professional Leadership (upside pursuit) and Management (downside avoidance). But when ‘PMA’ takes over a person or a business, people stop respecting luck and start deluding themselves with their own power of conviction, people are set up for a hazardous awakening. Attitude is essential, but it is not enough.  Embracing positivity is great, but only when coupled with embracing failure equally.

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