The Real Secret to Success


Attitude has a lot to do with whether we succeed or not. Read Twitter posts on a regular basis, and one of the patterns you'll notice is unbridled optimism in a formula for success. Too often this optimism denies reality and leads us to a kind of self-deception that is destructive of the very success we desire.

Bright-Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich and We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism by John Derbyshire approached the topic of optimism from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Megan Cox Gurdon in her review in the Wall Street Journal quotes them.

"We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world," warns Ms. Ehrenreich. "Things are bad and getting worse, any fool can see that," warns Mr. Derbyshire.

Though naturally an optimistic person, I do find the modern phenomenon of positive thinking highly problematic. Sort of a "mind over matter" for modern people. It is often used as bulwark against the realities of life. For many of us, we are a pain-avoiding, death-denying culture that runs from conflict into the arms of an uncritical belief in positive. While it may appear that the opposite of being positive is being negative or pessimistic, I believe it is a more complicated. Megan Cox Gurdon continues.

Especially provoking to Ms. Ehrenreich is the pervasiveness of the notion that a woman can improve her chances of survival by maintaining a perky outlook. The scientific basis for this belief is thin at best, yet, as she writes, it's a powerful "ideological force" that goes well beyond medicine and "encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate."

Her curiosity (and disgust) aroused, Ms. Ehrenreich delves into the long history of positive thinking in America, which might be summarized thus: dour 18th-century Calvinism begat floaty 19th-century New Thought, which begat 20th-century New Ageism, Norman Vincent Peale and today's mega-church "prosperity gospel."

As Ms. Ehrenreich disapprovingly explains, positive thinking has saturated not just American religion but also corporate life and popular culture, and it is rapidly soaking into modern psychology. The problem for her is that people who are insistently reciting inspirational phrases won't hear the siren's wail in time to save themselves. Ms. Ehrenreich cranks her indignation up highest when aiming at the bankers, economists, bureaucrats and business honchos whose near-hallucinatory positive thinking, she believes, has pushed us all to the brink of economic collapse.

For me the dividing line is not between optimism and pessimism, but between entitlement and responsibility. 

I find in many people that optimism is a shell covering over a belief in one's own entitlement to health, wealth, happiness and a life free of hardship. It explains to me the century long shift from an Emersonian self-reliance to the point that we have become wards of a benign, beneficent state.

I don't believe optimism in itself is bad. Rather, the popular contemporary form that denies responsibility which is.

The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide

My conversation guide the Five Questions That Every Leader Must Ask is built around a more realistic perspective of our life and work situations. The fourth question focuses optimistically on the opportunities that we have now. These opportunities require us to take action. There is no entitlement here. All there is an opportunity and a choice whether to pursue it or not.

The third question focuses on the problems that we personally have created. Intentionally, I am not looking at the challenges that our various contexts provide us. For example, we can see the recession as a problem that entitles us to feel sorry for ourselves and receive a government bailout. Instead, we need to look at what situations we have control over, and address them effectively.

The problematic issue of optimism that Ehrenreich and Derbyshire address is really a modern phenomenon. It was social philosopher Thomas Hobbes, 350 years ago, who wrote that "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This is no longer a view widely supported by the average person. Prosperity, even in the midst of a global recession, is rapidly expanding throughout the world. In places where poverty and disease had been the normal experience of people for centuries, middle class wealth is beginning to emerge.

While I would not suggest we go back to the days of Hobbes, I would suggest that a more realistic approach to life accomplish precisely what the optimists and positivity-gurus promise. This realism is not quite the pessimism of Ehrenreich and Derbyshire. Instead, it is closer to the thinking of the ancient Stoics.

Greek slave and Stoic teacher Epictetus wrote,

"Difficulties show men what they are. In case of any difficulty remember that God has pitted you against a rough antagonist that you may be a conqueror, and this cannot be without toil."  Roman emperor,

Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote,

"You will find rest from vain fancies if you perform every act in life as though it were your last."

When the hardships in life are faced with reason and determination, we gain a richer appreciation of success and happiness.

It is this perspective that guided Admiral James Stockdale (whom I've written about here) as the highest ranking officer imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. In his discussion with Jim Collins, when asked who didn't make it out, and his response was "the optimists". This was so because they believed that if they just were optimistic that it would counter reality. Optimism only serves us when we use it to generate a determined will and persistence to work through hardships to achieve success.

A positive outlook serves only when we embrace reality and commit ourselves to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way of success. This is not an entitlement mindset that comes from believing that we deserve success because of our positive attitude.

There is no replacement for hard work, realistic self-criticism, a passionate vision worked out with commitment and perseverance and a recognition that much of our success is a product of other people's contributions and the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.

To succeed in this way is to understand life and work on a much broader canvas that miniature one's that many of us see before us.

Quick Takes: Jim Collins on Thriving in 2009

Jim Collins is one of a handful of business writers that every leader should read. His two books Built To Last (written with Jerry Porras) and Good To Great are insightful perspectives on how to build a great company. And if you work or volunteer in the community-based or non-profit organization, you should read also Collins' Good To Great and the Social Sectors.

In celebration of Inc. magazine's 30 anniversary, Bo Burlingham, the magazine's editor-at-large, interviewed Jim Collins. Here are a couple of portions worth noting.

How do you define entrepreneurship?

I take a broad view of it. The traditional definition -- founding an entity designed to make money -- is too narrow for me. I see entrepreneurship as more of a life concept. We all make choices about how we live our lives. You can take a paint-by-numbers approach, or you can start with a blank canvas. When you paint by numbers, the end result is guaranteed. You know what it's going to be, and it might be good, but it will never be a masterpiece. Starting with a blank canvas is the only way to get a masterpiece, but you could also blow up. So, are you going to pick the paint-by-numbers kit or the blank canvas? That's a life question, not a business question.

It has to do with your ability to handle risk, no?

Not risk. Ambiguity. People confuse the two. My students used to come to me at Stanford and say, "I'd really like to do something on my own, but I'm just not ready to take that much risk. So I took the job with IBM." And I would say, "You're not ready for risk? What's the first thing you learn about investing? Never put all your eggs in one basket. You've just put all your eggs in one basket that is held by somebody else." As an entrepreneur, you know what the risks are. You see them. You understand them. You manage them. If you join someone else's company, you may not know those risks, and not because they don't exist. You just can't see them, and so you can't manage them. That's a much more exposed position than the entrepreneur faces. But there's lower ambiguity on the paint-by-numbers path: very clear but more risky. The entrepreneurial path: very ambiguous but less risk. Of course, the truth is that it's all ambiguous, anyway. If you think you can predict the future, you're crazy.

I think he is correct. You work for someone else, you are at their mercy. I know three people who recently lost their jobs. Each were strong producers, and they were unceremoniously let go. For me as the owner of my own business, the only person who can fire me is me. Yet, ambiguity describes my daily existence. Is there risk, sure, but there is less than what my associates have experienced.

We are now, I think, having to adjust to dealing with a world that is going to be ferocious. We don't have any practice with that. People like me who grew up in the postwar period are not practiced at the volatilities, the turbulence, the uncertainties of the world that will probably define the second half of my life.

You sound pessimistic.

No. It is only in times like these that you get a chance to show your strength. In the end, I think we need to have absolute faith in our ability to deal with whatever is thrown at us. And we need to have a complete, realistic paranoia that a lot can be thrown at us. It's our ability to put those two contradictory ideas together: We need to be prepared for what we can't predict and, at the same time, have this total, unwavering faith that we will find a way to deal with all of it. And I believe we will. I don't believe the world will treat us well, but we will figure out how to do very well.

What's the source of your optimism?

A lot of it has to do with the young generation. A general at West Point told me, "This is the most inspired and inspiring generation to come through West Point since 1945." I see the same thing with the young people who come to work for me. They have a sense of responsibility and service and a lack of cynicism that is remarkable and wonderful. It's an ethos, and it's collective. That's what's really powerful. It's connected technologically. It's not grandiose, but there is a fundamental assumption of being part of a much larger world and a much larger set of aspirations. The world can be a really awful, brutal, turbulent place. And yet I'm hopeful precisely because of this generation of kids. I really think we ought to just give them the keys as soon as we can. Let them run it.

 I agree on both counts. The time we live in is ferocious and the Millennial generation is up to the task of leading it.

Read the whole article and pass it along to friends and colleagues.

How a Non-Profit and a For-Profit together find success

A year ago I began a project with a small non-profit health care provider in a remote rural county here in North Carolina. They had many problems that needed to be addressed. Over the course of four months a long range plan was adopted which included a restructuring of the board, a revitalization of their by-laws, and the development of a marketing plan that would grow their image and support in the region.

Before the plan could be fully implemented, it became obvious that they were running out of money, and that if nothing was done, they would be out of business by the end of the year. So, we went back to work to modify their long range plan to incorporate into it a partnership that could provide them additional revenue. 

After some research, three options emerged. The first a merger with a competitor from a neighboring county never got beyond an initial conversation. The second a possible acquisition by a local provider of different health care services than the non-profit's.  The third was to sell to a for-profit health care provider in the same business.

As we approached this decision, we had two basic criteria that we applied to our decision making process.  It was essential that whatever happened, it would be in the best interest of the people of their community. After all as a not-for-profit organization, their stakeholders were the people they served.  Our prior planning process had revealed a lack of confidence by the community in the organization. Our plan was to rebuild the foundation of trust and confidence by the community. The mission of this healthcare organization was one that potentially could touch every person and family in the county. So, the failure to be a financially sustainable organization was not just a business one, but also a failure to fulfill its mission to serve their fellow citizens.  It was, therefore, essential that any solution would lead to greater opportunities to serve the people of their county. No small task.

The second criteria for finding a partner was that they could bring financial resources to the agreement.  For their problems were not really a management or service/operations problem, but a financial resources one. To build the numbers of client/patients to financially sustainable levels would not happen over night.

The clock was ticking, time was running out, and urgency was the name of the game.  After initial discussions, the first two options were put aside because there were no prospects for financial resources coming from either.

So, conversations began with a for-profit health care provider from out-of-state that already had another business enterprise operating successfully in the community. The thought occurred to all of us, "How does a for-profit business partner with a non-profit organization?"  There are all sorts of legal issues that must be addressed. So, we pulled in a couple of lawyers to advise us on these factors.

Over the course of three months, discussions and meetings were held that led to a purchase by the for-profit of particular assets of the non-profit.  The arrangement that they created is a story of how through persistence, creativity and attention to one's mission, even in the most dire circumstances, solutions can be found.  Here's the result of our work.

The for-profit is purchasing the non-profit's Certificate of Need and License to operate in five contiguous counties in North Carolina. That is all they are purchasing. While they apply to the state for approval of the transfer of license, they will operate the non-profit organization under a management agreement. This agreement begins December 1.

The non-profit retains the rest of its assets, including outstanding accounts receivable, their building and furnishings, and remaining funds in reserve. The non-profit will begin a new life as a philanthropic organization with funds that it can use to raise awareness of their mission of service to their community, and for indigent patients in their community.  Along with a foundation entity owned by the for-profit, payment for services by those in the community who "fall between the cracks" of the health care system can be met.

The resulting agreement, announced yesterday to staff and community, is a win-win-win one.  It is a win for the non-profit who met the criteria for continuing their mission and for the financial resources to do it in their transfer of operations to the for-profit organization.  The for-profit organization wins because they have the opportunity to build up services that had not reached its capacity to benefit the community, and provides them a base for expanding services in areas not provided by the non-profit. It is a win for the community because the specific health care services provided by the non-profit will continue.

The response from former board members was positive and hopeful. From the staff, a sense of excitement about a stronger organization that will provide them greater job security, opportunities for better compensation and benefits that the non-profit could not afford to provide.  By the board, a sense of hope, optimism and relief.

What are the lessons to be learned from this story?
Just how important trust and confidence matter. I cannot speak to what would have happened if a merger or acquisition by one of the other two options had occurred. The circumstances were not right at the moment they were presented. So, we'll never know.

However, as the non-profit board and the leadership/ownership of the for-profit got to know one another, it became increasingly apparent that there was a growing level of compatibility between the two organizations.  This made the deal the best it could possibly be.

Two things can be said about the leadership of the for-profit. It was apparent that there was no narrow, only one way, our way deal to be made. Instead, I've rarely encountered the level of openness to options by leadership that has been in place as long as they have. My assessment is that they are absolutely clear that their mission is to serve people and to do so in a business-wise viable manner.

That openness to let the deal become what it needed to be built trust and confidence in them. This was not a for-profit predatory organization looking to take the assets of a failing organization and slip off into the night.  I've seen that before. No, their commitment to the mission of service to the people of this rural county was paramount and enabled the board to see that not only were they a group to be trusted with the mission, but also they could have confidence that this group would succeed in ways that the current organization had not able to achieve.

In my role as facilitator, intermediary and consultant, I came to understand the importance of two things - communication and resilient optimism.

In a negotiation between two businesses, rumors begin to surface. People talk, and often the talk is inaccurate. In this case, all the rumors were wrong and apocalyptic in tone. At the appropriate time, the board of the non-profit instructed me to tell the staff about what was taking place. We talked about a range of issues, like their continued employment, and one of them asked if they could tell others. Here's the nature of real communication. I said,"I believe it is not time for you to talk about this outside of this room. However, my assumption is that once this meeting is over, that the news will be all over town." They asked "Who will that come from?"  I said, "My assumption is that one of you will be the source of the news getting out."  And, I was correct. For this reason, it is important to be absolutely clear about what is told in these situations. It can't be a hype. It has to be a straight-forward depiction of what is happening, to the degree that it can be said.

Finally, when an organization sees their money running out, it produces many different emotions. Fear, panic, remorse, anger, guilt, and denial to name a few. What this project did was reinforce my experience that resourceful, resilient optimism is required to thrive in hard times. We have to believe that there is an answer and through persistence and hard work, we will find it. In my dealings with the board of the non-profit, I never allowed them entertain the option of closing down. I was confident that if they stayed open to new ideas and options, one would surface that would work. And it did, and will beyond anything they could have imagined a year ago when we started this project.

Yes, in a time of diminishing expectations for the future, great things can still happen. We just have to remain open to the opportunities that are emerging, and learn to embrace them with energy and commitment.

And the story doesn't end here. Next month, once the management contract begins, the non-profit board will begin to plan for its next life as a philantrophy still committed to providing services to their fellow community members. I look forward to the opportunities that will come for them.