The Real Secret to Success

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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.