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.

Twisdom: Twitter Wisdom - by @TomVMorris - a Leading Questions review

(Welcome to friends and followers of Tom Morris, our Poet Philosopher of Twisdomville)

Let the tweeting begin!


The morning: Right after the fog, clarity comes.

Before engagements, prior to the mix, a brief, full moment of calm.

Bird songs begin the soundtrack for this docu-drama of life. A distant rustle. A buzzing bee.

The morning: This morning, never to be again. Attend to it. Relish it. Use it well.

A crunch of toast, a spread of jam, a topping of nuts, and I just am.

“Everything on earth is subject to change.” The I Ching

Lemons to lemonade: When the place burned down where the band Deep Purple was about to record, they wrote the hit “Smoke on the Water.”

“The loftiest towers rise from the ground.” - Chinese proverb. We all start from where we are.

Just wrote on our economic and political crises, “Living in Plato’s Cave.” Plato and Aristotle nailed it for us.

A thought: One half of human nature got us into our current troubles. It will take the other half to get us out.

These are the first tweets of Tom Morris.

Last spring, in an off-hand comment, I commented to Tom that he should be Twittering. I thought it was a good outlet for his congenial approach to ancient wisdom that he shares daily with people through his books and presentations.  Little did I know that a Twitter phenomenon of Vesuvian proportions would erupt. 

Partial proof is found in the pages of this marvelous book by Tom called Twisdom: Twitter Wisdom. The tweets you see above are his first ones. What is missing are his thousands of responses to the ReTweets and messages that came in response to his sharing of himself.  Tom Morris on Twitter is a picture of the joyous philosopher at work in the garden of life. After knowing him for almost forty years, I can say that this is some of the best work he has ever done, because it is built on his own personal interaction with people. The Tom you see in Twisdom, is the Tom that many of us have known over the years.

When I first picked up Twisdom, and begin to read, I thought: "Tom's a poet. Who knew?"

This is ancient wisdom as the great philosophers of Greece and Rome would have written. Read Marcus Aurelius and you find short bursts of insight, written down in the midst of the crush of being Roman emperor. Read Plato and Aristotle, and you'll find philosophy for living, not the dry, boring, over-written tomes written for the academy and not for the common citizen.

What Tom has discovered is a virtual Lyceum, a place to practice his profession as philosopher where he can reach out through the tools of social media and touch the lives of thousands of followering Twitterers. This isn't just a curious incident, but rather the convergence of the ancient art of the imparting of wisdom and a communication vehicle perfectly suited for one another, and the right teacher to make it work.

A few questions for Tom:

1. Today, what are your Twitter numbers? How many are following you, and how many tweets have you done.

I started on Twitter with two followers. Thanks to you, it wasn't just one!  Now, having done nothing to gain followers except to try to do interesting tweets about life, I have over 5,600, and the number is growing each day. (And Tom is approaching 22,000 tweets as I write.)

2. How have you changed since you started Twittering?

I think using Twitter has made me a more focused thinker and a succinct communicator. I have come to value more than ever the ability to distill wisdom into a small nugget that can expand in the reader's mind as they mull it over. I can wake up in the morning and within a few minutes bring a little ancient wisdom or some modern insights into the lives of thousands of people, an opportunity I otherwise have had only by flying around the country and speaking in the larger meeting facilities and convention centers.

3. Has this impacted your business ventures? What are you doing now that you were not when you started?

Twitter has broadened my sense of business opportunity. For example, in connection with the new book, some accomplished Twitter friends started a Twisdom Store on Zazzle, with various of my tweets available on shoes, mugs, T Shirts, postage stamps, cards, and other items. This is something that literally might never have occurred to me.  

4. Where does this Twitter thing go? How can it grow to be more substantial in linking people together?

I think we'll be coming up with more and more ways to integrate Twitter and the Twitter community into larger communities and enterprises, for social good, personal growth, and business opportunities. I don't think anyone anticipated a year ago how big Twitter would become and how fast it would grow. Now, almost anything seems possible.

Twisdom is filled with "really good stuff." More importantly, it shows how a simple media tool like Twitter can be a vehicle for influence and impact. If you are not on Twitter, you should be, and even if it doesn't make sense to you, at least join up, and follow Tom.  It is the Twisdom way.

Here are three random samples to give you a further taste of this special book by Tom. 

Continue reading "Twisdom: Twitter Wisdom - by @TomVMorris - a Leading Questions review" »

Quick Takes: on Social Media Success

Seth Godin points to what makes for success for a social media site like Twitter.

  • Who likes me?
  • Is everything okay?
  • How can I become more popular?
  • What's new?
  • I'm bored, let's make some noise

This shift toward social media is taking place within two contexts, an individual one and an institutional context.

Context of Institutional Change
We are living in a time where traditional institutions whether social or business are either in decline or are scrambling to keep up with changes in society. The context of identity and security that they have provided is no longer stable. 

For example, the role of institutional religion in America has changed.  In the past, churches were the pillar of local communities. Now, they are either a museum of memories to a past that is long gone or they are a commercial retail outlet for consumers looking for spiritual services.  It is a well-discussed claim that we are witnessing the end of denominationalism. Or, said differently, we are witnessing the end of institutional religion in the form of denominations as the vehicle for the spiritual expression of people. People haven't abandoned religion. It has just become more individualized.

The impact of the role of institutions in the lives of people is that they are looking for new contexts for social interaction, identity and security. Social media fills that role at this time. However, if you spend much time with it, you may notice as I have that there is a whole lot of interaction, lots of "meet and greet" that doesn't lead anywhere.

What is the overall impact of social media when all it is is staying in touch? I believe we are at the beginning of the social media development curve.

Context of Individual Experience
One of the conclusions that I've reached about what is driving people to social media is the pairing of two desires. People what their experiences in life to be both "personally meaningful" and "socially fulfilling."  The internet has opened up avenues for personal exploration that did not exist before. As a result, people are finding ways for their personal values to be validated and supported online. For many people the virtual community that exists for them through social media is their primary community. They find affirmation and connection through social media that didn't exist for them in the social contexts where they live.

In addition, people want to be involved socially in things that make a difference. The rise of social enterprise sites like FutureShifters is providing a way for people to both interact socially and find fulfillment by being involved in activities that make a difference in the lives of people and their communities.

Transitions in these two contexts, the individual and the institutional, is driving people to social media sites. The question is whether these places of virtual community can keep up with the expectation that their online community be like an ideal local one. In my estimation that has not yet been proven to be the case.

I am optimistic about these prospects as I participate in many of these sites, and especially enjoy Twitter. You can follow me at @edbrenegar.

When Communication becomes a Conversation

In my consulting work, there is really only one constant that unites all organizations. It is the poor quality of communication that takes place. Why is this the constant? Because the generally accepted conception of communication is that it is the distribution of information from the organization to its constituents.

This way of viewing communication is not just in printed communication, but also in spoken communication. Think about your education experience. How many classes were organized around the teachers distribution of information to the class through lecture and text. There are some fields of knowledge where this is appropriate, but not many because most information needs to be translated into useful, relevant knowledge. The teacher/presenter should always have in mind answering the  question, "What am I to do with this information?"

This came to me as I read a story linked by Garr Reynolds on his Twitter feed (@presentationzen) - How to present while People are Twittering. For traditional Twitter logo presenters, I can see how this would be a nightmare. The conversational nature of communication is growing in importance, and Twitter is forcing presenters to adapt.

I've Twittered one presentation that I attended. I posted a tweet to the presenter's Twitter address.  People who follow him were sending me questions to ask. So, the presentation was not just to those assembled in the room, but to the several hundred that follow the speaker. It was fascinating to see how the energy and the dynamics of the event changed as a result.

This does change the way presenters need to think about presenting information.  It may mean that the approach is more Socratic. By asking questions that the audience can answer in tweets, and the presenters responds to, a conversation is created, and the message that the presenter wants to convey gets communicated in a way that people may actually remember.

The day of simply distributing information as the chief means of communicating is over. Welcome to the age of participative communication.