The limits of positive thinking. Or why I’m not Eric Clapton.

Smile or DieSurrounded as I am by skilled deployers of a battery of psychometric instruments, from time to time a phrase like ‘working with your secondary preferences’ or ‘consciously acknowledging your potential derailers’ will drift across the office. Having now sussed that the second of these has nothing to do with bicycles, it’s time to respond to the first and throw modesty to the wind. I can play the guitar pretty darned well.

I even feel pretty certain about saying it: it’s not just that friends have said so on and off for several decades, it’s that some of those friends have been professional musicians, and one or two of them very successfully so. (They also acknowledge the roles of both luck and other people in their success, more of which in a minute.) I’ve been on the receiving end of “Why don’t you play for a living?” almost as often as I have some other questions – eg “And you chose that t-shirt because …?” and “Have you thought about tidying up?”. (Sure, I’ve thought about tidying up …)

If a career spent with eight pounds of alder, swamp ash or mahogany hanging round my neck had been my choice, a lack of self-belief would not have been the looming derailer in my Hogan Development Survey report. (Having completed the HDS instrument, longer term readers will already know my biggest potential derailer turns out to be my ability to mimic the entire range of Dyson’s Bladeless Fans in blowing both hot and cold.) True to the type outlined by the HDS report I received when I was 51, my 20-something self got close enough to the business of playing for a living to read the small print, gave itself long enough to decide, and decided against.

I realise that I was very fortunate in receiving offers that I turned down (most musicians are on the other end of that metaphorical boot), but I also recognise that – at the time – I knew several other people, all hugely talented and capable and with a shared strong belief in their own abilities. And their subsequent trajectories have been many and various. I’ve not tried suggesting to some of them that didn’t believe strongly enough, not least because some of them are substantially bigger than me. By which I mean physically.

So I was quietly pleased to read an article by Ed Smith in the most recent issue of New Statesman: Lance Armstrong’s disgrace has exposed the dangerous cult of positive thinking. (At time of blogging, the article is not available online.) I don’t have much of a vested interest here: cycling has always struck me a pleasant enough way to spend some leisure time, and – if you live somewhere with towpaths or cycle networks – an agreeable way to get to the pub for Sunday lunch, but little more. (As a career choice, however, cycling is littered with a higher number of drug casualties than rock’n’roll. Spandex obviously does something to a man.)

But I can see that attaching a public profile of the magnitude of Armstrong’s to this particular story was going to generate some interesting headlines. The Devil Wears Spandex: Lance Armstrong’s Assistant Speaks. and Lance Armstrong totally doped. are just two of them. For those who are left going ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’, there’s a longer piece at that gives considerably more detail. It’s also probably important to bear in mind that, other than cycling nerds, there’s a good chance you are reading this in the UK. In the US, Armstrong is not just the Tour de France winner who beat testicular cancer, but a national icon who represents the triumph of will and self-belief.

Whatever may or may not have found its way into Mr Armstrong’s circulatory system, it’s that latter bit that appears to have lodged uncomfortably up the nostrils of Mr Smith. The latter may be a writer who has more than argued that modern society overvalues professionalisation at the expense of the brio of the amateur (as we’ve covered before, although a recent article you can read on his website makes an interesting if tangental response to recent articles on the ‘expert to leader’ conundrum), but this elevation of the concept of pure willpower as the determinant of success clearly upsets and angers him.

Inferring an exact and causal relationship between determination and success is a delusional fantasy of a society obsessed with just deserts. The true differentiating factors in elite sport are far more complex. What goes into making a champion? It is the subtle interplay of genes, talent, opportunity, hard work, willpower, pure luck and, in some cases, drugs. Willpower is just one factor.”

It does not help positive thinking’s case that Smith, probably like many of us, has lost people close to him through cancer and is familiar with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile Or Die (again, we’ve mentioned this book before). Embracing our unpleasant diagnosis in the spirit of positive thinking seems, if anything, to lead to a less happy prognosis. (If that fate should ever befall me and I am greeted by someone simperingly imploring me to ‘believe’, I hope that I will still have the mental strength to crown them forcefully with the bedpan.)

I share Smith’s objection to this creed of positive thinking in that “At its worst, it suggests that all losers must also be weaklings”. I am, however, surprised that he does not pursue this argument further. To tell someone – or imply to them – that their problems will dissolve like sugar lumps in hot tea and the world would be their multi-coloured romper-room if only they believed sufficiently strongly is not just insultingly simplistic. (Although it undoubtedly is.) Quite apart from the many other factors in any outcome that it not only ignores but also tacitly encourages the recipient to ignore, it also ignores any possibility that the implorer might be in a position to make a positive and constructive contribution.

Indeed, it effectively washes their hands of responsibility. It no longer matters that they might have encouraged, supported, mentored, coached, provided opportunities, parlayed useful introductions, passed on useful advice or information – the other person didn’t believe strongly enough and that’s all there was to it. Given the role of others in supporting roles in any success story – have you ever sat through an awards ceremony? – this is an unpleasant and counter-productive combination of abnegation and solipsism. And speaking as an INFP (occasionally vicious when roused), I will need to use all of my remaining strength to persuade me to work against my instincts and to go gently with that bedpan if I ever detect that attitude at play.

Still, mustn’t grumble, eh? …

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