How Positive Thinking Might be Killing your Business

In the book Good to Great by Jim Collins he shares the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking US military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp during the Vietman War. During his eight year imprisonment Stockdale was tortured regularly before his release in February 1973.

How did Stockdale manage to survive an experience where many others perished?

In his own words, he refused to become an optimist.

“The optimists were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.

And they died of a broken heart.”

Put simply, every time they hoped for the best – kept positive – and then had their hopes dashed they lost faith in their survival. And this loss of faith impacted their ability to survive the harsh challenges of their reality.

Thus was born Stockdale’s Paradox, which states:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

When I read this story the other day it gave me pause and made me wonder – could positive thinking be killing our success?

The promise of positive thinking is two fold:

  1. That life is meant to be easier. Simpler. Happier. If only we keep thinking the ‘right’ thoughts and maintain optimistic no matter what then our time will come.
  2. That once we ‘get there’ everything will be great and we will finally have the happiness that we seek.

In my personal experience this hasn’t been true.

First, anything of value that I’ve accomplished in life has come at a cost. It’s been hard. It’s been challenging. I’ve wanted to throw in the towel more times than I can count – but I didn’t. I kept going and worked hard to accomplish my goals. I paid the price for my accomplishments and I’m proud for having done so as they have helped me become the woman I am today.

Second, I’ve reached many of the goals I’ve set for myself and guess what? The skies didn’t part. The angels didn’t sing. I wasn’t suddenly happier and more satisfied than I was before I reached the goal.

This has been a hard pill to swallow at times – what was I missing? Where was this promised land of positivity that meant I never had to worry again?

So I would do it over – go for the next goal, reach it, and still find myself missing that elusive promise of happy ever after.

I’ve been caught in this vicious cycle more times than I care to admit.

After reading about Stockdale it occurred to me:

What if the purpose of our journey is to discover how strong we are, and not to get to a place where our strength is no longer required?

What if, instead of positive thinking we rely on resiliency thinking?

Instead of believing that things will turn out great ‘if only we stay positive’ how about believing that we can handle anything that comes our way? That we are powerful, capable and ready to face life’s challenges regardless of how challenging they are. Regardless of how much they suck.

This resiliency thinking is what gave Admiral Stockdale the power to keep going during one of the most horrific experiences that a human can face.

My coach challenged me a couple of months ago to pay attention to what I was thinking throughout the day, and I was surprised (and slightly horrified) to realize what was running through my head.

Whenever I was faced with a challenge – be it in my business or on the home front as a single mom of two young girls – the phrase that would run through my mind was:

“I can’t handle this… it’s too much for me.”

Not only would I think those things but I would say them out loud as well, which only amplified the power they had over me! After months of thinking this way I found myself in a funk that was unlike my normal state of mind and which I was unable to shake.

I made a decision to replace those words with resiliency thinking and when I found myself going down that well-worn path I would instead say to myself:

“I’ve got this – I am a strong and capable woman and I can handle anything that comes my way.”

Within DAYS this simple change in my thinking started to shift how I was feeling.

No longer was I discouraged by the challenges of day-to-day life. Instead I felt empowered, knowing that I could handle whatever comes my way.

Those 3 little words – I’ve got this – have made all the difference for me.

Stockdale’s Paradox calls us forth to lead our lives in a very different way than what positive thinking has taught us.

We must retain faith that we will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties that come our way.

AND at the same time…

We must confront the most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be.

It is a delicate balance at times and yet I can’t help but wonder if that sacred space between faith and reality is just what we’ve needed all along.

  • Alegmi Sofia

    When man had been created, he had seeked to satisfy his vital and necessary biological needs, but the priority is always given to the most important needs. All the administrators all over the world struggle daily for the same goals. Success or failure is not an appropriate measure of the size of the effort. Or the laziness on the performance of duties .. Because man can not control the environment and subject it to his will .. The administrator must work properly, legally and appropriate to public knowledge, but can not do more than that!

  • meperdiem

    Your points are part of the tenets of positive psychology. It does not imply that positive thinking makes everything work out fine, it presents resiliency, grit and character strengths to know yourself and to succeed in the face of adversity without using empty platitudes to get where you need to go. However, many people are also stuck in negative affirmations and become quite stuck from that as well. Its about habits and putting action with words.

  • Sarah-Jane Pet-Whisperer

    This has really got me thinking! As someone who (aims to be!) mindful of their thoughts and language, I would describe myself as a positive thinker. I easily shift my language when I’m struggling to “I’ve got this!” or “I can do this – I AM doing it!”. And I TRUST ALWAYS that I will be okay – and I am.
    I believe that the article IS about positive thinking, yet I love the reference to “confronting the brutal facts of your current reality”. And I believe that it is here, that we see the fine line or divide between dreamers and positive thinkers. Positive thinkers will reassess and alter their thinking, words or ACTIONS to meet the current reality, whilst dreamers will dream on believing that it will all turn out ok in the end (often taking no action). I suppose it’s like believing you will win the lottery – but never buy a ticket…..
    A really interesting and thought provoking read Tina.

    • tinaforsyth

      That action piece is huge! I agree Sarah-Jane… none of this matters without the action piece, ie: dealing with the dealing with reality (the truth) while also believing in – and taking steps towards – the future.

      • Sarah-Jane Pet-Whisperer

        Yes, I do believe that is it Tina – taking action. After all, it doesn’t matter how big your dreams are or your “why” is, if you take no action, nothing happens. And even if the “action” is merely facing the truth or reality of the situation ie your imprisonment and the non-likelihood of a quick release – that helps prepare you mentally whilst you still hold onto your faith that you will be released one day – and you will be ready for that.
        And, on that “Action Taking” note, I now face my reality of resisting starting your Profit First Programme (despite a poor cash flow all summer) and have booked time in (again!) to start listening to the recordings!!! Afterall, it doesn’t matter how much I believe in the materials working for me, or how much I am optimistic that it will create the change that is needed in my business, unless I take action on the resistance (my current reality) then nothing will change. Gosh, isn’t this stuff great! 🙂

  • Wow, this is so beautiful, Sister! I love the concept of resiliency thinking! And my new favorite phrase will now be… “I’ve got this”.

    Reminds of me something I heard another woman say once… Let’s say her name was Jane. She said to herself: I’ve got my money on Jane.

    Shazam! I loved this! So good to be reminded. Xx

    • tinaforsyth

      ** high-five ** and hugs 🙂

  • YES I really love this. I think there’s a lot of value in positive thinking–and in a way, “I got this” IS thinking positively–but then there’s this area/line where you’re just being unrealistic and trying to fool yourself. This kind of positive thinking has never worked for me. I’m too cynical LOL. Thanks for a great post!

    • tinaforsyth

      That’s the part that always gets me Ally – the balance between thinking positive and being realistic. Resiliency thinking is positive in nature, but it is about WHO we are being – which we can always control – vs. positive thinking quite often being about what is outside of us /happening to us, which we can’t control.

  • Debbie Lonergan

    I love this, Tina. It makes a lot of sense to me. It goes with the whole “Strong is the New Beautiful” feminine movement. We have to stop looking for the fairy tale ending and start loving our journeys– even the hard parts. It’s like working out. The hard part is the doing and the sweating, but the reward is a strong, healthy body. You can’t have one without the other, and once you “get there” if you stop working out, you’ll stop having the results. I’ll continue looking for the next challenge, and the next, and the next…

    • tinaforsyth

      Reminds me of the word that Glennon Doyle Melton talks abot – brutiful. Where beautiful and brutal are mixed up together.

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