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The Power of Positive Thinking

Alex Alexander

Several years ago, at a gathering of business coaches, I met a young coach who specialized in positive thinking. I’ll call him Jeff Buzzman. He strode energetically up to me, thrust out his hand for what I knew would be a bone-crushing handshake (it was) and we had a brief conversation that went something like this:

Jeff: Hi, I’m Jeff Buzzman!

Me: Hi Jeff, I’m Alex Alexander. Glad to meet you. What kind of coaching do you do?

Jeff: Man, I’m so glad you asked! It’s the best, most exciting kind of coaching! We work miracles with it! We help our clients become positive thinkers! You wouldn’t believe how they explode with success after they learn what we have to teach them! [Jeff was vibrating with energy. He had a split-your-face smile and a handshake like a piston in a race car. He oozed sincerity and enthusiasm. I disliked him instantly.]

Me: How does it work? How do you help your clients become positive thinkers?

Jeff: It’s actually pretty simple, but it creates breakthroughs every time! The basic idea is to help them see when they’re being negative or indifferent, and get them to substitute positive language and positive actions, even when they don’t feel all that positive! We tell them, and this is the biggest Aha! moment of their lives, to act positive, even when they don’t feel positive … we tell them fake it until you make it … and soon they’ll actually become positive.

Me: Does it work?

Jeff: It works every time! [Jeff’s enthusiasm fed on itself, increasing with everything he said.] They become new people! Better people! Everything they say and do becomes off-the-charts positive!

At that point Jeff was distracted by a friend across the room, so he excused himself and left me to bask in his afterglow.

It was Jeff’s belief, and is the belief of millions, that if you can learn to think positively, you can be more successful in all endeavors. In 1967, Norman Vincent Peale wrote about it in his wildly successful book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

Since then, it has become conventional wisdom that positive thinking leads to success and happiness. I think that’s true, but only if that the positive thinking is grounded in something deeper, something elemental and basic to your personality, something authentic.

You need to develop habits of mind that are positive, not merely the habit of acting positive. Acting doesn’t work — you have to be positive — and for that to be true, your habits of mind, especially the unconscious ones, have to have a positive tilt.

Jeff Buzzman had learned to act positive, and he was great, if obnoxious, at it. But I wonder if any of that positivity had sunk into his deeper parts, those unconscious parts where your true convictions and beliefs live, and which shape your personality.

I’ve read a lot of accounts of the Holocaust and the victims of the Nazi extermination camps, and it seems to me that the survivors were all positive — not optimistic, but innately positive. One couldn’t be optimistic in such a horrific environment, but deeply rooted positivity could exist — and for a few, it did.

They didn’t necessarily expect to survive, and most of them didn’t, but they did the best they could. Something within them gave them the willingness to persist and make the best of an impossibly gruesome and hopeless reality. That’s what I consider true, authentic positivity.

Victor Frankl, probably the best-known survivor of the Holocaust, didn’t describe himself as a positive person, but he did see possibilities when others saw doom. He recognized the doom but still saw possibilities for honor, for grace and for compassion.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he described how he found meaning in the horror. Doesn’t that imply something positive? Doesn’t it say that there was something good possible in all of the misery and cruelty?

Unlike Jeff Buzzman, Frankl didn’t walk around the prison camp beaming a big smile and mouthing positive platitudes. But he did find meaning in the midst of the meaningless slaughter. And it made the difference between surrender and persistence … in his case, between life and death.

I hope none of us will ever have to find meaning in that kind of evil, but we all face demons of our own from time to time. How do we deal with them?

Some of us simply give up, while some of us, like Jeff Buzzman, put on a positive mask, proclaim that all will be well, and act like the best is yet to come. But, somewhere deep within them, they don’t really believe it. They fight the good fight, hoping, but not really expecting that things will turn out okay.

And some, the truly positive among us, open up to reality, see both the good and bad of the situation, then decide to make the best of it. That’s the path to something good, something productive, something meaningful … something positive.

This kind of deep-seated positivity puts you on a course that improves your odds and enables you to find the best within yourself. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll get what you want, but it does make it more likely.

So my take on positivity is that it is a by-product of realism. If we are willing to see what’s real rather than selectively focus on the despair of the downside, the euphoria of the upside or the comfort of pre-existing beliefs, then we can focus our efforts on the stark realities of the situation. We can take the actions that are most likely to give us what we want (knowing there are no guarantees) and respond productively to whatever surprises we meet along the way.

We’ll still have our share of failures and problems, but I’m betting that the odds will shift dramatically in our favor and our lives will be better for being genuinely positive.


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