What if positive thinking is mostly bullshit?

Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is a major aspect of most societal constructs. Think about it: you were a hardcore Bernie Sanders fan. You wanted him to win desperately and thought he was the only choice. He doesn’t win the primary; Hillary does. You immediately shift to positive thinking mode — “It will be OK; at least she’ll beat Trump” — even as news leaks out that maybe the DNC cooked the books on ol’ Bern. It’s OK. Positive thinking. Positive thinking. Good thoughts.

Then Hillary goes and loses to Trump, and 13 days in, the liberal side of our collective echo chamber has used the word “chaos” more times than a consultant uses the term “value-add.” So now your whole mantle and aura of positive thinking is out the window. You’re collapsed in a heap.

Maybe — just maybe — the whole notion of positive thinking is bullshit, then.

Do I mean that you should view everything as negative and just give up? Of course not. At that point, why even bother waking up every day? What I mean is that the consultant/coaching/leadership industry is big on “change your mindset” and “the power of positive thinking” and maybe that’s a bit too superficial. Maybe there’s more nuance.

Positive thinking vs. negative thoughts

First thing I think you absolutely have to understand here: many of us are constantly beset by negative thoughts. Humans experience, on average, 60,000 thoughts per day. 95% of those thoughts are habituated (habit is important). That’s about 57,000 habituated thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative. (This is Cleveland Clinic research, FYI.) So, in a given day, you have 45,600 negative thoughts — and about 14,400 positive thoughts. Makes you think, yea?

What does this have to do with work/leadership/etc?

The way we structure work in the modern era unfortunately doesn’t, well, work for a lot of people. All you need to do is look at the rise of the gig economy or the popularity of working remotely. A lot of people burn out on “sense of urgency” projects and jammed-down-your-throat hierarchy. People sometimes criticize me and say “You are too tough on managers” (probably true), but you know what? 82 percent of managers end up being bad at their jobs. Show me a CEO who would tolerate a 82 percent failure rate in Operations or Accounting. You’d be hard-pressed to find one. Why do we tolerate it among bad managers? Because by and large, we don’t care. That’s a “HR thing.” This is the major flaw of the modern, pre-automation workplace. People still exist, everywhere, but we’ve mostly discounted them.

In this environment, it’s hard for positive thoughts to rise to the top.

The science of positive thinking

New article here called “The Unexpected Drawbacks To Positive Thinking.” My man Tim Nash — check him out — sent it over. Here are the three main drawbacks, per the article:

  • Unrealistic expectations tend to backfire
  • No one becomes an optimist overnight
  • Realistic pessimism beats deluded optimism

I agree with most of this, although admittedly I’m probably a curmudgeon. But I think there’s a little micro case study we can do here on the current working world.

A micro case study on positive thinking

Let’s talk about data. Everyone is trying to compete on it, but most executives have no idea what they’re even looking for. What we really need are “data translators,” but most don’t realize that yet. As a result, data is slowing down decision-making — which is the opposite of the goal.

Some of this “power of positive thinking” stuff plays in here. Most data plans (“strategies”) are set up around unrealistic expectations. “We’ll collect all this data, and glean insight, and revenue will skyrocket!” No, John. It doesn’t work like that. You need processes, analyses, presentation approaches, decision-making alignment, and some luck. That’s how “data” becomes “a fatter bonus.” Unrealistic expectations tend to backfire. See above.

As for “realistic pessimism beats deluded optimism,” here you go. You know what most companies tend to do around data right now? They set a benchmark they want to hit. Then, they miss the benchmark. So what do they do? They replace the benchmark with a new, cheaper benchmark and say “We hit that target.” Marketing teams do this every day. The way we approach analytics is a joke right now at a lot of places.


So, see — we’re all “competing on data” (or not) and yet, our positive thinking around the great things data will do for us may be backfiring and hurting our long-term goals. Again, then: is positive thinking bullshit?

Probably not.

You need some path through the muck and mire of work. Positive thinking is as good a path as any. I’d just tweak it to call it “a zero fucks given approach.” That basically means: focus on your work and do a good job. (Positive thinking.) Try to grow. But when the bullshit crops up — it always does — ignore the hell out of that. Heads down, priority-driven. That’s your version of positive thinking. Everything else can go to hell, yea?

Positive thinking is no doubt important, but it’s a lot more nuanced than simply “A changed mindset shall bring you wealth.” Your life, and your career, are ecosystems. Many things factor in.

What else would you add on positive thinking, as relates to work or otherwise?

Ted Bauer


    • Especially when you consider that it makes the people who push it rich and ultimately just frustrates everyone else.

  1. I think people sometimes take the delusional path of positive thinking to give themselves a boost. I mean, a steaming cup of coffee can move you along for a bit, but a steaming cup of bullsh__ will sometimes get you through an entire project if you let it! (Yeah, not the best reason but it’s what people do when it seems futile and a paycheck is at stake).

  2. I think there’s definitely a place for positive thinking, especially if it’s unnecessary negative thoughts that are holding you back. In a case like that, replacing those negative thoughts with positive, affirming ones (like mantras) can help you get through it. But, I agree with you that positive thinking isn’t going to by itself get you everything you want or need in life. There are too many other factors at play.

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