The Cult of Positivity

Positive thinking is not enough.

I once worked for an organization who truly believed in the power of positive thinking. The idea was perpetuated that all you had to do was think positive and work hard for great things to come your way! The executive team was particularly guilty of this attitude. We realists called them the "Cult of Positivity".

I'm not disagreeing with the ample evidence there is about positive thinking. I firmly believe in the need to think positive thoughts and believe in yourself, in your work, in the idea that what you put out in the world comes back to you in equal measure. I practice affirmations to talk back to the discouraging voices around me and in my own head. There are reminders throughout my home and office to not dwell too long or too much on damaging thoughts or events. I'm a believer in the power of positivity.

The problem comes when that positivity prevents us from seeing our current reality.

During the Vietnam war, Naval Commander James B. Stockdale, was beaten and captured after he ejected from his plane which had taken enemy fire and was completely disabled. He spent the next seven and a half years as a POW in the Hoa Lo prison, commonly called the "Hanoi Hilton". He acted as leader of the prison resistance effort and is credited for saving thousands of lives. Being one of the highest ranking naval officers to be held captive, he was a valuable prisoner. At one point, he deliberately beat himself and disfigured his face so to be unrecognizable and his enemy could not put him on display. The experiences he endured while captive are both horrifying and inspiring at the same time.

I first encountered his story while reading the book "Good to Great" by Jim Collins. Collins speaks about how reading Stockdale's experience in preparation for his interview was depressing for him even though he knew the outcome! He knew that Stockdale eventually returns from Vietnam, is highly decorated for his work, reunits with his family, and studies philosophy at Stanford University. Yet, even knowing the end of the story, Collins found himself down and discouraged while reading Stockdales' first hand account of the experiences.

How did Stockdale stay motivated, grounded, and able to deal with his circumstances, even when he didn't know what was going to happen?

I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

Who struggled to make it out?

Oh that's easy. The optimists. They 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.”

The optimists died?

This is a very important lesson. 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.

It is referred to as the Stockdale Paradox, the ability and discipline to stay rooted in the "brutal facts" of your reality, and, at the same time, continue to hold the conviction that you will "prevail in the end." It is called a paradox for a reason. These two ideas, current reality and future victory, are most often in conflict with each other. To bring them into congruity requires action. Not just any action, but intentional, deliberate, strategic action that moves your reality closer to your desired success.

When you cannot stay connected to and balance both sides, though your actions may result in movement, the outcome is unpredictable. Too much current reality can leave you and those you work with discouraged, short-sighted, and feeling stuck. If you lean towards the future too heavily you open up yourself and your decisions to be viewed as disconnected, unrealistic, and impractical. Even when based on best business practices or current successful trends, actions not grounded in an honest assessment of your current circumstances and directly linked to our future victory are band-aids at best.

Sitting in the office of one of these positivity cult members, I saw his facial expressions and body posture change as he connected with the reality I had spelled out for him. Responding to some feedback he had received, he sought out my thoughts and recommendations on a few topics. I was very much in love with the possibility of what we could be as a company. With a few minor changes and a greater focus on our strengths, I believed we were unstoppable. His reaction gave me hope. Maybe I was finally breaking through and we could move forward.

And in a moment, it was gone. I could physically see him disconnect with the ideas I had presented. It was too much. He concluded I was being "too honest" and my "realism" was "discouraging to those around me." The sunshine shield kicked in and reality disappeared.

Staying connected and balancing both current reality and future victory is not easy, but it can be practiced and improved over time. Whether you lean toward one direction or the other, try one of these ideas to get you started.

Engage in a reality assessment.

If intentionally constructed, an internal assessment can help you confront reality and encourage you to move towards victory at the same time. Your team members are smart and stay with you for a reason. Try asking them what they see as reality for them and for the company. Next, asking why they stay will help you see all of the incredible things going on at your organization. Every time I have asked that question of team members I have been encouraged and inspired by their answers. They see more than we realize.


Look for and collect evidence.

Evidence is proof that contributes to the clarity of a position and must include a variety of sources to be considered reliable. Evidence is concrete and brings precision and transparency to our circumstances. This idea can also help you stay balanced. When you think you might be leaning too far one direction, ask yourself these questions:

  • What evidence do I have of our current circumstances?
  • Am I ignoring evidence because it is painful or doesn't support my own belief or position?
  • Am I allowing too much anecdotal evidence to sway my decision?
  • What evidence do I have that this action will lead us towards our future success?

Data Circle

Practice data-driven decisions making.

Get in the habit of asking for the data behind every decision. When decisions are based on current organizational data, they lead to customized actions that move our organization forward. There are many ideas and models out there that can help. Two essential components to any process is the Analysis and Reflection pieces. The more we can accurately analysis and reflect on our own data the more customized our approach can be to congruity.

Holding the conviction of our future victory while staying grounded in our current reality is both possible and essential if we want to move towards greater congruity in our personal lives, communities and organizations.