Thursday, February 19, 2015

Positive Thinking

One reason why this blog won't become popular is that it isn't optimistic enough. Everything from the Bruegel painting, which depicts the downward path of blind men, to the commentary on American culture, which identifies its weaknesses, seems to suggest pessimism. Even though I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist, by contemporary standards it is easy to become labeled a pessimist simply by not being extremely optimistic. People go to websites for their daily fix in order to make themselves feel good, and they won't find accommodation here.

By nature I am a skeptic and tend to analyze enthusiasms more than engage in them. The first optimist I knew was my father, and his failures made me cautious from an early age. First, we had to move to the U.S. because there was "music in the elevators," and then, as his career floundered, there was always a lucrative group insurance policy that he was about to sell that subsequently never materialized. We were going to have televisions on the ceilings and sail to Florida in a private yacht, but we never did. My father, I concluded, wasn't sufficiently realistic. On the opposite end of the spectrum I was exposed to successful optimists in the business world. Larry, the president of the company that I worked for in Dixon, Illinois, never made any negative comments and was quite successful as a manager. People respected him, he made good decisions, the plant did well, and the community benefited. His management style came directly from Dale Carnegie, and the only management training that he offered to his employees was a Dale Carnegie course. I didn't take the course, but later read How to Win Friends and Influence People in a departmental training program at a different company. To Larry's credit he was an effective person who knew how to get things done, and he was usually fair. However, from my point of view, Larry was extremely limited as a person. By conventional standards he was a success: he had an important job, a high salary and multiple homes. But to me he was something like the ninety-pound weakling who didn't want bullies kicking sand in his face and worked out in order to become musclebound and intimidating. His weapon was positive thinking, which allowed him to meet his career goals but did not make him well-rounded. Because most of the managers that I've known have been ineffective, Larry stood out to me. The techniques that he used were not taught in business schools, but, from a practical standpoint, they were more important. He was quite good at motivating those around him, and he did this by consciously eschewing negative statements and infusing subordinates with optimism about their role in the company and the success that would follow. He did not in the least believe in participatory management but was careful not to frame his statements autocratically, which he knew would alienate people. He said "we" instead of "I." This way he got what he wanted out of everyone while maintaining his distance.

American society is saturated with positive thinking, which has a long history tying it to both religion and business through the Puritan work ethic. Other societies encourage optimism, but they rarely institutionalize it the way it has been in the U.S. As a meme, optimism probably has a net beneficial effect on populations from an evolutionary standpoint. Negativity, even when realistic, often fosters passivity and despair. Optimism encourages action, even foolish action. Just as talk of failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, talk of success can effectuate it. The problem for someone like me, who lives relatively comfortably and has no material goals, is incorporating myself into such a culture. The American Dream, for example, means nothing to me. I don't care whether or not I become richer. American values, which contain that "hayseed" element mentioned by Kenneth Tynan, may appeal to, say, refugees escaping from crime and poverty in Guatemala, but why would they appeal to me? Oddly they still appeal to many wealthy Americans, which may have to do with the mythology in which they have been immersed. If wealth gives you spiritual gravitas, being richer makes you a better person - or so the thinking goes.

Just as pessimism can produce undesirable results, such as giving up too easily when there are solutions at hand, there are undesirable consequences to optimism. American society seems to have become a cult of optimism that engages in little self-reflection. From the standpoint of those who are poor, unemployed, homeless, etc., optimism makes sense, because there really are things that they can do to make substantial improvements in their lives. But making it a mantra for everyone is a mistake. In the somewhat mindless capitalist system that envelops us, the wealthy typically express their optimism by wasting resources on conspicuous consumption. They build impressive new houses that they don't need and give contributions to politicians who will help make them even richer. Meanwhile the country pollutes the environment, exacerbating global warming. We brazenly offend other countries with our ridiculously distorted worldviews such as American exceptionalism.

Optimism has its place as a positive psychological force that can produce good outcomes and a sense of well-being. But it must always be tempered with reason, because it can easily go awry. Studies have shown that males routinely overestimate their skills, which may be good if they unexpectedly succeed, as did Vincent van Gogh, for example. However, the more powerful a nation, and the more arrogant its citizens, the greater the costs when someone in power fails as a consequence of overestimating his skills. Arguably none of the presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt have been up to the task. Did George W. Bush have an adequate understanding of the Middle East when he decided to invade Iraq? Did Dick Fuld know what he was doing when his choices led to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and precipitated a global financial crisis?

Even at the street level in the U.S., optimism must be viewed with caution. Will a new strip mall or industrial park really benefit the community? Is a degree in English from an elite university going to lead to a fulfilling life? I often find that the outlooks held by optimistic people are too simplistic. It may be true that you have to start somewhere, but at some point trial and error is no longer appropriate and you had better settle on an attainable path with knowable results. Thought must be given to unintended consequences, an area that usually gets little attention. Optimism lends itself to naïveté, not a flattering characteristic in adults. It can be associated with infantilism and the American culture of youth.

I ask myself where the serious thinkers are. It is hard to imagine that they have much of a presence in government. They rarely show up in the news media. There may be a few of them in academia, but you scarcely hear from them. Certainly there is little evidence of them in the arts and entertainment. In the meantime the optimists are daydreaming or advancing their agendas and no one seems to be minding the store.

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