Ours is a culture that glories in messages of positivity, particularly at this time of year. The birth of Christ. Resurrection. Hope. The miracle of Hanukkah. We are a popular culture of affirmations and the power of positive thinking. We are country of determined and doctrinaire, almost feral, optimism.
Yet I must admit my ruminations about my company’s future at the end of each year begin with first focusing on what can go wrong. And it has served me well for seventeen years.
Of course, entrepreneurship is a passionately positive vocation. It’s populated by dreamers and radical individualists who believe in creating the new and the out-of-the-box. They have the specific courage and faith to create something out of nothing. Yet for me, while I revel in all these quintessential entrepreneurial qualities, I find practical negativity a useful space in which to begin my planning for each new year.
In other words, for me, negativity not negative. It is a practical good.
Oliver Burkeman wrote a useful article in support of this business intuition in the Wall Street Journal recently. (Dec. 8, 2012, Section C, Page 3) He bases his article on the work of New York psychotherapist Dr. Albert Ellis (1913-2007), who he describes as a pioneer of the “negative path.” Ellis espoused a key incite of the Stoic philosophers of Greece and Rome: that sometimes the best way to face the uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst.
Burkeman points to many recent studies suggesting that “peppy affirmations” designed to lift the user’s mood through positive thinking, repetition, and visualizing future success, frequently achieve just the opposite.
He castigates American corporations for their widely accepted “cult of positivity.”—that is, the corporate credo of demanding big, audacious goals for an organization. So called “stretch goals” frequently employed by corporate managers often result in desultory practical and emotional results. (Among other things Burkeman notes that rigid goals and doctrinaire positivity encourages employees to cut ethical corners.)
I wrote ten dour entrepreneurial predictions about the next four years in a blog a few weeks ago. And I got some rather fierce comments. One my most esteemed entrepreneurial friends wrote , “Geez, Tim…did you stub your toe right before you wrote that? I’ve never seen you so negative.” Several other comments were in a similar vein. (Ten Predictions, Obama, and Entrepreneurship)
I’ve thought a lot about that blog and its supposed negativity since November 13. Most successful entrepreneurs I know are constitutionally sunny folks. Positivity and hope help buttress the businessman’s act of faith that animates his enterprise. I frequently find myself looking first at the dark side potential of any action. What’s the worst case scenario and what is my greatest downside?
Nevertheless, I assure you I am not a saturnine curmudgeon pouring rain on the 2013 business parade. I certainly don’t intend to be a Grinch casting calamitous Christmas aspersions like thunderbolts. There is money and value to be created in all environments and times. And I believe the first step in that journey to profit and value is to embrace reality in all it’s positive and negative glory. The beginning of prosperity is cold eyed acknowledgement of the good and bad. Then figure a way to create money and happiness out of it.
Consider the biggest negative of them all: Death itself. Keeping in mind the ultimate finitude of all companies and all persons is healthful ballast to businesswomen and men as a palliative to hubris.
As Steve Jobs said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” Thanks—again—Steve.