On thinking positively and believing in oneself

15 February 2011

Years ago, Birgit borrowed “The Game” by Neil Strauss from the library.  She got so annoyed with it that it made me curious, so I read it, too.  I followed the author since then, and he has produced further good work.  I was particularly impressed by “Emergency”, because there he delivers a personal, believable message on the subject of preparedness, without denying the fact that he is of course also a refined, expert self-promoter.  Today he broadcast a piece on his email list that touched my button enough for me to write a response.  I’ll share this here because I’d like to know whether you, too, get annoyed by the ubiquitous admonition to “think positive”.  First, quoting from the email on a fair-use basis:

And after compiling, studying, and analyzing all these experiences
and interviews with people who live at the extremes, I realized
that there were a few common lessons and themes that we can all
apply to our lives.

One of these lessons was somewhat unexpected, so I wrote about it
for the WSJ as a preview to last night’s Grammy Awards:


You may want to go and skim that linked article for the response to make sense. Further down in the email, he says what he thinks the “takeaway message” is:

It is about BELIEF and the power of POSITIVE THINKING.


Success comes from acting out of confidence, conviction, commitment, and deservedness, no matter what critics, haters, and competitors are saying and thinking–with no fear of failure (and with no problem bouncing back undiscouraged if one doesn’t succeed at first).

Here’s what I replied:

Hi Neil

Thanks for your email. I’ve read your WSJ article and thought about what you’re saying.

I don’t claim any expertise of my own, but it seems to me that your observations on the correlation of faith and success are valid. Still, I am hesitating to follow your conclusions, because you are interpreting those observations in a somewhat narrow frame.

To clarify, let me ask you this question. You are describing these people, who rose to “ridiculous” levels of fame. Is there any indication that, at some point in their lives before fame arrived, they made a conscious choice to “believe”, with the intention to improve their chance to a raging showbusiness career?

I’d be inclined to say no. Perhaps, instead, what determined their success was an obsessive disposition, paired with a dose of sheer luck. When luck, a random process, swept them to their current place in society, that obsessive disposition led them to explain their success to themselves post-hoc as being “god’s will”. Now that they’ve attained that position, this belief reinforces the behaviours that enable them to hold on to fame.

I’m not saying that this is the truth. I am just proposing an alternative explanation for their persistent success — one which doesn’t support your conclusion that “[i]t is about BELIEF and POSITIVE THINKING” (at least not from the outset).

Perhaps studying these celebrities too intensively can lead to a biassed view. I know from your books that you also have an extraordinary amount of experience encountering people who are less than successful. How do these observations stack up against the ones you have described in the WSJ article? Aren’t there examples that disprove your conclusion: people who, despite their decision to believe in themselves, and despite their decision to think positively never achieved what they hoped to achieve in life?

The reason I find this so important is that the kind of advice that follows your reasoning tends to overburden people with responsibility for their fate. And, yes, there is such a thing as fate — it is possible to stumble and fall without any fault, guilt or responsibility of one’s own.

Of course, we have choices, too. First of all, we can examine ourselves thoroughly and come up with a definition of what success would be. Then we can choose to align our attitude and behaviour with that success definition. We can choose to evaluate ourselves from time to time to see whether the alignment is still true. All these processes are intensely personal, and perhaps they shouldn’t be guided or coloured too much by the public definitions of success represented by Lady Gaga and Snoop Dogg.

Perhaps “confidence, conviction, commitment, … deservedness” and courage arise naturally out of such choices. If so, great. If not, why not feel free to struggle with doubt, insecurity, uncertainty and fear? They are part of life, too. In any case, trying to put on confidence, conviction and commitment as an act is not something one should expect to lead to “ridiculous fame” or any other kind of success.

So much for my doubts — I hope that in spite of those, you’ll keep providing me with food for thought!

Best wishes



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