overthinking the human condition on a friday morning

Two of the most powerful human emotions are fear and hope. Interestingly, they are both future focused. Fear and hope are always about situations that might not exist or events that have not yet played out.

Pain and pleasure are the two great motivators. Whether we’re talking about the physical, emotional, or spiritual, us humans are always trying to organize our lives to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Paradoxically, the choices and actions that create near-term/immediate pleasure often lead to long-term/future pain. And vice versa.

Pessimism and optimism are the filters and philosophies through which we take in and interpret data. Pessimism seems to focus on fear and pain while optimism concentrates on hope and pleasure. Pessimists tend to see pleasure as fleeting and temporary. Optimists view pleasure as the natural state, pain as a brief interruption. Fortunately, both approaches are useful.

Fear and a healthy desire to avoid pain helps keep us from making terminally stupid decisions. It drives us to plan ahead and save for the rainy days. Hope and a healthy belief that “this too shall pass” and tomorrow will be better than today has kept us moving forward through some really bleak, horrible, and desperate times. It is the inspiration and vision of tomorrow that keeps us going when things get overwhelmingly, crushingly bad.

Yet, pushed too far, both are crippling. Pessimism can convince us to never try, never strive, always suspect, always fear. The world looms big and we see everything both beyond our control and against us. Optimism can convince us we can do anything, to jump and leap without thought, preparation, or contingencies. We see everything and everyone as good: we trust those we shouldn’t and take on responsibilities we can’t handle. When we make blatantly irrational decisions, one of these mindsets has a bigger hold on us than it should.

Fear/pain/pessimism and hope/pleasure/optimism are hardwired into us for survival – it’s a part of the human condition and always operating in the background. It is so constant that it’s easy to overlook, to forget about, to think that us humans are now too sophisticated for such primitive drives. Yet, when we look for it, it’s pretty easy to see how fear/pain/pessimism and hope/pleasure/optimism shows up in business and our daily lives. Every product or service advertised, everything you’ve ever purchased, every career choice you’ve ever made has been out of fear of pain or hope of pleasure – likely both.

Ok, I’m not a psychologist – these are just observations and ideas I’ve picked up over the years. I don’t know for sure that it’s true or not. But if it’s true, how does that change how you sell, lead, dream, or decide? If it’s always there whether we give it’s due or not, how can you use it to your advantage to improve your communication, inspire others, and get out of your own way to play bigger?

it’s not your positive thinking that’s the problem – it’s your lack of action that’s getting in the way

I really dislike the term “positive thinking”. Not because I don’t like positive thinking – I’m all for it. Rather, because many people have a skewed idea of what it means and act as though it’s a bad thing.

I find that when people have a negative view of positive thinking it’s because they are confusing it with Pollyanna, happy-sunshine, ignore all the problems, ain’t life wonderful thinking. A recent blog on Fast Company’s website “How ‘Positive’ Thinking Sets You Up To Fail” referred to research that indicates that “positive thinkers” are less likely to take action.

If you read the blog you’ll see that what the author’s really talking about is that happy-sunshine daydream thinking without action sets you up to fail. I’m in total agreement. Mr. Positive Thought himself, Zig Ziglar famously commented that “Positive thinking won’t let you do anything but it will let you do everything better than negative thinking will.” Jim Rohn said similarly, “Affirmation without action leads to delusion.” It’s not positive thinking that’s the problem, it’s the lack of action.

Let’s quickly look at these three types of thinking:

  • Happy-sunshine thinking: belief that all is going to work out, only look at the good of any situation, all you have to do is think good thoughts and all will come to you. This is what many people do when they try to “think positive”. Putting your head in the sand is just denial. It has nothing to do with positive thought.
  • Negative thinking: belief that nothing is going to work out, there is no good in any situation, why bother thinking good thoughts because nothing goes right anyway. This is victim mentality. A refusal to try with a built in excuse for failure.
  • Positive thinking: recognizing the obstacles and challenges and problems of a situation and taking action with belief that it can be made to work out. The author of the blog refers to this as “good negative thinking”. But this is NOT negative thinking of any kind. It’s simply being real about the obstacles and acknowledging that life is hard and anything worth achieving is going to take some effort. We have to believe that we can overcome the challenges or we won’t attempt it. That’s positive thinking.

Notice that happy-sunshine and negative thinkers both operate on blind faith and neither takes action. Positive thinkers assess the reality, devise a plan, and take action because they know that thought without action is worthless.

Imagine a person wants to lose weight. The happy-sunshine thinker visualizes it, thinks good thoughts, but takes no action. The negative thinker gives it up as hopeless, blames their metabolism, and does nothing. The positive thinker recognizes that losing weight is a challenge, it will involve changing a lifetime of habits, and acknowledges that there will be set backs, but has confidence that they can do it. Then they develop a plan and – here’s the important part – they take action.

So what’s this look like in business? The happy-sunshine thinker ignores the recession, keeps the same expenses, pricing, and strategy as before and merrily goes out of business. The negative thinker believes confuses a slowing of the economy with a stopping of the economy, and either gripes and does nothing (except letting customers and employees know how bad they have it) or completely overreacts. The positive thinker acknowledges the situation and adjusts their strategy accordingly while keeping faith that with the right action they will get through it.

Note to Self: Today Rocks!

Today’s the day. It’s the best day ever. It’s the only day I have. Yesterday’s gone and there’s never a guarantee that I will see tomorrow. Life’s uncertain, but I do have today.

It doesn’t matter who we are or where we are, this is it. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t plan as though I am going to be around a long, long time. That doesn’t minimize the emotional or physical pain I (or anyone) might be feeling right now. That doesn’t mean that life isn’t often very difficult. It does mean that this is all I have on planet Earth so I better enjoy it.

Easier said than done. It’s easier to be stuck in my ruts. Easier to be grumpy even when things are going well than happy even when they aren’t. Pain seems forever and happiness often seems temporary and fleeting. Pain and misery find us but we have to go looking for joy. Or is that a lie? Is joy all around us just waiting to be seen?

Some people look like every day is Monday. They frown, fuss, and drag themselves along whining about everything that’s wrong. What would life be like if every day I had the vibrant energy that people seem to get on Friday? Monday and Friday are just names on the calendar – a day’s just a day, so why not bring the fun and enthusiasm of Friday into every day? Enjoy every day? That’s not happy sunshine blind optimism, that’s reality. Today’s it.

Picasso said, “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” I have decisions I need to make, actions, hopes, and dreams that I want to accomplish, relationships I want to strengthen or build. If we’re going to make it happen, today’s the day. If today’s the only day I have, it might as well be great.

Today’s a great day to be alive.