Selling Ourselves on the Negatives: Speaking of De-motivation
By Barry Maher
It’s easy to get distracted by negatives, to focus on what’s wrong to the exclusion of everything else. If you doubt this for a moment, think of the mass media, stumbling over each other to uncover the dirt on every celebrity, every politician. And why do they do it? Because it works for them. Because we, the public, love it. It sells books, magazines, TV shows. We take a perverse delight in discovering the skeleton in every closet, and the bigger and more expensive the house that closet is in, the more it delights us.
We have elections, and we’re voting for the lesser of two evils, if we bother to vote at all. We weight the negatives and vote for the lighter pile.
A focus group was recently asked to participate in a mock election between three hypothetical candidates. The first candidate slept until noon, probably because he drank an entire quart of brandy every night. He began his career at one end of the political spectrum then switched to the other end. He used to smoke opium. He presided over one of biggest military disasters in history. Twice, he was booted out of office.
The second candidate cheated on his wife. He listened to astrologers. He chain smoked, talked compulsively and drank between 8 and 10 martinis a day. On top of all that, he was suffering from a debilitating illness.
Candidate three was a decorated war hero and an astonishingly successful leader of singular determination. He had a sweeping world view, ambitious goals, a plan for reaching those goals and the determination to follow that plan. He never committed adultery. He didn’t eat meat, didn’t smoke, and seldom drank, never to excess.
Those were the candidates the group was given to choose from. The first, the former opium smoker, was Winston Churchill. The second, the unfaithful husband, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And the third, the war hero, was a monster by the name of Hitler.
Neither do positives of course. That’s why the “let’s all think happy thoughts and everything will be wonderful” strategy of motivation usually leaves people shaking their heads, muttering darkly to themselves.
Still it’s a sad fact of our nature that we’re more prone to believe 100 percent negative stories than 100 percent positive ones. That doesn’t mean that they’re any more likely to be accurate.
There are of course negatives that can’t be outweighed by positives. Charlie Manson would be difficult to elect no matter how many babies he kissed or how much he promised to cut taxes. I wouldn’t want to have to try to sell Hitler to even the most gullible souls. (Though obviously Goebbels and company did just that, selling him to a lot of people and for a long time. You can certainly fool some of the people all the time: a fact that keeps a lot of politicians in office.)
But the point is that the right positives can easily outweigh a surprisingly high stack of negatives. I don’t care that Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression. A civil war that leaves 600,000 dead should be depressing. He was also an overindulgent father, he couldn’t reign in his crazy wife, his high-pitched voice made him sound like a country bumpkin, and he kept telling jokes while the country was falling apart. Even in the North, many people thought that negatives like that made him a national embarrassment. I can wish nothing better for this country than that it might someday suffer another such embarrassment.
Applying all this to our own lives, our own careers and our own businesses, I’ll be the first to say that we should never be afraid to look potential negatives square in the eye. That is, after all, the only way to find a way to deal with them, the only way progress is ever made. it's just that we should never, for a moment, allow those negatives to blind us to the positives, whatever they may be.