“I am often asked whether I am an optimist or a pessimist,” Peter Drucker wrote in Post-Capitalist Society. “For any survivors of this century to be an optimist would be fatuous.”
We were reminded of this line when we encountered an entertaining, if ornery, op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday extolling the power of negative thinking. The author, Oliver Burkeman, observes that 21 people in San Jose, Calif., were injured after walking on hot coals during an event hosted by motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
Such behavior arose from a popular Robbins doctrine that sufficiently positive thinking makes us powerful. Burkeman, for his part, thinks that “this positivity is part of the problem” so many of us have with adjusting to life.
“Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty,” Burkeman wrote. Envisioning disaster as well as triumph helps you cope with setbacks because “when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope.”
Drucker would have agreed. In Men, Ideas, and Politics, Drucker considered the dangers of “despair,” which he viewed as a fundamental human condition. Despair could easily lead to “stoic resignation” or, even worse, totalitarianism. But a way out could be found through faith—a belief (inspired by Søren Kierkegaard) that in God life and death are meaningful.
“The faith is not what today is so often glibly called a ‘mystical experience’—something that can apparently be induced by the proper breathing exercises or by prolonged exposure to Bach,” Drucker wrote. “It comes as the result of serious thinking and learning, of rigid discipline, of complete sobriety, of humbleness and of the self’s subordination to a higher, an absolute will.”
On a more practical and less philosophical plane, Drucker preached against positive thoughts that allow only for good outcomes. “Only by preparing ourselves for everything that may happen can we hope to prepare ourselves for the one thing that will happen,” Drucker warned in The Future of Industrial Man. “Even so, only too often we shall find that the actual event lies so far outside anything we had considered possible that we are not prepared for it.”
And then our feet get burned.
Do you think the popularity of “positive thinking” has been good or bad for society?