There was a time in my life when I thought the best strategy for stress was to focus only on the positive — even if something was about to go wrong. If you’ve ever tried to shut down your worry muscle altogether, you’ve probably experienced this, too. You try your best to engage only in positive thinking, but invariably difficulties come up. What then?
If you start to let in the negative, is it just a downhill slope to full-on pessimism? It doesn’t have to be. There’s a middle ground I call constructive thinking.
Our reality is created by our perception and interpretation of stimuli. Our perspective affects the quality of our life. If you’re still reading, then you, like me, probably regard optimism with some wariness. You question when positive thinking is wise and when you might be taking it too far. Misapplied, optimism can look an awful lot like old-fashioned denial.
Sh*t happens in life. That’s a reality. If positive thinking is your only approach, you’ll ignore problems you could potentially solve or circumvent entirely through strategic thinking. But to strategize a solution, you have to acknowledge the potential for things to go wrong.
Consider this quote from Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Hate Positive Thinking.
“The pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist thinks that it will change, and the realist adjusts the sails.”
Being the pessimist or the optimist isn’t necessarily the best or only route. Instead, I’m looking to be the realist in a situation — maybe one with slightly positive inclinations.
In Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, Jim talks with Adm. James Stockdale, the highest-ranking POW in Vietnam. He was in prison camps for about seven years, tortured beyond all imagination, and put into solitary confinement for huge amounts of time.
Collins asks Stockdale, “[What kind of people] didn’t make it out of the camps?” Stockdale’s response: “The optimists.” Jim was confused. Admiral Stockdale explained, “The optimists would say, 'We’ll be out by Christmas!’ Then Christmas would come and Christmas would go and then they would say, 'We’ll be out by Easter!’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. Then Thanksgiving. Then it was Christmas again. [Eventually, they gave up. I think some of them even] died of a broken heart.”
Stockdale continued, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
If you deceive yourself, you’re robbing yourself of the chance to find your way out. Sometimes, the only way out is through.
Instead of sticking your head in the sand, acknowledge the reality of a difficult situation, then look for the actionable opportunity to change it. Focusing only on the negative (i.e., the obstacle) or only on the positive (i.e., the bright side) will keep you stuck. Instead, ask yourself, “What can I do to increase my odds of making it through this storm?”
It’s not always easy to find this perspective in life, but it is always valuable. When the next storm hits your life, adjust your sails, and you’ll have a much better chance of making it through.