Erikka Askeland: Sometimes the glass is simply half fool
ARE you an optimist or a pessimist? And do you do like the self-help book says, which is to “feel the fear and do it anyway”? Perhaps you will have come across a motivational guru in your time.
I have. I went to a seminar a few years ago in Glasgow and left feeling pretty positive about things.
Did it last? Heck no. Although when it comes to whether or not the glass is half full, I have a natural tendency to be the one who shouts “Woo hoo! There’s still some left, get it down your throat in one”.
Positive thinking in British culture has become a “must have”, like the handbag of the season. How else are you going to put up with your boss, the idiot; or wake up every morning to go to an office and sell something no-one seems to be buying?
It started back in the early 20th century in the US, when a failed actor who changed his name to Dale Carnegie started delivering public speaking classes to paid audiences. Eventually, this spawned a bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and an industry which promises its audiences a surefire method to be the best they can be and to shoot for the stars.
There is a sub-type of this sort of motivational thinking that promises you can get everything you want, as long as you want it hard enough. And then do some weird things along the way like pretend you already have it and tap your head a few times, until voilà, it is there.
It’s all so gung-ho – as well as a bit barmy.
“It only works” is the catchphrase favoured by Scotland’s own motivational guru, Jack Black. And if you spend two days in a hotel conference room listening to his patter, you think, why not?
But while I’m not a cynic, I am a sceptic.
For example, one string of motivational juju you may have come across is called neurolinguistic programming. Don’t be cowed by the scientific terminology, which most have decided is a bit bunkum – it is NLP for short. Part of this approach exhorts you to emulate your heroes in an effort to match their success. So neophytes will probably buy their idol’s autobiography, whether it is Sir Richard Branson or Sir Alex Ferguson – Sir Chris Hoy is probably preparing one for the publishers as I write this.
Pick whichever rich, successful son-of-a-very nice woman who maybe sometimes had her off-days, and you will likely find some sort of pattern. That they challenged the system and found within them an unwavering self-belief that allowed them to overcome incredible obstacles. But as the writer Oliver Burkeman, in his book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, points out, most of our heroes would probably tell you that to make a fortune like they have, all you need is stubbornness and a willingness to take risks.
But as he points out, highly unsuccessful people are just as likely to share these characteristics.
“It’s just that the failures don’t write books,” he writes. “You rarely see autobiographies of people who took risks that then didn’t work out.”
Which is why you are highly unlikely to read the autobiography of former HBOS banker Peter Cummings – unless he is working on a warts-and-all account of his real role in the rise and ignominious fall of Scotland’s oldest bank. After having been charged a whopping £500,000 fine by the banks watchdog – a record for the Financial Services Authority – he may need the money.
But the regulator accused him of a terrible crime, overseeing a “culture of optimism” at the bank, which caused his team to underestimate how dodgy its investments were. The team’s sunny approach to risk also made it slow to try to fix the problems because it reckoned its bets would still come good.
It is a shame that, particularly after Andy Murray finally beat his grim Calvinist demons to win a grand slam, this corrective to being too optimistic has occurred, particularly in Scotland where most people seem to have their emotional dial set permanently to “gloomy”.
It is healthier to try to drag yourself out of the slough of despond, but not if it causes you to lose £20 billion and be bailed out of your mess by the taxpayer.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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