Peter Jones: The power of negative thinking

Space oddity: astronaut Chris Hadfield plays his version of the Bowie song while in orbit. Picture: NasaSpace oddity: astronaut Chris Hadfield plays his version of the Bowie song while in orbit. Picture: Nasa
Space oddity: astronaut Chris Hadfield plays his version of the Bowie song while in orbit. Picture: Nasa
Preparing for the worst helps astronauts react well if it does happen. It could work in other worlds, says Peter Jones

Negative thinking, or negativity, is really bad. Having negative thoughts means you will fail, scare yourself out of doing something, and stop something good from happening. So you should make it your New Year’s resolution to cut it out. Right? Erm, I disagree. I think negative thought has been, quite wrongly, given a bad name. I think it is, used properly, a very good thing.

All right, now that the deafening chorus of wrong, wrong, wrong from sports coaches, business gurus, and assorted political types has died down, can I make my case?

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My position must look like a pretty odd one to take. In sport, for example, coaches go to inordinate lengths to instil positive thought into, and banish all negativity from, young athletic minds. If you think you are going to lose, then you will lose; believe you can win, and you probably will win, is the general mantra. Out of interest, I Googled “sport, positive thought, power of” and came up with 46 million references. The top one was a video about banishing just a negative vocabulary from an athlete’s mind.

Then I substituted “business” for “sport” and produced 59 million hits. It’s the same mantra. Think failure and your business will fail; think success and you are already halfway to succeeding.

I have no doubt there are businesses where the use of negative words is banned, where only optimism is permitted. It must lead to some pretty bizarre conversations. “Boss, today we succeeded in losing a million pounds! Tomorrow, we are going to do even better!!”

The concept of the power of positive thought has become a business in its own right. Successful sportsmen, whose bodies for some unaccountable reason have started to fail to respond correctly to the positive thoughts emanating from their brains, discover they can make a tidy living giving inspiring “motivational” speeches to business executives even though they know nothing about business, still less the trade that the executives are in. You see! That’s the power of positive thought working!

Brilliant. Over Christmas I read Chris Hadfield’s autobiography*. He’s the wacky astronaut who became an internet star tweeting about life aboard the International Space Station and videoing himself playing his version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Like, I suppose, millions of boys my age, I stayed up all night to watch fuzzy black and white pictures of Neil Armstrong’s first step on to the moon and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. So did Mr Hadfield and unlike millions of other boys, he made it to space. Respect!

Much of the first part of the book is not at all about how positive thought powered his way up the military flight ladder to astronaut status, but how to make an ambition happen. Relentless hard work and a highly supportive wife is his answer. And then you come to a chapter with a rather startling heading: “The power of negative thinking.”

He explains how, when it comes to launch time and astronauts are sitting atop a rocket which is in effect a long controlled explosion, they are not afraid. His feelings on his first launch were not fear, but relief that the mission was finally under way.

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He explains: “Trainers in the space programme specialise in devising bad-news scenarios for us to act out, over and over again, in increasingly elaborate simulations. We practice what we’ll do if there’s engine trouble, a computer meltdown, an explosion.

“Being forced to confront the prospect of failure head-on – to study it, dissect it, tease apart all its components and consequences – really works. After a few years of doing that pretty much daily, you’ve forged the strongest possible armour to defend against fear: hard-won competence.

“Our training pushes us to develop a new set of instincts: instead of reacting to danger with a fight-or-flight adrenaline rush, we’re trained to react unemotionally by immediately prioritising threats and methodically seeking to defuse them. We go from wanting to bolt for the exit to wanting to engage what’s going wrong, then fix it.”

He says he is not a nervous or pessimistic person, rather he is perhaps annoyingly upbeat. His optimism comes not from feeling luckier than other people, nor from visualising victory but from a lifetime visualising defeat and figuring out how to prevent it.

He writes: “Like most astronauts, I’m pretty sure that I can deal with what life throws at me because I’ve thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right. That’s the power of negative thinking.”

Another book I have been reading tells me that RBS could have done with a lot of negative thinking.** The author records how, under Fred Goodwin, RBS adopted a positive thinking ethos under the advertising slogan “Make it Happen”. He also tells how the bank’s Global Banking & Markets division (GBM) – the investment banking arm which went horribly wrong, was told at the 2002 annual staff conference to “think like winners”. There was even, you’ve guessed it, a “motivational speech on teamwork and leadership” from a sportsman, a round-the-world yachtsman.

The book gives the strong impression that neither Goodwin nor Johnny Cameron, the then head of GBM, really knew the nuts and bolts of all those complicated collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) the division was dealing in order to grow bank profits. Had RBS engaged in some of Mr Hadfield’s negative thinking – what could go wrong with these CDOs and how could we fix the problem – it might well have survived the financial crisis.

And then there’s politics, where negative thinking is politically incorrect. Actually, I think it is politically astute, and so do most leading politicians. In the run-up to elections, all parties do their best to test their campaigns and strategies to find out where they might go wrong.

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The media test out the politicians all the time, intensively so during elections, because that’s the positive job we do for voters. And this being referendum year, I’ll be doing a lot of that too. Sure, it’s negative, but if it is good enough for astronauts, it’s good enough for me. I’ll raise my Hogmanay dram to the power of negative thinking.

• An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield. MacMillan, £18.99.

• Making it Happen, Fred Goodwin, RBS, and the Men who Blew up the British Economy, by Iain Martin. Simon & Schuster, £20.

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