Tag Archives: power of negative thinking

Overcoming Obstacles

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, then you know one of my favorite things to do is pick on business magazines. They’re such wonderful sources of misinformation and deluded, illogical points of view. One of my teachers loved to make fun of the Wall Street Journal, who one week describes someone who benefitted from investing aggressively and then the next week tells us about someone who made a fortune being cautious. The truth is, and they’ll admit it if they’re honest, they have no idea why things work.

This one I found from my other favorite source of misinformation: the inflight magazine. The June issue offers a “business lesson” from former long-distance runner Joe De Sena’s book Spartan Up! A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life:

How do you overcome obstacles? “Whether you’re running 100 miles or running a business—and I would argue that running a business is a lot harder than running 100 miles—it’s all about being in the right frame of mind. Often, it’s not a matter of if things are going to get ugly; it’s a matter of when. The way I get through those pain points is by treating every situation as a learning opportunity and reminding myself that it could always be worse. If you keep things in perspective and leave your ego out of it, then it just becomes a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

This is such a mix of interesting ideas were pure new-agey philosophy; I love it. Let’s see if we can apply a bit of logic, shall we?

Okay, in some ways I agree running a business is “a lot harder than running 100 miles.” But let’s admit it, he’s pandering to his audience. How many of us have every run 100 miles? I’m thinking a lot fewer than have run businesses. A quick google search tells me 67,000 triathletes entered competitions in 2013; roughly 20% of those people failed to finish, giving us a final number of 53,600. A cursory check for the number of business owners in the US tells me 12% of Americans own businesses less than three years old. The population clock has us at 318 million, so 12% times 318,323,818 Americans gives me a low figure of 38,198,858 business owners. Okay, maybe running a business isn’t more difficult than running 100 miles. (Then again, by year four 50% of businesses have failed, so maybe he’s not kidding.)

But I digress. Let’s look at the main point of his statement. If we just put one foot in front of the other, we can get through our “pain points” by staying in the “right frame of mind”: treat every situation as a learning opportunity and remind ourselves it could always be worse.

I like it; I have, like Bobby Knight, an avoiding-mistakes-is-a-key-to-success kind of mind. But does it pan out logically? Let’s try a syllogism:

Consider business success,
I will reach it,
Because I remind myself it could always be worse.

True or false? I don’t know; let’s run the tests. Test #1: Is it true that in business things could always be worse? Probably. Unless you’ve already lost your business and been given 150 years in prison. But even then, somehow it could possibly get worse. I love Shakespeare; Edgar in King Lear says “And worse I may be yet. The worst is not/So long as we can say “This is the worst” (4.1). Okay, let’s say it passes test #1.

Test #2: if I remind myself that things can always get worse, then I must reach business success. Again, tell it to Bernard Madoff. (And for the sake of completion, we should always run test #3: if I do not reach business success, it’s because I did not remind myself that it could always be worse.) As you’ve probably noticed, most of these kinds of syllogisms will fail tests #2 and #3. (You can start to see a pattern…)

Okay, let’s try another one:

Consider business success,
I will reach it,
Because I treat every situation as a learning opportunity.

Again, I like it. But to be logical, it has to pass the tests. Test #1: is there a connection between business success and seeing every situation as a learning opportunity? I think this is true. If you try to learn something, then no situation is a total loss. I love Thomas Edison’s famous quote “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” From that perspective, it’s difficult to truly fail, because each failure is a new data point. So let’s try test #2: if I treat every situation as a learning opportunity, I must reach business success. I like it; I want to say yes, but again, I hope Bernard Madoff learned his lesson, but it’s difficult to see how that lesson is going to produce business success for him. Hopefully he is still seeing every new situation in prison as a learning opportunity.

Anyway, I hope you can see how putting these kinds of statements into a logical syllogism reveals how ludicrous they are. The only way to logically be successful is to create the real cause for that success. But don’t believe me, run the tests.