Why you shouldn’t let the negatives outweigh the positives

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 16, 2017

What do you think about yourself?

Executive coach and Stanford MBA Shirzad Chamine conducted some research, and the results are frightening. Here are some direct quotes from the CEOs he interviewed.

“I’m rarely at peace with myself.”

“I’m self-destructive and I don’t know why.”

“I don’t love myself very much.”

“I battle with constantly ranking and judging everyone around me.”

Wow. I know I am nuts, but by comparison, I am feeling really good about myself. Now I am also going to fold in some research on negativity by Zakary Tormala, a Stanford marketing professor. It turns out that when you are weighing pros and cons on a decision, even though the sides may be equal, the negative ones hold more power, and so they influence the decision more.

“Ambivalence is not a comfortable state for most people,” Tormala writes. “We need to recognize that negative information has the stronger effect on our decision making … this well-documented concept, called negativity bias, contends that fear of loss is a bigger motivator than the joy of gain.”

What we have here is the perfect stew for borderline insanity — deep feelings of personal inadequacy coupled with the strong inclination to embrace the negatives over the positives in your world.

Unfortunately, my shrink is completely booked, so let’s turn back to Chamine for guidance. First, he argues for meditation in stressful situations. I am not much into Oooom, but I am a believer in walking therapy. I often will take a walk near the beach and have a dialogue with myself. The advantage of the waves is that they mask the sound of one hand clapping and an old man talking to himself. Finding a quiet space is critical to clear decision making.

Second, Chamine says to “listen to your inner monologue — the one that thinks you are a disappointment to yourself, family and friends and are burdened by guilt, shame and regret.” Chamine saves us by telling us it is OK to feel the pain; just don’t dwell on it too long. You can touch the stove, but only for a second, because it is very hot. Negative emotions need to be held in check. Easy to say, but try that one when you have two weeks of cash left in the bank.

Third, Chamine argues that the highest performance “comes from the brain that is calm and able to see creative possibilities.” The culprit that prevents this is “the saboteur.” He is the judge — the voice inside that criticizes.

Fourth, Chamine says to “listen to your inner sage.” Sounds good, but to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs — then you simply do not understand the situation.

Now, of course I am teasing Chamine a tiny bit, but the fact is that negativity and self-image and ambivalence are very real. I see aspects of all of these in the CEOs I mentor. How to resolve uncertainty is a continuing issue in leadership. No matter how many lists (pro and con) you make, no matter how many pitch decks you read — making the final decision is hard.

One trick I have used is the word “yet.” What I mean is this. An entrepreneur will give me a declarative sentence — e.g. the software doesn’t work. Before he can link some more negatives, I interrupt with the word “yet.” It doesn’t work — yet. The money has not been raised — yet. I can’t find a job — yet.

Now, without getting too “Zen” on you, I do believe in serendipity. I do believe that if you stay in the game long enough, you will get a hanging curve ball to crush into the seats.

Countless times, someone has walked into my life just when I needed them. I do not think I am disproportionately lucky, but I do try to always be “available”— meaning that I am open to a positive turn of events, not necessarily of my own making. Sometimes good stuff just shows up. That means keeping the negative bone-crushing self-hatred, inadequacy demons at bay long enough for the sun to shine through — even, if only for a moment. After all, solar power runs our Earth — so (dating myself) let me quote from the play “Hair” — “Let the sunshine in.”

Rule No. 533:  Be happy, but wear sunglasses.

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